Sun's team effort overcomes Shock star power
The cover of Detroit's playoff media guide features Swin Cash, Deanna Nolan, Ruth Riley, Cheryl Ford and Katie Smith garbed in the latest styles and striking poses straight from the pages of a fashion magazine. The cover of Connecticut's playoff media guide features action shots of the team's five starters, wearing more sweat than makeup.
Two pictures worth far more than 1,000 words.
In finishing off an opening-round sweep of the Shock with a 75-67 win at home on Friday night, the Sun offered further proof of the paradigm shift in sports away from star-driven success toward a team-based philosophy. Despite arguably matching up with a more famous face at every position, the Sun again got something from everyone on the way to victory.
But they also showed how fine a line a team walks in using balance to counter star power.
For the first half of Friday's game, the Sun were in perfect five-part harmony, while the Shock looked like little more than five superstars casually searching for a spotlight. Lindsay Whalen broke off the longest riff on her way to 27 points, but the Sun's early dominance was a total team effort. And key to that effort was the defensive play of Katie Douglas. Named to the WNBA's all-defensive first team earlier in the week, Douglas drew the daunting task of defending Nolan.
On a team loaded with star power, Nolan is the celestial body around which Detroit's offense orbits. In a league of increasing athleticism, few, if any players, match Nolan's blend of quickness, leaping ability and range. But with the Sun playing exclusively man-to-man defense, Douglas was in her face from the outset.
It took Nolan three minutes to even get a look at the basket, only to miss a long jumper with Douglas' hand in her face. Her second effort was no more successful, as she missed an off-balance jumper in the lane -- with Douglas' hand again in her face. In fact, it wasn't until Douglas went to the bench that Nolan finally scored her first basket, with 10:48 to play in the first half.
Time and again, Douglas either denied Nolan the ball or frustrated her just enough on a shot attempt to send it wide. And unlike in the regular season, when Douglas played stellar defense on Nolan but hit just 10 of 45 shots, the former Indiana high school and Purdue star looked every bit the Hoosier sniper in knocking down shots.
With Whalen leading the offense and teammates such as Douglas doing their job elsewhere, the Sun stormed to a commanding double-digit lead and appeared ready to coast home with an easy win. But when every link in a chain is responsible for carrying equal weight, even the slightest slip can cause complete collapse.
And when Douglas tired in the second half, suddenly finding herself a step behind Nolan on drives and unable to get over picks from Detroit's big bodies, Connecticut's big lead began to slip away. That the Sun didn't allow it to slip away completely is a testament to their tenacity and the Shock's torpor, but it's clear their margin for error is anything but big.
Coach Mike Thibault recognized the upside of his team's newfound balance in talking about Nykesha Sales' off night from the floor, saying, "Three years ago, if Sales had gone 1-for-8, we probably would have been really struggling. Now, on a night when we needed it most, she gets her career high in rebounds."
But in watching his team struggle to hold off a monumentally disjointed Shock team when parts like Sales and Douglas faltered even the slightest bit, that pride had to have been mixed with more than a little concern.
Los Angeles' least-known player was the most fun to watch Friday. Making only her second career start, Raffaella Masciadri was the Sparks' third-leading scorer, finishing with a career-high 13 points.
Masciadri, a 6-foot guard from Italy, started just one regular-season game, averaging 3.7 points and 14 minutes. She has remained relatively under the radar -- try clicking on her "bio" page on WNBA.com and it comes up blank! -- but should have turned more heads this summer after shooting 42.3 percent from the field (44-for-104) and 41.3 percent from 3-point range (19-for-46).
Masciadri replaced Tamecka Dixon, who, like many Sparks, has been hampered by a sore knee and ankle injuries this season, in L.A.'s starting lineup Friday. She scored six unanswered points at one point early in the game, added a rare four-point play early in the second and finished 4-for-10 from the field, including a 3-for-7 performance from downtown.
In two playoff games, Masciadri averaged 12 points, went 8 of 17 from the field (47.1 percent) and 4 of 10 from beyond the arc (4 of 10). Here's to hoping we see a lot more of Masciadri next summer.
When Chamique Holdsclaw's on the floor but Kara Lawson is the most dominant Tennessee grad on the court, something's wrong. But that was the case early on Friday.
Sacramento's Lawson already had five points and had hit two field goals, including a 3-pointer, when Holdsclaw -- who scored 24 points in Game 1 -- scored her first point of the game on a free throw with 6:37 to play in the first half. She finished with just seven points on 3-for-12 shooting in 38 minutes.
