Eastern Conference Finals Preview

18-16 RECORD 18-16
68.7 PF 66.2
96.2 Off. Eff. 94.3
67.8 PA 66.6
95.1 Def. Eff. 96.2
30.7 RPG 29.5
.500 Reb % .466
Connecticut (18-16) vs. New York (18-16)
Eastern Conference Finals

Rookie? What rookie? It's been a tremendous, eye-opening season for Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen, and that continued into Connecticut's 2-1 series victory over the Washington Mystics to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Whalen averaged 18.0 points per game over the three games, and her numbers are simply mind-boggling - 52.2% shooting, 2-3 threes, 28-for-30 from the free-throw line, 15 assists, six turnovers. Foul trouble in Game 2 aside, Whalen dominated the series as the Sun overcame a loss at the MCI Center to win both games at Mohegan Sun Arena. Now, the Sun returns to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year. But while 2003's run was regarded as something of a fluke, as Connecticut upset the higher-seeded Charlotte Sting, this year's squad is a legit title contender, boasting home-court advantage in this series, a deep starting lineup and a far superior point differential (+0.9) to New York's (-1.3).

After a Game 1 victory at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the Liberty looked headed to an easy victory over the short-handed Shock in their first-round series. After New York surprised most everyone by outrebounding Detroit 28-26 in the opener, the Shock fought back by going big and won the rebound battle 70-53 the next two games. As a result, Detroit forced Game 3 and, leading by seven with six minutes left in that winner-take-all game, seemed poised to become only the second team in WNBA history to rally back from an 0-1 deficit on the road. 'Twas not to be, as the Liberty got smoking hot from downtown. First, Crystal Robinson hit a three. Then another. A long two from Becky Hammon, a three from Elena Baranova and another Robinson triple later, New York led 60-58 with 1:36 left. Deanna Nolan's tying layup with 12 seconds left looked like overtime, but things were again not as they seemed. Hammon was trapped on the baseline on the final play, but forward Bethany Donaphin snared a pass not even intended for her and threw in an improbable game-winner at the buzzer to send the Liberty on to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Both Whalen and Hammon entered the season with question marks about their ability to play the point, but have answered them by leading their teams to the Eastern Conference Finals. Whalen has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, making the All-Star team and earning the Seattle Times' vote for Second Team All-WNBA. While a capable scorer, Whalen has proven to be an outstanding floor general, an upgrade in that regard on Shannon Johnson. Hammon, who joined Whalen as a reserve on the All-Star team, came back from a torn ACL while playing exclusively point guard for the first time in her WNBA career. Hammon's 4.4 assists per game were more than double her previous career high. Still a scorer first and foremost, Hammon led point guards with 13.5 points per game and had a big Game 3 against the Shock, scoring a game-high 20 points.
A pair of similar southpaws match up at shooting guard in this series. Katie Douglas' defense on Alana Beard was key for the Sun, and now Douglas gets the assignment of stopping Hammon, where her 6-0 height gives her a major advantage. Bothered by a sore nose and focusing on defense, Douglas didn't score much in the first round, but she averaged 4.0 assists. Johnson's ballhandling has been more important than ever now that she's paired with Hammon, and she averaged a career-best 3.6 assists per game this season. But Johnson's scoring dropped below double-digits for the first time since her rookie season, and she shot 3-for-20 from the field against the Shock. She'll have to do better in this series.
After two subpar games, the Sun's leading regular-season scorer, Nykesha Sales, stepped up with 18 points and three three-pointers in Game 3. Crystal Robinson had a big Game 3 for the Liberty as well, scoring 16 of her 17 points in the second half. Robinson averaged 14.7 points in the series, shooting 53.1% from the field and 8-for-20 from three-point range. Robinson has emerged as one of the top three-point threats in the league, and Sales, who played the passing lanes to the tune of a league-high 2.2 steals per game this season, will have to stay at home defensively. Robinson as regarded as one of the league's top one-on-one defenders, but struggled against Nolan.
Named the WNBA's co-Most Improved Player before Game 2, Wendy Palmer-Daniel played only a limited role against the Mystics, averaging 8.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game and shooting under 40% from the field. Palmer-Daniel's rebounding will be important against a Liberty frontcourt that is weak on the boards. Her game-winner aside, Donaphin had a solid series, showing little drop-off from her regular-season numbers against Detroit and battling Cheryl Ford down low. Donaphin finished with 5.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, but may need to do even more in this series.
After two years' absence, mostly because of giving birth after the 2002 season, Taj McWilliams-Franklin returned to the All-Star game this season as a starter, making her fourth All-Star appearance. McWilliams-Franklin ranked amongst the WNBA's top 20 in points, rebounds, steals and blocks per game and had six double-doubles. New York center Baranova similarly returned to All-Star form after coming off the bench last year (she was not eligible for the team because she played for Russia in the Olympics). Shooting a career-best 46.3%, including 46.1% from downtown, Baranova was in the WNBA's top 10 in Efficiency Ranking. Neither player had a great first-round series.
Asjha Jones (left) came up big for the Sun in the first round, averaging 10.7 points per game, nearly four above her season average. Jones essentially gives Connecticut a sixth starter. Guard Debbie Black and rookie forward Jessica Brungo up the Sun's defensive intensity when they come in the game, and Black will get her shot to hassle and annoy Hammon with her pesky defense. Undrafted rookie Le'coe Willingham has quietly put up good numbers in limited minutes all year, and that didn't change against the Mystics. New York got a huge boost in its series from forward La'Keshia Frett (right), who was signed after being waived by Charlotte during the middle of the season. The veteran was very effective after signing with the Liberty, and averaged 10.7 points and 4.3 rebounds against the Shock. She and Jones will match up heavily. Rookies Shameka Christon, a good defender still growing into her offensive potential, and DeTrina White, the Liberty's best rebounder, round out the rotation.



PPG Hammon
RPG Baranova
APG Hammon
SPG Hammon
BPG Baranova
MPG Hammon
The Liberty is 7-1 in franchise history in playoff series against Eastern Conference foes.

The teams split the season series 2-2, each taking a game on the other's home court. Three of the four meetings occurred down the September stretch, with the Sun taking the first two but the Liberty rallying to pick up a key 69-66 victory at Mohegan Sun Arena Sep. 17 that allowed New York to take home-court advantage in the first round. Robinson scored a season-high 22 points in that game.

The Sun comes into this series looking strong. No Eastern Conference team boasts a superior starting lineup, and while the depth isn't always great after Jones, New York is thinner than Connecticut because of injuries, so the Sun has the advantage there as well. Basketball isn't so linear as to be determined by one-on-one matchups, but look at them head-to-head - where is the Liberty's advantage? Hammon, maybe, but Whalen was the MVP of the series with the Mystics. Baranova is terrific, but so too is McWilliams-Franklin, and Sales' scoring negates Robinson's shooting. Connecticut, meanwhile, clearly comes out ahead at power forward even with Frett playing so well on the bench. All that may be over-complicating matters; the Sun is the better offensive team, the better defensive team, the better rebounding team and tough to beat at home. That's not to say the Liberty doesn't have a chance, because New York can win this series. Hammon and Robinson essentially have to stay as hot from outside as they were against Detroit, and the Liberty will need to slow Connecticut up front. Shutting down Whalen could slow down the Sun's running game and force Connecticut's other starters to create for themselves, a situation in which Sales could still thrive but players like Douglas and Palmer-Daniel might struggle. If Whalen plays well, you can almost book her to become the second rookie point guard in WNBA history (joining Nikki Teasley) to lead her team to the Finals.
Sun in three

- Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com