Monday, July 31, 2006

Now The Race Really Begins

The belief by many who follow the WNBA was the Eastern Conference playoff race would lack suspense this season. While the top four teams might be capable of battling each other for seeding, there was little doubt as to which clubs would advance to the postseason.
That notion held true as the conference’s final playoff spots were secured with Sunday’s results. Connecticut, Detroit, Indiana and Washington are in, and out are suddenly competitive Charlotte, suddenly surging New York and expansion Chicago.
What we do know of the top four is the Sun can finish no worse than third and could clinch at least the No. 2 seed by week’s end. Additionally, with the East’s top seed once considered a three-team race, the Fever now find the Mystics in position to possibly jump ahead to the third spot, thus avoiding the conference winner.
One interesting scenario that could come up is teams with lower playoff position out East may get to rest their players more than at the top. The second two are starting to separate a bit from the top two, and if that trend continues, they will have less at stake during the final games. While Connecticut and Detroit could go down to the final day for the top spot, Indiana and Washington could be sitting back with rested players and awaiting whichever team becomes a first-round opponent.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Creating Some Space

The Connecticut Sun’s hot streak looks to be getting a little better.
About midway through the third quarter, Detroit is down by more than 20 points at Sacramento. A loss by the Shock would give them two more than the Sun, which means Connecticut would gain a huge advantage.
With only seven games left this season, the Sun are inching toward a third straight top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But having a two-game lead in the loss column at this point is extremely important because Connecticut plays at Detroit in the regular-season finale. The Shock have already clinched the season series, meaning a one-game edge on the final day is essentially a tie in the standings.
Although avoiding a winless campaign against Detroit should be a priority for Connecticut since the two could meet with a spot in the WNBA Finals at stake, it would be nice to know that last regular season game has no impact on playoff position.
After tonight, Detroit will also have one game more than Connecticut left on its schedule. That’s just another bonus for the Sun, who have actually improved their lead in the East with Nykesha Sales out with injury.
Of course, none of this will be true if the Shock make a big comeback.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Carey Makes More Opportunities

Looking back, it seems like a pretty dumb question considering Jamie Carey has played at least 11 minutes in six of the last seven games.
But in the last week before the All-Star break, I was talking with Carey before a game regarding Jen Derevjanik’s return to Connecticut as a member of the Phoenix Mercury. Carey and Derevjanik were perceived to be in a tight race for one of Mike Thibault’s final roster spots, with Carey making the cut and Derevjanik being waived.
I asked Carey if there were moments when maybe she thought about what it would be like to play for another team. Derevjanik wasn’t going to get much playing time by making the Sun but was getting her chances in Phoenix, a scenario Carey would have likely found herself in had she been the one cut and subsequently signed by another club.
As the Sun were preparing for their final game of the season’s first half on July 8, Carey had yet to play more than nine minutes in any game and eight times didn’t make an appearance.
“This is a championship caliber team and that is fun to be a part of ever day,” she said at the time. “In practice and games, Coach T’s one of the best coaches I’ve played for. And to be able to play under him is a privilege and it’s just a fantastic organization here. So really there’s nothing to complain about.”
The game with the Mercury ended up being Nykesha Sales’ first of now eight, including tonight, out with an injury and Carey promptly played 20 minutes. Including that first game, Carey’s scored 21 points during this stretch, compared to just seven over the first 18 games.
Carey figures to see more minutes as long as Erin Phillips continues to start alongside Lindsay Whalen. In this new lineup, Carey becomes the first guard option off the bench, an opportunity she’s making the most of.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Finding A Role

