Thibault At The Break

The Connecticut Sun entered the Olympic Break on a roll, winning five straight to improve to 15-4 with a four-game lead in the Eastern Conference. The Sun were an impressive 8-1 on the road, and 12-1 in the East entering the break. On Monday, Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault took a few minutes to discuss the state of the Sun.

“If someone had told you Connecticut would have 15 wins at the Olympic Break, would you have been surprised or shocked?
“My hope was to be at 13 (wins), to be in a good playoff position and to have won a few more road games than in the past. We have exceeded all of those expectations. Obviously first place, 15 wins, one loss on the road, one loss in the conference, it’s all been great.”

So what do you attribute to this start?
“The word that keeps coming back to me is ‘maturity.’ And probably, along with maturity, good health. We’ve kind of had a chance to play a couple of years together, so when we started training camp, we could use the end of last season as a jumping off point. We didn’t have to go back to square one, we could pick up where we left off. The second part would be having Asjha and Kara be fully healthy going into the season. It makes a huge difference. You see it in their play. Their bodies look good. They have a bounce to them. Asjha’s rebounding numbers are at a career high. Kara’s overall shooting percentage and everything else are approaching career highs if they are not career highs. It just makes a huge difference. The other part you have to think about is the emergence of Allison Hightower, particularly at the defensive end, and how good the addition of Mistie Mims has been, and what it has meant to our team. That is not to discount what others are doing, our other bench players – Tan White, Kalana Greene, Danielle (McCray), Renee (Montgomery) have all done their jobs -- but Mistie and Allie would probably be surprises to the rest of the league. When the marquee free agents were out there this winter, when the trades other teams made were talked about, nobody was talking about, ‘Geez, they added Mistie Mims, that oughta turn them around.” And yet, it was someone we’ve been trying to get for a couple of years. I just felt like she fit our team. So those would be the surprises, maybe even to our own players, about how much it has made an impact on our team.”

You see teams ride a Big Three to success. Do you feel the Sun can ride this Big Three (Asjha Jones, Tina Charles, Kara Lawson) all season long, or do you need to see more of a progression from the rest of the lineup?
“Oh I think we need to see continued progression. I think as Tan has come back to good health, her game has picked up. She went from struggling early after her concussion and shooting around 30 percent to being around a 45-percent clip. Renee had a slump and was struggling with her shooting. Hopefully the Chicago game has rejuvenated her going into the break. She’s had two good assist games in a row and we’re going to need her to be really good down the stretch. At some point, Danielle McCray is going to be a factor. She was the other night in Chicago. We need all of them. We need the sum of our parts.”

You have three core players, and then a bunch of other players with a variety of skills. How much of a challenge is it to make the right moves from night to night?
“ What you are trying to say nicely is, ‘Am I guessing a lot?’ I am guessing some nights. Some nights it’s because of inconsistencies and some nights it’s what are teams going to take away from you in their scouting reports and what are they going to give you, and how quickly is your team going to recognize and react to it. We assume a lot of nights they’re going to try and take away Tina Charles. But now that Asjha and Kara have had the first half of the season they’ve had, they’re going to get paid more attention to. Particularly Kara. She’s seen more traps and pick-and-rolls. So from a coach’s standpoint, I am trying to stay a step ahead by figuring out who is going to be more effective in a particular game to complement those players. It’s been a little bit of a challenge, but obviously, we’ve kind of figured it out as we’ve gone along.”

This is your third time through the Olympic Break. What have you learned from the past two experiences, and are their things you will do differently this time?
“It’s a little bit different in the sense that we’ve never had two players be gone to the Olympics, and two key players playing kind of the same position. Our philosophy will stay the same. We’ve approached it every time kind of like a college football bowl game. You have a month and you kind of divide it into thirds. The first third is rest, the middle third is conditioning – individual work, some team stuff but not every day – and the last third is more like a training camp. We’re going to have guys in to scrimmage more often because we are not going to have Asjha and Tina here until the last two practices and you need some big bodies to go against. That will be different for us. I think the other thing that is a little different is that there are more games than there have been in the past. That will be a little bit different. There is still a good portion of the season left with some players coming back to some teams.”

Is it tough to see the break come along when the team was on such a roll, having won five games in a row with four road wins?
“I don’t like losing the momentum we had, but we’re also a team that could use a little bit of a break. Not a month, but I think our players had geared themselves up to really push themselves that last two weeks – five games in eight days. They pushed themselves hard to see how well they could compete. If we had not had the specter of the break coming, I don’t know, maybe our approach mentally would have been different as a team. It’s one of those things we’ll never really know the answer. What I do know is that we have given ourselves a cushion. If we come back with the same energy and a little bit better offensive continuity, then we can build on it.”

Finally, what would you tell fans about this team and why they should come out and watch when we resume play in August?
“Well, I think fans in general want to see a team that competes all the time. And in every game but one this year, we’ve been highly competitive. We’ve played 19 games, and the one game in Indiana, we were not very good. We tried, but we did not have it in our bodies. But the other games we lost, the Seattle game, the L.A. game and the Minnesota game, those were great basketball games that early in the season, we didn’t make the right plays at the end of games. We have started to do that a little more in the last couple of weeks. I think fans will like that we play at a fast tempo, that we’re unselfish, we share the ball and we’ve become pretty good at both ends of the floor. We’re not just an offensive team or a defensive team. We have a pretty good balance. We’re second in the league in scoring and we’re also one of the better defensive field goal percentage teams in the league. We make people work. So I think fans get a little bit of (offensive) flash with up and down with a great, great center. But they also see a blue collar team on the defensive end of the floor right now.”