Keys to the Series:
2005 WNBA Finals
All season long, ABC and ESPN's Doris Burke has been breaking down games, offering her expert analysis for key games, matchups and other league-related events. She is a veteran of many WNBA Playoffs and Finals and is back once again to offer her take on the 2005 WNBA Finals. As she has been for so many games and series in men's and women's college and professional basketball, Burke will be a part of the broadcast team calling the games for ESPN2 and ABC throughout the series, so check back throughout for her updates.
With Doris Burke, WNBA.com
Connecticut Sun vs. Sacramento Monarchs
The WNBA has introduced a new Best-of-Five format for the Finals with a 2-2-1 format. That will give the two teams a better opportunity to showcase their talent. It is a fairer evaluation and after their great seasons, these two teams deserve it. There really are a lot of similarities between the Sun and Monarchs, but perhaps the most important one is that they are both very unselfish teams across the board. Both of these coaches, from the time they took over their franchise, have preached unselfishness. Through personnel changes, they acquired the type of personalities who could commit to that philosophy. There are very few superstars and this will be a series where there will be very few First Team All-WNBA players (maybe one or two, but we'll learn that on Sunday at Game Three). I believe that shared quality of unselfishness has gotten these teams to where they are.
Sun coach Mike Thibault and Monarchs coach John Whisenant are very similar. In addition to preaching that unselfishness, they both want to avoid the spotlight. Neither relishes the opportunity to be in newspapers or on television. Both are simply about winning basketball games. Leadership on both of these teams is also in good hands. Yolanda Griffith and Taj McWilliams-Franklin are the standard-bearers for both and are equally unselfish. Yolanda is a player who has never cared shots, points, minutes or rebound totals. Her first thought has always been 'How do I help my team win?' She has been willing to step out of character this season because she is not a vocal leader by nature, but given the fact that this is a younger team, she is almost forced to be more vocal and change who she is. Taj has been the same way, nothing but focused. You get the sense from the two of them that they know they are winding down and their opportunities for a championship are fewer. This could be it.
The Sun were in this spot a year ago but came up short. You can see it in the way they handle their business. They set a franchise and Eastern Conference record for wins. They have certainly enjoyed their success, but it has not been the end-all. In the back of their mind, there has always been something bigger to achieve, a greater goal. That mental focus serves this team well, as does the experience of playing in a Finals. Losing last year motivates them. Sometimes you have to fail in that moment before you can achieve the ultimate goal. But the Monarchs are the same way. They were frustrated in the Western Conference Finals three times and also play with that chip on their shoulder. This is going to be a fun series and I expect it to go five games.
I was very disappointed with the late word that Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen could miss the entire series with a fractured bone in her knee. She had elevated her game to the point where she deserves the chance to compete for a spot on the World Championship team for the United States next year. She has been the most dangerous guard in the Playoffs and good stretches of the season because of her ability to get inside the paint on a consistent basis. She changes the pace as well as any guard in the league and her frame is built to take contact and she has struck a perfect balance between getting into the lane to score for herself or draw enough defenders and connecting with her teammates around her. Her jumpshot is legitimate enough that you have to stay close enough to contest as a defender, and keeping that defender close is all she needs to get by and create.
Coaches always discuss the timing of injuries as the key. If they have some time to prepare both in practice and a few games before a critical game, then they can react accordingly. However, the Sun do not have that time. With Whalen unable to go, Jen Derevjanik becomes a key figure. She will go from averaging less than 10 minutes or so per game to at least 20. now Derevjanik is a good defender capable of playing mistake-free minutes behind Whalen, but Lindsay is the engine that makes the Sun go. she is great is transitions, makes great decisions and can put pressure on defenders because of her ability to get inside the lane. I'm not sure Derenjanik has the same ability. Sacramento will come with full pressure 94 feet for 40 minutes and try to steal a win in Connecticut. It is imperative that the Sun win both games at home to start, and that is much harder without Lindsay.
Monarchs guard Ticha Penicheiro is expected to be back after missing the Conference Finals, but it poses an interesting question to John Whisenant. Most coaches are of the philosophy that injuries never cost a player their job but Kara Lawson had a great series filling in as a point guard and will be a player you have to have in the rotation no matter what. Penicheiro played some of the best basketball of her career because she changed her mentality on the offensive end. She is willing to look for her offense first and has become somewhat of a threat that you can't ignore. Like Whalen, Ticha can get anywhere she wants off the dribble. She is a big guard with great vision, passes equally well with both her left and right hand. But you have to look at both Ticha and Kara as point guard options at this point. I was really impressed with Kara against Houston. She took on a whole new set of responsibilities and showed her ability to change gears, both mentally and physically. She really organized that team, took the pressure, set the tone and provided the verbal leadership necessary to win that series. But the dimension she gives you that Penicheiro does not have is that perimeter scoring. She can shoot the three and she has established herself as a real player in this league.
In my opinion, Chelsea Newton is one of the top five or six defenders in the WNBA, and that was as a rookie. What she did against Sheryl Swoopes in the last round was brilliant. I know I didn't think she would be a starter in this league, but it is a testament to her defensive skills that she has been a starter in the rotation. She has earned that because she plays without fear, she is a great athlete who works her tail off. Her intelligence enables her to understand just what offensive players want to do and she takes them out of that. She is also not afraid to take shots, but almost always takes smart shots and we should not underestimate her offensive ability either.
