Doris Burke’s Keys To the Series:
Eastern Conference Finals
By Doris Burke, WNBA.com
So everyone seems to be predicting doom and gloom for the Connecticut Sun now that All-Star guard Katie Douglas is out of the lineup, but winning the series and going to their third straight Finals is not an impossible task for the Sun. Granted, things become more difficult.
On the offensive end, the Sun's balance will absorb the 16 points that you lose with Katie Douglas gone. They can generate offense from other sources. In key moments, the amount of shots that Katie was able to generate and the percentage with which she shot it puts a lot of pressure on teams to extend the defense, put their hands up and content shots. That would be the one are where Connecticut will miss her. But there are enough other weapons offensively where they can compensate for that.
The place they will miss Katie the most is defensively. Detroit's most dangerous perimeter player is Deanna Nolan. She is electric in transition, she has great finishing skills, goes left and right off the bounce, her elevation allows her to get up and over people and she is a good enough spot-up shooter that you have to respect her out there. That defensive matchup in a half-court set becomes a question for me. It becomes an even bigger question if Katie Smith is knocking down her 3-pointers. Detroit has two perimeter players that Connecticut needs to defend. Douglas consistently defends the other team's best perimeter player, and Alana Beard's first round performance is a prime example of how effective she can be. It becomes hard to get a touch when Katie is checking you. She forces her mark to make tough catches. Then she applies constant pressure. If you are able to get by her on the dribble, she is smart enough to know which side she can get beat on, pushing the play in the direction of Taj or Margo.
Erin Phillips will likely replace Douglas in the starting lineup. There are two things I love about Erin: her energy and her guts. She never stops moving, yet she has a physical toughness because of the way she is built. She also has a mental toughness and an aggressive nature that you don't see with younger players. So Erin must find a balance against Detroit and avoid costly mistakes. The turnovers that Connecticut made against Washington cannot happen against Detroit. The Sun cannot afford to make the mental mistakes or suffer lapses in focus, such as not being aware of the time and not executing or cutting properly. These are the things that you have come to respect about Connecticut.
Asjha Jones, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Lindsay Whalen have to score for the Sun to be successful. Nykesha Sales has to shoot the ball better, but she also has to contribute in other areas. She is a sneaky defender with a knack for making big steals and also has to maintain her own rebounding level. That said, if Cheryl Ford dominates the glass and keeps scoring at the pace she has been scoring, Deanna and Katie shoot at a respectable clip from the perimeter and Braxton and Pierson contribute off the bench, the Sun face a monumental challenge without Katie Douglas.
But Nykesha Sales is the important piece of the puzzle for Connecticut, not just because she shot 1-17 in the first round. Nykesha Sales' make up is such that she does not get frazzled. Her confidence might be slightly affected by her performance last round, but not so much that it will paralyze her or render her completely ineffective. We saw that in Game Two against the Mystics. Washington gave Connecticut everything it could handle on the glass, but the one Sun player who continued to make plays down the stretch was Nykesha Sales. She rebounded and ended up with a double digit point total. So I really do believe 'kesh needs to play an important role in this series.
With Detroit fully engaged in the game and the players on the same page mentally and physically, the Shock are as good a team as there is in the WNBA. Over the past month or so, the one player who has raised her game and made a significant impact on the success of the Shock has been Plenette Pierson. You have to give a lot of credit to Bill Laimbeer and rick Mahorn for working with her and facilitating her development. She has played better basketball this season than I have ever seen her play. She has worked on her explosive first step and she attacks the basket assertively. She adds a different dimension to an already-strong front line for the Shock. Not only is she a quality post player off the bench, but she brings a completely different look than Cheryl Ford, Ruth Riley and Swin Cash. Like the role Asjha Jones plays off the bench for the Sun, these two bring an edginess into the game when they are on the floor.
At times during the season, the Shock disappeared offensively. They couldn't score, couldn't execute and looked lost. But right now, there is a grittiness about this Detroit team. But against a very good defensive team, the Indiana Fever, the Shock averaged 83 points per game. So Laimbeer's proclamation that this is the best team in the WNBA may not be that far off. I'm not saying they are, but when they play as well as they did in the first round, there is some credence to what he is saying. Yet the Shock have not been able to put together a long run of games where they have dominated consistently. This is still a relatively young team and they sometimes want to rest on their physical ability because they are so talented and gifted athletically.
Both teams are locked in defensively (to borrow a term from Mike Thibault). They are committed, they understand their scheme. Connecticut has been so consistent all season. They are really focused. Detroit has a dominant rebounding force in Cheryl Ford and can compete with any team on that side of the ball when they want to. This may sound like a cliche, but Game One is huge for Connecticut. I don't think they have to win the game to win the series, but I do think they have to be really competitive. It has to be a tit-for-tat game where the teams exchange buckets. They cannot go down big and rely on a run to get back into it. This has to be a respectable game for the Sun from the opening tap.
The most important challenge that the Sun face is the mental aspect of playing without Katie Douglas. She exploded as an M.V.P. candidate and the Sun relied on her both offensively and defensively in big moments. The Sun have to convince themselves that they can win games without her. They have won without key players all season, Sales, Taj and Lindsay, but they have to believe that they can do it and play that way. So how Coach Mike Thibault, who I think is the best coach in the WNBA, prepares his team mentally will be the key to this series.