Holdsclaw looked tired and never found her rhythm, and one had to wonder if playing every minute of Wednesday's Game 1 had a lingering effect.Another player who had a huge performance in in the first game of the series, Nicole Powell, also failed to be a difference-maker Friday -- the same day she was named the Most Improved Player of the Year. The Sacramento guard, who had 18 points in Game 1, didn't hit her first shot until just more than seven minutes into the second half. Powell finished with eight points, hitting just 2 of 8 attempts from the field, though she did knock down two of her five 3-point attempts.
In the first half, the Sun were in the bonus with 5:38 to play before the break. It was even worse in the second half, when Connecticut was in the bonus with 11:53 left.
Detroit center Ruth Riley played just 23 minutes and only 10 points and three rebounds before fouling out with 1:09 to play. Teammate Cheryl Ford, who finished with 13 points and eight boards after a disappointing first half, fouled out with 4:21 left.
Detroit outrebounded Connecticut by an average of almost 10 boards per game during their four regular-season series, and grabbed six more rebounds than the Sun in Game 1. But with Riley and Ford limited with foul troubles, no wonder Connecticut was finally able to outrebound Detroit, 36-33.
Lindsay Whalen, Connecticut
Was it her off-balance, left-handed layup in the first half? The spinning fadeaway jumper that juked Elaine Powell right out of her shorts in the second? The career-high 15 free throws she sank? We say: D, all of the above. Whalen was just unstoppable, tallying a single-game playoff high this postseason with 27 points, one short of her career high.
“We have grown, we're not scared of them. Maybe before there was an intimidation factor, we got beat all the time. Now we're over the hump, we've got their number. ”
— Sacramento's Ticha Penicheiro on the Monarchs' success vs. L.A.
What did Sacramento do right Friday against Los Angeles? Pretty much everything. Every Monarch contributed to the scoring and rebounding totals -- except the one who couldn't get in the game, injured DeMya Walker. Eight players had at least one assist. The Monarchs made the most of their advantage at guard, where the Sparks are depleted. They outrebounded L.A. by 10. And unlike what happened in the Staples Center in Game 1, Sacramento never let up.
Seattle and Houston are the ones with business left to settle in the first round. And whomever wins then has Sacramento waiting. Yeesh.
What about the Sparks? It's hard to be very critical. Yes, Chamique Holdsclaw and Lisa Leslie had about as bad a combined game as those two ever could. They combined for just 13 points, going 4 of 17 from the field. Leslie also was in foul trouble a lot of the game. But these two have been carrying the load all season. Both played 40 minutes in the playoff opener, and at some point, even the best run out of gas. Especially against a team as good as the Monarchs, and as relentless a force as Yolanda Griffith.
It was great to see Holdsclaw back enjoying basketball this summer after the struggles she went through last year. And I think Leslie deserves recognition for the type of competitor she has been this season. She's at far less than 100 percent physically, and you can imagine how frustrated she has been about a lot of what went on with the Sparks, both on and off the court. Yet she didn't miss a game and averaged more than 32 minutes. She gave everything she had to this team.
Nikki Teasley played 35 minutes Friday when you know her feet probably didn't feel like playing at all. She gave her best effort despite injury during the two playoff games. Mwadi Mabika didn't play Friday. It has been a tough season for two of the league's most exciting players to watch. Let's hope the offseason is a healing time for both of them.
|Margo Dydek had made a mistake. Two of them, in fact. First, with the Sun clutching to a 70-67 lead with just 1:08 to play, the 7-foot-2 center missed both of her foul shots. Then, 16 seconds later, Dydek gave the Shock a chance to close the gap when she fouled Plenette Pierson. But then, it was time for atonement. Five seconds later, as Detroit's Kara Braxton went up for a layup that looked like a sure thing, Dydek blocked the shot from behind. Connecticut scored on its ensuing possession and Detroit didn't find the basket again before the final buzzer. Said the Sun's Nykesha Sales: "That block she had was huge. Some of the stuff [Detroit] was wrapping around her, she would usually swing and get a foul, but to concentrate on that block, it definitely turned the game around."|
|Foul trouble wasn't the only thing that hurt Detroit. Minimal bench production was a factor in the Shock's loss, too, especially since Ruth Riley played just 23 minutes (about three short of her regular-season average). Detroit's reserves, in fact, failed to score until Kara Braxton sank a pair of free throws with just 11:40 to play in the game. Braxton was just 2-for-9 from the field and was the only sub to score, finishing with six points.|
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