Erin Phillips will never be considered for rookie of the year. She’ll probably never climb higher than her position as the Sun’s seventh-leading scorer this season.
But the 21-year-old point guard from Australia has a chance to get something those other first-years are likely a few seasons away from: a WNBA title. And to boot, she might be a large reason Connecticut gets over the hump this year after two straight losses in the Finals.
After watching Phillips score 10 and 19 points, respectively, the past two games, it’s hard to think of her as a rookie any more. Seimone Augustus and Cappie Pondexter have never looked like rookies this season, and Candice Dupree and Sophia Young have rarely shown their inexperience. But that quartet may have no representatives in the playoffs.
Phillips already helped Connecticut clinch its spot last weekend.
Although it took some time for Phillips to find her role — sometimes she’d take too many wild shots, other times she never wanted to shoot — the feisty blond is looking more comfortable than ever.
Most of the time she’s looked at ease when handling the ball — her nearly 2:1 assist to turnover ratio of 54 against 28 ranks 11th leaguewide — but shooting, especially from outside, has been hit or miss. Phillips is 6-for-10 on 3-pointers the past two games after missing 27 of the season’s first 38 attempts.
“It’s definitely something I’ve been working on for a while now,” she said after Tuesday’s win. “Probably my biggest devil in the past was thinking about shooting the ball too much.”
Her confidence has made teammates, and now opponents, take note. The next challenge will be making more shots against enhanced defenses, since opponents can no longer dare her to shoot. The past five games have seen Phillips miss just nine shots, shooting 63 percent with 15 makes.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

MVP In The Making

As further testament to Katie Douglas’ candidacy for MVP of the WNBA see Monday night’s Sun win at the Liberty.
Douglas, a top-10 scorer throughout this season, reached double figures for the 22nd time in 24 games with 16 points, but she passed up a few easy ones that could have gotten her to 20. Instead of taking some of the open shots that came her way, Douglas chose to pass when easier shots were there for teammates. She also dished off a few of her season-high six assists when New York’s defense collapsed on her.
“I’m the type of player,” Douglas said after the win, “if two people are going to come on me, you’re kind of in trouble because we have four potent weapons out there.”
Douglas was her usual defensive presence, which has helped the Sun remain consistent on that end during the absence of Nykesha Sales. The team, although wishing it could have its dominant small forward back, has barely slipped is this six games so far without Sales.
If the Sun win the East, the only obvious choice for MVP is Douglas.

Monday, July 24, 2006

McConnell Leaves Lynx

Strange news out of Minnesota last night with Lynx coach Suzie McConnell Serio resigning.
McConnell, who had no professional coaching experience when she took the job in 2003, guided the Lynx to playoff appearances in ’03 and ’04, the latter of which saw her honored as the WNBA coach of the year. Speculation surrounding the move indicates the team’s last-pace position out West, but still only four games out of the top four with 11 to play, led to her decision.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on its Web site late Sunday night that McConnell was of the belief management had other plans for next season, which contributed to her stepping down.
McConnell’s departure, assistant Carolyn Jenkins will serve as interim coach the duration of this year, is somewhat surprising since the Lynx were never a true playoff contender this season. Despite drafting the dynamic Seimone Augustus first overall in April’s draft, Minnesota was probably too young of a team, although filled with talent, to challenge for a top four finish in the deep Western Conference.
If in fact McConnell did feel pressure to step down it seems like an unfair result for a coach and team capable of many years of future success. McConnell’s departure leaves the WNBA with just two full-time female coaches in the 14-team league.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Brungo Is Back

To Chris Sienko’s credit, he isn’t shy about seeking change and making even the slighted of alterations.
Yesterday, I blogged about the lack of movement among WNBA teams during this season’s trade deadline. Having spoken with Sienko, GM of the Sun, during the buildup to last Thursday’s deadline, he was quick to point out how talks with teams may have slowed, but that didn’t mean Connecticut wasn’t eager to do something.
The Sun made their move Sunday, signing Jessica Brungo for the remainder of this season. A second-round pick of Connecticut in 2004, Brungo, who played her college ball for Penn State, was a member of the Sun the past two seasons before being waived this spring in training camp. Her acquisition comes on the heels of rookie forward Brooke Queenan signing a second seven-day contract in as many weeks late last week.
Although not expected to become a 20-minute-a-night player, Brungo should bolster an already deep bench. A 6-foot-1 forward, Brungo shares similarities with Laura Summerton; both are athletic players capable of running the floor and hitting shots from the perimeter.
The Sun’s latest signing brings their roster to 13, the league max. Brungo’s addition could spell the end of Queenan’s run dressing for games. Nykesha Sales is already on the inactive list due to injury and don’t be surprised if Queenan joins her for the foreseeable future. Teams can dress only 11 per game according to league rules.
Despite being away for so long, it’s fair to assume Brungo has a better handle for the Sun’s system than Queenan, who has been a professional player less than two weeks.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Trading In Old Beliefs

