"It’s pretty simple,” says All-Star Katie Douglas. “Win or go home. And you can go fishin’ or you can keep playing."
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The past two seasons, the Connecticut Sun have entered the WNBA Playoffs with home-court advantage and dreams of a title. But in 2005, they fell in the Finals to Yolanda Griffith and the Monarchs. Then last season, despite sending its entire starting lineup to the All-Star Game, Connecticut lost to Detroit in a hard-fought, three-game Eastern Conference Finals series.
Two regular season East titles, zero WNBA championships. "But we're going to put a positive spin on it," Douglas continues with a smile. "This season, we figured, why not shake things up a little bit?"
And shake things up they have. The Sun revamped their roster in the offseason, trading longtime franchise favorite and veteran leader Taj McWilliams-Franklin to Los Angeles for young post Erika De Souza. On the same day, Connecticut signed free agent forward Kristen Rasmussen. In January, they lost backup point guard Erin Phillips for the season with a badly torn ACL. Change was in the sweet Mohegan Sun air.
The Sun entered the season with high expectations, but also with five new players on the roster and a new starting power forward in veteran Asjha Jones. And with some players returning late from overseas obligations, it was difficult to gel before their season opener.
"We literally practiced twice, I believe, with our full group prior to our opening game," says 2006 WNBA Coach of the Year Mike Thibault. "So I knew going into the season, that as we played more, we would have to make some adjustments."
After getting off to a solid 4-2 start, the Sun lost nine of their next 11 games to bottom out at 6-11. They were 2-6 at home.
"We hit a point where we felt like things couldn't get any worse," point guard Lindsay Whalen said.
After that last loss, a double-overtime, 111-109 defeat to the Mercury in Phoenix in the first game of a four-game West Coast swing, something clicked. The Sun won the remaining three games of the trip in L.A., Sacramento and Seattle, and haven't looked back since.
"We decided that, 'Hey, this can work!'" says Douglas matter-of-factly.
"Winning three of four on the West Coast was huge. It was a real confidence
boost for us. Then to come home from the All-Star break and finally take care
of things on our home court, something we hadn't been doing up to that point
of the season, obviously put us in a better position. It gave us a little more
belief in our abilities."
Connecticut went on to win 10 of 11 to leap back into the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. Douglas has repeated her 2006 All-WNBA First Team performance, leading the team in scoring and being a menace on the defensive end. In her first season as a starter, Jones stepped up her scoring and rebounding and joined Douglas on the Eastern All-Star squad. Whalen has also cemented her status as one of the league's top point guards. But Thibault has several other explanations for his team's turnaround.
"We stopped turning the ball over so much," he said. "We still have moments, but we've been better. For the first four or five weeks, we were close to leading the league in turnovers. Now we're in the top four the other way."
Thibault also says that there were a couple of players who had to learn that it was okay to be aggressive on the offensive end. DeSouza and Greek rookie Evanthia Maltsi were two of the players he says needed to know that their teammates wanted them to shoot the ball.
|Now in her ninth season with the franchise, seven-time All-Star Nykesha Sales is still in search of her first WNBA title.|
|David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images|
The Sun have come back to earth after their red-hot stretch, but they still secured the third playoff spot in the Eastern Conference behind only the Shock and Fever.
"It's a bit of a change to get the third position," Douglas says. "Okay, we didn't get home court, but we've played very well on the road, so we'll try to use that to our advantage."
But is there a change in the approach coming in as the No. 3 seed?
"I don't think there's much difference," argues seven-time All-Star Nykesha Sales, who missed eight regular season games due to injury. "In previous years, we've been in pretty much every scenario heading into the playoffs: being on top, having the best record, having home-court advantage, not having it. So I don't think it's different at all."
Despite the pressure to take home the team's first title, Whalen likes that the spotlight is shining elsewhere.
"We're a little more of the underdog, I guess. Not being the favorite going in, we have to thrive with that mentality, be aggressive, work hard and have fun."
It certainly won't be easy in the first round as the No. 2 seeded Indiana Fever stand in the Sun's way. The Fever went 21-13 on the year, but they have lost all four games to Connecticut thus far in 2007 and have fallen off in the second half as superstar forward Tamika Catchings missed her squad's final 13 games with a partially torn plantar fascia in her foot.
"We match up pretty well," Douglas says. "Our record against them this year shows that. We'll know and they'll know that we were 4-0 against them this season. But in the playoffs, everything from the regular season is washed away. Everyone is starting over. We'll be 0-0 with them once our series starts."
Catchings is hoping to return to the lineup for Game 1 or Game 2, but the Sun are unlikely to change their approach.
"Tamika Catchings is obviously a great player and an MVP candidate every year, and she brings a lot to that team," says Whalen. "But we just need to worry about ourselves and get ready on our end. We can't worry about who's going to be on the court for the other team.
"Whether she's there or not definitely doesn't affect our approach," Sales agrees. "We just played them without Tamika (on Aug. 15) and we only won by three, so it doesn't mean much in terms of our preparation.
"I'd love to see her get healthy," says Douglas of the Fever star. "She's a great person, a phenomenal player and a good friend. So I'd love to see her play. But at the same time," she continues with a twinkle in her eye, "I'd love to see our team win."
In fact, the Sun, seemingly to a man, think that this can be their time.
"I like where we've been the last month and a half," Whalen declares. "I think we've put ourselves in a great spot and I like our chances going into the playoffs. There are a lot of teams in the East that are playing really well right now. And we're one of them."
"We're hitting our stride at the right time," Douglas agrees. "We've faced a lot of different injuries and adversity this year, so we're prepared to deal with anything. That will help us in the playoffs."
Sales attributes her team's confidence to experience. "Because of our history, we're better prepared to win it this year. We have a lot of the players still here from our Finals team in 2005 and we understand from the last couple of years how important it is to gel at this time."
|Sun coach Mike Thibault is pleased with the contribution this season of his bench, which includes rookie guard Evanthia Maltsi.|
|Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images|
But history and experience only get you so far. Once the ball is tossed up in the air, the Sun still have to go out and perform.
"I think this is a group that can do it," Thibault admits. "I think we've built ourselves into that kind of team and certainly over the last six weeks, we've played like a team capable of winning the title."
"This could be our year… just like it could have been the last couple of years," Douglas says with a chuckle. "We've come through a lot of different kinds of adversity and struggles and hopefully that's made us a stronger team mentally and physically. This regular season has prepared us for what we're going to see in the playoffs and we'll be able to deal with whatever comes our way."