She will match up against Katie Douglas, who, to me, you can make a case that her defense is as important to the success of the Connecticut Sun as anything else. First of all, it takes a lot of pressure off Lindsay Whalen who can now guard the second-toughest player on the perimeter, which allows her to save a little bit for the offense. Katie's value can check a bunch of different positions depending on what Coach Thibault is most concerned about. While she doesn't have blazing speed, she understands how to keep people in front of her. She also has a more consistent offensive game than Newton and scores from the perimeter.
In the middle, Margo Dydek has remained an enigma all season long. The acquisition has been good for Connecticut and you cannot teach 7-2 with skills. So as long as Margo is around the paint, because of her length and reach, she is going to be a factor. Given the fact that Sacramento is such a good offensive rebounding team, it is important that Margo focuses on the defensive boards. She can help the Sun with this series if she is committed to rebounding. But right now, Yolanda Griffith is as focused as I ever seen her in her career. She has been effective offensively in a lot of different spots, including turnaround jumpers, face-up jumpers from 15-feet and as a prolific offensive rebounder while her length and activity makes her a defensive nightmare for the opposition. She guards in the post as well as any defender in the league and covers a lot of ground to help her teammates. I think a case can be made that she is playing as well as she did when she won the MVP Award in 1999. I think Connecticut will have their hands full with her.
Nykesha Sales and Nicole Powell will match up at the small forward position. These are two players who can stick the long-range jump shot, though Nykesha is better at creating her own shots. She can set up defenders and attack dribble. Sales also has great body control in the lane and can score from more spots on the floor than Powell. Sales has become a better passer under Mike Thibault and has made also made marked improvement on the defensive end, especially as an on-ball defender. Powell is Coach Whisenant's "hired gun." She hit two monumental shots in the Western Conference Finals which helped them to escape with a win. Like Kara Lawson, Powell is smart and has a great feel for the game. If I were Connecticut, I would test her defensively. I want to know if she can guard off the dribble. Sales may be able to get by her, but it will be interesting to watch. Nicole has to be more assertive because there were also stretches where she got lost in the flow against the Comets. She can't get lost in the Finals and is capable of getting off by making shots early.
Rounding out the starters in the frontcourt, Sacramento's DeMya Walker and the Sun's Taj McWilliams-Franklin are two very different players, but will be critical in this series. Walker blew me away in the last series. When someone injures a knee twice in one season, you can't help but speculate as to their effectiveness, but she threw two spin moves in Game One that proved to me that she was just fine. She is at her most dangerous when she makes that jump-stop move that Sacramento has taught. She has a lightning-quick first step, a legitimate 15-foot face-up jump shot and that balance in her game keeps defenders off-balance. If Sheryl Swoopes has the best first step, DeMya Walker is just a step below. Taj also must be around the rim this series whether she is checking Walker or not because of Sacramento's ability to rebound. I believe that Taj has the length, reach and know-how defensively to compete. Her experience is invaluable and she has all the tricks of the trade and I don't think there is anyone in the league that Taj can't guard defensively.
Connecticut's Asjha Jones was my Sixth Man of the Year and shows that one substitution can drastically change the look of the Connecticut team. Most of the time she is coming in for Margo. Jones, despite being generously listed at 6-2, is an outstanding post defender. She has the ability to guard bigger players, has great footwork on the bloc and great anticipation. Her offense has also been as good this year as it ever has been. Her jump shot is excellent and she has an array of post moves that can get her under, around or even over her defenders. Brooke Wyckoff is also critical for the Sun. She is not one of those players that will be appreciated by anyone other than her staff. She frustrated Tamika Catchings in the last series and can guard the three or the four position. Her shooting has been up and down, but she is the kind of player who can hit a couple of unexpected daggers in a game. Brooke is a smart player, finds open areas and understands Mike Thibault's system. Nobody talks about her but she is crucial to their success.
Sacramento's depth has been integral to their success all season long. With the defensive intensity and pressure they play with, fresh bodies are essential. Coach Whisenent expects an all-out effort all the time and has to have a deeper rotation. There were one or two games where Chelsea Newton got into a little bit of foul trouble and Hamchetou Maiga came in, a long, athletic, committed defender who can guard on the ball and deny touches because she is quick and has great reach. She can also score in their transition game and likes to get out and run. Her only weakness is her perimeter shooting. Not many players get off their feet to jump and rebound like Monarchs second-year forward Rebekkah Brunson. And that is often on the second jump. If I am a G.M. for a team that needs a rebounder, I want Brunson. She is an up-and-coming player in this league and can really develop, yet already has the ability to be dominant. Finally, rookie guard Kristin Haynie is a really gutsy player. She took some courageous shots against Houston. Like Lindsay Whalen, she is fearless and believes that she can compete with anyone in the league. She is a good defender, has good handle, has a good jump shot and has played in some big moments already this year, back in March in Michigan State's run to the NCAA championship game.
The Final Analysis
Both of these teams were very good at home this season losing two and three games each in their own building. Given Sacramento's defense at home this year, it is imperative that Connecticut wins two games at home to open the series. Both arenas are fantastic atmospheres, but the Monarchs at home are very special. Championship basketball at any level always seems to break down into a half court situation and that gives Sacramento an advantage. That is why the Sun have to win both games at home. Again, I think this series goes five games