I know the WNBA isn’t known for trade-deadline deals, or too many big trades for that matter, but I still find Thursday’s events hard to believe.
The 8 p.m. trade deadline passed with no action and there’s been just one signing since then. It doesn’t make much sense.
There are few teams safe to make the playoffs at this point, and even those teams higher in the standings are struggling to create much separation. With that in mind, there have to be some players out there underachieving to some degree on their current team but capable of turning around with a change of scenery. That’s the case in most other sports, but WNBA teams apparently don’t utilize such beliefs.
As for the clubs still with outside playoff hopes and those trying to hold off the pack — that means virtually everyone out West — it’s even more inexcusable to remain with the status quo. If your current roster only got you to the position of being in a dogfight to make the postseason, why should that same lineup suddenly open a significant cushion?
Free agency and player movement is still relatively new in the world of women’s sports, as is the notion of women’s sports for that matter. But trades are a key part of any pro league, and are especially important to show fans that the team is never settling for the current situation.
The trade deadline in baseball is fast approaching and the big talk among analysts is which contender is going to make the move that puts them over the top. Perhaps WNBA execs should look at the happenings within baseball and take some advise for this time next year.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Getting Better

Although there were a few mistakes sprinkled in, the Sun showed significant improvement in their ability to take care of the basketball against the Sky.
Connecticut had only 15 turnovers — the team totaled 25 assists on 33 made baskets — despite many of its first-team players getting plenty of rest in a lopsided win.
The limited number of giveaways follows a 12-tunrover performance Sunday at Seattle. The 27 these past two games is one fewer than a season-high last Saturday against Sacramento, which demonstrated one of the Sun’s problems all season. Traditionally a team protective of the ball under coach Mike Thibault, Connecticut has struggled through poor lapses of concentration, which directly resulted in the loss to the Monarchs.
Thibault said some of Thursday’s turnovers against Chicago didn’t bother him as much because they were made in an effort to get up quick in transition. Those mistakes were more of timing and not carelessness.
A coach can also live with some giveaways if they don’t lead to too many points at the other end. Chicago only had 11 points off Sun giveaways, compared to 20 for Sacramento and 16 for Seattle.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Don't Hold Your Breath For Nykesha

Let me preface this entry by saying I have no evidence to support the following beliefs. These opinions are based on my interpretations made in the nearly two weeks since Nykesha Sales last played.
I don’t expect Sales to be back in uniform until August, and probably no earlier than a week or two before the playoffs begin, if then. The postseason starts Aug. 17.
The Sun’s veteran forward spent the end of practice Tuesday riding a stationary bike as her teammates raced back and forth in a full-court scrimmage. I sat down with Sales afterward to see how things were going and she sounded almost as uncertain about her return as coach Mike Thibault did some 15 minutes earlier.
This much we know: Sales is battling a variety of injuries, but her left Achilles is the root of many of the other problems. She’s been diligent about getting the necessary treatment, but as she told me today, the normal rest and recovery for an injury like hers is six to seven weeks.
She’ll be at six weeks when Connecticut opens the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Since she’s not running during rehab, Sales will likely need a practice or two to test the injury and gage the recovery process.
Starting with Thursday’s game against Chicago, which Sales will not play in, the Sun don’t practice again until the earliest next Wednesday. After playing four games in six nights, the team has a two-day break before playing four more games in seven days, Aug. 7 That stretch is followed by another two-day break before three road games in four nights and then a home game two days later.
The regular-season finale is two days later.
The end of the season comes quite fast, maybe even too fast for Sales. If I had a guess, maybe Sales plays in one of the games along the way, but is then scheduled to sit out the next couple regardless of how she performs. Since the Sun will have very few ‘true’ practices left this season, getting into a game with the doctors’ permission may be the only way for Sales to know if she’s capable of being the player she’s always been again this season.

