Whalen’s Injury Could Be Painful For Sun

2005 WNBA Finals Preview
Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | September 12, 2005
26-8 RECORD 25-9
72.8 PF 68.5
100.7 Off. Rat. 95.7
66.0 PA 61.6
91.4 Def. Rat. 85.1
32.6 RPG 30.7
.500 Reb % .529
After sweeps in both conference finals series, the anticipated matchup is here. Connecticut and Sacramento will square off for the WNBA title in the first-ever best-of-five Finals series.

Clearly, the Sun and the Monarchs are the class of the WNBA in 2005. The Monarchs won as many games as any team has since the league went to a 34-game schedule in 2003, and the Sun did them one (win) better, their 26 wins the most by a WNBA team since Los Angeles in 2001.

The playoffs have been more of the same for both teams, who have swept their way to the Finals. They join only two other teams - the 2000 Houston Comets and 2003 Sparks - to go 4-0 en route to the Finals. Both of those teams finished the playoffs undefeated at 6-0, but obviously only one of these teams can match that accomplishment. Either team would deservedly go down as one of the greatest in WNBA history with a win in this series, but only one will.

The Sacramento Monarchs have on their side strong WNBA precedent and an even stronger defense. By the narrowest of margins - six points, to be exact - the Monarchs had a better regular-season point differential than the Sun. That stat has predicted every WNBA champion over the first eight years of the league, though never before has the margin between the top team and the second team been less than a point per game.

Sacramento's Defensive Rating ended up 8.9 points per 100 possessions stingier than league average (94.0 points per 100 possession), making the 2005 Monarchs officially the second-best defensive team in league history, trailing only the 2002 Houston Comets (who, it should be noted, lost in the first round of the playoffs).

4-0 RECORD 4-0
74.5 PF 75.8
108.7 Off. Rat. 103.7
66.0 PA 67.3
91.4 Def. Rat. 93.5
32.8 RPG 31.3
.482 Reb % .543
Favoring the Connecticut Sun are a pair of important things. The first of these is home-court advantage; both of these teams have been mostly unbeatable at home (Sacramento went 15-2 at ARCO, Connecticut 14-3 at Mohegan Sun), but the Monarchs will have to find a way to win on the road to take this series.

The other advantage the Sun can tout is a 2-0 advantage in the season series. On June 24, the Sun went into Sacramento and handed the Monarchs one of the two aforementioned defeats this year at home, using a 25-4 second-half run to pull out a 61-50 victory. Four days later, the teams met again at Mohegan Sun, with a late layup by Nykesha Sales proving key in a 70-66 Connecticut win. The sweep of the Monarchs was just part of the Sun's dominance over the Western Conference - after going just 4-10 against the West in 2004 (one of those wins against the Monarchs), the Sun beat up on the West this year, going 13-1 and losing only to your Seattle Storm.

After the last matchup, Connecticut Coach Mike Thibault had a great quote about Sacramento.

"I told my players, at the risk of offending my dentist, that going to play them is like going to the dentist," Thibault said. "It has to be done, but you don't love doing it all the time. That's a really good basketball team that we played. They defend as well as anybody in this league. We just kind of hung in there and figured out a way to get some shots."

Now Thibault has, at minimum, three trips to the dentist scheduled in the next week. Even worse, Thibault might have lost his novocaine. A localized temporary pain-killer is probably the most bizarre comparison yet made for Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen, but certainly life will be much more painful for Connecticut without her.

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Whalen was diagnosed with a non-displaced fracture of her left tibial plateau during Saturday's clinching win over Indiana. She's officially questionable for the series, though ESPN.com reports she's unlikely to play in either of the first two games.

Whalen did not miss a game this season, but she was sidelined for three games last season by strep throat. (I wrote about Whalen's absence here.) The Sun went 1-2 in those games, and naturally that one win came against … Sacramento, at ARCO Arena on June 12. Connecticut actually played quite well without Whalen, taking the Sparks to overtime and losing to the Storm by five (all three opponents ended up making the playoffs).

While Jen Derevjanik got plenty of help from veteran Debbie Black, now retired, in that stretch without Whalen, it was her likely replacement in the lineup during the Finals that played most of the minutes at point guard, averaging 5.0 points and 2.3 assists in Whalen's absence. Undrafted out of George Mason, Derevjanik only got to Connecticut's training camp last spring by taking part in a free agent camp that included 38 other players.

