A Race to the Finish
"The best part about the [Olympic] break for us is that we got to stay in first place for a month," he said. "And that can change in about two hours on Thursday."
The WNBA season resumes Thursday with the East's top three teams - the Sun (16-10), the Liberty (15-10), and Shock (16-11) - separated by nothing more than .022 percentage points. The Sun and Liberty each have respective contests Thursday, with Detroit hosting New York on Friday.
Only a handful of games remain before the playoffs begin in September, making head-to-head meetings like Friday's critical to determining the conference champion - and home-court advantage in the playoffs. In a sense, the playoffs have already begun. Teams that fall behind now might not recover from two first-round playoff games on the road.
"It's going to be quite a race," Thibault said. "When you have three teams... who are half a game apart from each other, it's going to be interesting going down the stretch. All three teams have had great runs during the season and then times when we've struggled, either with injuries or whatever. I'm just looking forward to see what happens."
While nobody's moved in the standings, there have been several dynamic changes over the past month that should help shape the balance of power in the East. Detroit made the biggest splash with the acquisition of Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Are the Sun and Liberty ready to counter?
Connecticut Sun (16-10)
The Sun had a scorching start to 2008, giving the Shock a surprising challenge for first place in the early weeks. An overhaul of the veteran-laden squad Thibault had guided in prior seasons led to some growing pains. The Sun faded for a while, going 1-6 for one stretch before winning their last three games to reclaim first.
"The one thing we've emphasized from the start of the season is to play in the moment and not look too far ahead," said Thibault, who is a little out of the loop after letting his staff handle practices while he served in Beijing as an assistant coach to the gold-medal winning U.S. women's team.
The youthful Sun are gearing up to win now, however, recently adding two 2008 Olympians with WNBA experience: Russian forward Svetlana Abrosimova and Australian point guard Erin Phillips. While neither signing was headline news, the veterans could be the calming influence Thibault needs in the huddle over the last eight games. The coach expressed concern Wednesday about getting his younger players caught up in the "stretch run" hoopla.
Abrosimova, a 6-foot-2 forward, averaged 10.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in seven seasons with the Minnesota Lynx. Phillips played all 34 games for the Sun in 2006, averaging 5.4 points and 2.3 assists.
Detroit has already clinched the season series with the Sun, winning two of three head-to-head meetings before the Olympic break. The Shock get home-court advantage if the teams wind up in first place with identical records.
New York Liberty (15-10)
Pat Coyle's crew was the hottest team in the conference when the season stalled, having won three in a row and seven of their last 10 to propel past the slumping Shock for the second spot. Despite the success, Coyle welcomed the break. She remains confident her team will pick up where it left off.
“I think more people have made a bigger deal of this than we have," Coyle said of the momentum question. “We were ready for a break. I thought a lot of our players didn't have any legs; I thought they were exhausted. We had won six of seven, but I really didn't think we had played all that well, a game here or there. So am I concerned about getting back? Nah, not really."
Of the three teams, New York has enjoyed the most continuity during the month off, losing neither players nor staff to the Olympics. That's a bonus for a team still trying to find its identity. The Liberty has eight players in their first or second pro season. “New York's ready to get going," Coyle said. "Having spent the last couple weeks going against one another, we're looking to beat up on somebody else."
They'll get plenty of chances with nine games remaining, including two against Detroit, first Friday and again in the regular-season finale at New York on Sept. 14. If home-court advantage comes down to that game, both teams know what could be at stake. Last year, the Liberty nearly upset the top-ranked Shock in the first round, winning Game 1 at the Garden before the Shock prevailed with two narrow wins at The Palace.
"Home court's huge," Coyle said. "I think every year you see it in the playoffs. I think being the youngest team in the league, I think it's huge for us. We're much better at home."
The Olympic break couldn't come soon enough for Detroit, which slipped from first to third in the conference by losing its last four games. Getting back on the right track won't be easy, though. The Shock have the smallest margin for error heading down the stretch, having already played two games more than New York and one more than the Sun.
Head coach Bill Laimbeer won't have everyone at his disposal until forward Plenette Pierson serves the second half of her four-game suspension and guard Elaine Powell sits out Friday's game. Also, Katie Smith returns from the 2008 Olympic games with her third career Olympic gold medal - and a likely case of jet lag after living for a month on Beijing time.
"It's going to be some challenging times for our ball club still, especially the first few games," Laimbeer said. After hosting New York the Shock head to Chicago, where they lost by 17 in June.
It's the kind of against-the-odds scenario that Laimbeer and the Shock have used before to write championship scripts before. Thibault and Coyle, concerned for their young teams' psyches, are sticking to the tried and true "one game a time" philosophy. Laimbeer has embraced a bigger plan for his two-time defending conference champions: perfection.
"We know if we win all seven games we have the home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and that's carried us pretty far the last couple years and that's what weÃ're focused on again," he said.
Laimbeer didn't let Cheryl Ford's season-ending knee injury derail the season, acquiring McWilliams-Franklin, a six-time All-Star forward, to restore Detroit's inside presence - and consequently its title hopes.
"She's an experienced player and actually she makes her team better with her calmness and her pointers to our players. They respect her," Laimbeer said. "Our practices, our level of intensity, our level of concentration has improved dramatically."
McWilliams-Franklin's fresh face and dignified leadership further distance the Shock players from the negative fallout of their skirmish with the Sparks on July 22. Riddled with injuries and suspensions, the Shock players looked visibly burdened in their last two losses to Houston and San Antonio.
That's not the case any longer. It's all eyes on the prize now.
"We really needed this break and I think we got our minds right, we got our bodies right for the most part and we're looking forward to the last couple games," Laimbeer said. "I think we're real excited."