Monday, July 17, 2006

One Final Hurdle

Since Mike Thibault became head coach of the Connecticut Sun for the 2003 season, he has accomplished almost everything someone of his position could do.
Twice he’s guided the franchise to the Eastern Conference championship, twice he’s coached the East in the All-Star Game — leading the conference to its first victory a week ago — and he even led the Sun to last season’s top record. Aside from claiming a WNBA title, there is something that has eluded Thibault.
Dating back to the franchise’s 1999 inception as the Orlando Miracle, the club had never won at the Seattle Storm, its only such occurrence against league opponents. That streak, which included two losses in the 2004 WNBA Finals, came to an end Sunday night.
The Sun avoided losing back-to-back games for only the second time this year, and fourth since 2005, with a 92-83 win to complete the season sweep of Seattle.
“I was telling Lindsay Whalen after the game, ‘Lindsay, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever won in this building with Orlando or Connecticut,’” said Sun leading scorer Katie Douglas, who was drafted by the Miracle in 2001. “And then, coach came in like a parrot and said that we’ve never won here, either franchise. So that’s huge for us. Obviously, we have memories of losing here in the finals and it’s just a tough place to play.”
It was also Connecticut’s first win on the West Coast in four tries this season. The Sun, who still have road games at San Antonio and Houston this season, are 6-3 against the Western Conference.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Value The Ball

The last time the Sun lost in disappointing fashion in the first of back-to-back games, they responded for arguably the season’s best win. Tonight brings another opportunity like that after Connecticut dropped its WNBA Finals rematch Saturday at Sacramento.
There are two ways to look at the loss. Considering the team had no Nykesha Sales and good defense along with some foul trouble resulted in one of Katie Douglas’ worst games this season, the Sun can take some satisfaction in being in the contest until the final seconds. But the turnovers are a better spot to point the blame, and 26 giveaways are probably why Connecticut lost more than anything else.
Those 26 turnovers were the most by the team since it relocated for the 2003 season and are one short of the Connecticut-Orlando franchise record. Carelessness with the basketball has plagued the Sun all season and was one issue coach Mike Thibault said his team needed to improve upon in the second half.
The first try didn’t go so well, but a win tonight for a 1-1 West Coast trip won’t look so bad if the Sun return still leading the East.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Dunk This

OK. Enough is enough,
I’ve been reading it in different newspapers and seeing it on TV. I’m so tired of having to recount the final seconds of Wednesday’s All-Star Game, in which the teams turned things into an embarrassing slam dunk contest.
I understand that dunking is something that appeals to fans — and some players — but it is not part of the women’s game, at least right now. Watching the 6-foot-5 Michelle Snow dunk, something she did going back to her days at Tennessee, doesn’t make me any more eager to get writing on my game story, nor should it entice more fans to come out and watch.
(The New York Post did the women’s game a disservice with its game story in Thursday’s editions, although, let’s not forget it was the players who allowed for such an account to be produced.)
While I agree with Dawn Staley’s belief that dunking may one day be a part of the WNBA, we need to all slow down and wait for the moment to happen. I’m still waiting for the first dunk over a player or in traffic, something that comes in the game’s natural flow.
By the way, as for Diana Taurasi’s botched attempt, which started the whole circus, she gave the same excuse from a day earlier after posting a last-place result in the 3-Point Shootout. “The ball was sticky.”

A Pleasant Surprise

Although it is part of my job to update the blog you see hear, between all the other things I do, I rarely find the time to re-read some of the entries. Since I hadn’t previously seen the paper’s new blog page, I decided to browse and then click on my link today.
The result was a nice surprise. I was glad to see some comments recently posted by you readers.
It may have taken a while, but I’m really happy that this blog is finally showing signs of interaction, which is the purpose of a forum such as this. I just want to remind all of you that your thoughts are always welcome and if we can get a decent enough response, please feel free to send in questions about the Sun that I can later respond to in an effort to keep everyone in the know.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Diana ... The Comedian