With Black retiring before the season, Derevjanik saw action in all 34 of the Sun's games behind (and occasionally alongside) Whalen, averaging 10.5 minutes, 0.7 points and 1.2 assists per game. She really shined at the defensive end of the court, and at 5-10 has good size for a point guard.

Whalen was all smiles Saturday, but she'd already suffered the injury that could keep her out of the Finals.
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty
The wild card is the third-stringer at the point, rookie Jamie Carey. An outstanding 3-point shooter in college (42.8%), Carey made only 30.8% from downtown in limited action this season, but could stretch the floor when she's in the game. Carey is a heady player who committed only four turnovers in the regular season, but she's also seen action in only two of Connecticut's four postseason games.

To try to get an idea of how Whalen's injury will affect the Sun, I took a quick look at the team's plus-minus with her on the bench in the playoffs thus far. Without Whalen, Connecticut has held its own, scoring the same 31 points as its opponents. With Whalen, the Sun is +34 (coincidentally, both the Sun and Monarchs have the same playoff differential). Per 40 minutes, this works out to +8.5 when Whalen is on the floor and (naturally) 0.0 when she's on the bench. Most of the difference is on offense, as Connecticut has gone from averaging 73.2 points per 40 minutes with Whalen to 65.3 without her.

None of this should be surprising, of course. Whalen has been the catalyst in the Sun's back-to-back trips to the WNBA Finals, picking up her scoring in the postseason. Last year, Whalen averaged 15.4 points per game against East teams in the playoffs; she averaged 16.5 this year, up 4.4 points from her regular-season average.

Connecticut has made 39 more free throws than its opponents this postseason, and Whalen has led the parade to the free-throw line, making 35 free throws in 44 attempts, 8.8 per game, up from 3.7 made free throws per game in the regular season. Only three times in WNBA history has a player made at least 15 free throws in a playoff game; two of those are Whalen, each of the last two seasons. When one also considers that Whalen led her Minnesota team to the Final Four as a senior, it's clear she shines under the big lights.

On the other side, Sacramento has its own injury concern at the point with Ticha Penicheiro, who did not play in the Western Conference Finals (though she did suit up for Game 2) because of a sprained ankle. Penicheiro is determined to play in this series, but will probably be limited at the very best early in the series. That's the one positive for Connecticut, as a weakened Penicheiro, along with Kara Lawson and Kristin Haynie, are not as capable of putting pressure on the ball as a 100% Penicheiro. Lawson did step up to average 15 points in the Western Conference Finals, shooting 6-for-9 from beyond the arc to answer any questions about her injury, a shoulder subluxation late in the regular season.

The Monarchs got DeMya Walker back from her ongoing knee problems during the conference finals, and she showed no rust, averaging 12.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists (!) per game.

Gm. 1: 9/14 (5 p.m., ESPN2) at CON
Gm. 2: 9/15 (5 p.m., ESPN2) at CON
Gm. 3: 9/18 (1 p.m., ABC) at SAC
Gm. 4*: 9/20 (5 p.m., ESPN2) at SAC
Gm. 5*: 9/22 (4:30 p.m., ESPN2) at CON
* If necessary
Besides injuries, to me the other key issue in this series is the glass. Connecticut was a perfectly average rebounding team in the regular season ( rebound percentage - 50.0%). The Sun's rebound percentage has dropped in the postseason, but that's largely because of playing the outstanding-on-the-glass Shock. Sacramento, meanwhile, has been crushing on the glass in the playoffs (54.3%) against two other teams around average at rebounding.

Monarchs offensive rebounds tend to be more productive than Detroit offensive rebounds, because Sacramento is more effective at converting second chances (though the Monarchs miss less shots, so there are slightly fewer of them). Because of her height, 7-2 Sun center Margo Dydek takes a lot of heat for her rebounding, but she's actually been pretty good in the playoffs (10.6 rebounds per 40 minutes, which would have ranked her fifth in the WNBA in the regular season). It's backup Asjha Jones (6.5 rp40) who needs to step up her work on the glass. This is another spot where the loss of Whalen (4.7 rpg in the playoffs) will hurt the Sun.

Verdict: Before finding out about Whalen's injury this morning, I was agonizing over this decision. I think these teams, at full strength, are remarkably even. Give them 100 games on a neutral court, and both teams probably win about 50. Give them five games, and home-court advantage probably tips the balance in the Sun's favor. The loss of Whalen changes all that, however. Whalen might not be the Sun's best player, but she's probably their most irreplaceable one. Monarchs in four.