Diana Taurasi was filled with jokes Tuesday at Day 1 of this year’s All-Star festivities.
Although her day started out somewhat serious — as a sign of her focus, Taurasi didn’t answer TV’s questions before the 3-Point Shootout, only to finish with a competition-worst seven points — Phoenix’s third-year sharpshooter let her hair down during the open media session.
The laughs first began was she needed numerous takes to tape a public service announcement thanking sponsors and supporters of the WNBA All-Star Game. Watching her struggle over and over again through her few lines reminded me of Charlie Sheen failing miserably in take after take of a deodorant commercial in ‘Major League II.’
But the laughs didn’t stop there because then it was time for Taurasi to explain her struggles from long-range.
“I have never froze up like that in my life,” she said, before delivering a different take. “Actually, the ball was sticky. The ball was sticky. The ball was sticky.”
There was a slightly more serious response to follow.
“It’s funny because you get out there and it looks easy, but it really is physical,” she said. “You’ve got to shoot 25 balls in a minute. I felt good, just didn’t have enough range on them. It was an ugly display of shooting.
“But you know what? I need a little defense and I’ll be good.”
It’s easy to see why fans have loved Taurasi since her days at UConn.

Although some of the league’s most talented players were on display Tuesday for the skills competitions, most of the fans seemed to think twice about showing up. The Garden had 3,000 people if you were counting generously, and probably 90 percent of the crowd was campers getting a break from the brutal heat.
Considering the event was free, the draw left plenty to be desired. Furthermore, if the league is only going to televise the showcase on NBA TV — as opposed to ESPN or ESPN 2 — WNBA officials should have opted to put the show on during the evening, when a bigger crowd is more likely. Even though Major League Baseball had its All-Star Game Tuesday night, it’s not like NBA TV would have been giving up some great program to put on the WNBA at 6 or 7 instead of 1:30.
The weak crowd was obvious to anyone in the building.
“I noticed it but there’s nothing I could really do about,” Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen said. “That’s the way it was. That was the atmosphere.”
As for tonight, the league refused to give numbers on where ticket sales stood as of Tuesday, only stating that tickets were still available.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

What A Win

Even if you’re not a WNBA fan but just enjoy basketball, anyone who saw the Sun’s comeback Saturday had to appreciate how remarkable the achievement was. Playing a high-scoring team like Phoenix, I figured that was the worst scenario for trying to erase a 17-point halftime deficit.
During the intermission I even rifled through the team’s media guide to find the most lopsided loss in Connecticut history. One member of the Sun staff told me I should instead be searching for the biggest halftime comeback. Boy was she right.
Saturday provided the type of win that can change a season. There was so much excitement in the Sun’s locker room after the victory, which sent the team into the All-Star break feeling pretty good about a 14-5 record to date.
Not only was coming back a great accomplishment, but doing it with Nykesha Sales out due to injury only adds to the significance. Any team out there thinking the Sun are vulnerable with their second-leading scorer may need to change those beliefs.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

All-Star Woes

We have to wait two more days for the rest of the Eastern and Western Conference All-Star squads to be announced, but I’m going to tell you that Katie Douglas will be on the list. Her coach, Mike Thibault, certainly would agree. He was even disappointed the sixth-year guard wasn’t chosen to start by the fans.
Which brings me to my next point.
I’ve got some problems with fan voting, at least in terms of deciding starters. The right to be in the starting lineup of the All-Star Game should be more than a popularity contest. By taking the East aside, it’s clear the fans showed some smarts with certain choices, but there were others that threw me off.
Both guards, in my opinion, are suspect selections as starters, although both should probably be All-Stars. Becky Hammon of New York is a great player and has put up great numbers this year, but what does it mean if her best efforts still have the Liberty a long shot to make the playoffs. Even Connecticut’s Lindsay Whalen surprised me, since she’s had to battle a recovery from offseason surgery and there’s no denying that Douglas has been more important to the Sun’s success on a regular basis so far.
I’m not suggesting to get rid of fan voting, but the system should be tweaked. In baseball, there used to be a chance for fans to vote in one extra player per roster after all the names were announced. I get that the WNBA is an ultra-fan friendly league, so how about voting in three players after the other announcements. That way, the right players are assured of getting the honor they deserve and the fans still get to see the players they enjoy watching.