Connecticut Sun (#1 seed, 25-9) vs. New York Liberty (#4 seed, 15-19)
Regular season series: Connecticut 4-1
05/19 @NY: Sun 78-73
05/20 @Conn: Sun 92-77
06/15 @Conn: Sun 97-55
08/16 @NY: Liberty 79-66
08/18 @Conn: Sun 85-74
On paper, this is the most one-sided matchup in the first round. Even more than Minnesota-Seattle in the West. Connecticut have been atop the Eastern Conference virtually all season long, and despite some injury issues still managed to win 8 of their final 11 games. Based on most of the advanced metrics, New York shouldn’t even be in the playoffs – they were behind the Chicago Sky in practically everything besides wins. So in looking at this series, you almost inevitably find yourself searching for places to offer hope for New York. Because on the face of it, this should be a blow out.
One potential positive for the Liberty is that Connecticut have some injury issues where you’d expect to find their advantage – in the post. Asjha Jones has only played twice since the Olympics due to an achilles injury, and while she looked pretty good in those two brief appearances, she may not be ready to produce at her previous levels. Tina Charles only took one game off to rest multiple niggling injuries, and has otherwise continued to play through any discomfort. The Liberty post corps of Plenette Pierson, Kara Braxton, Kia Vaughn and DeMya Walker is going to have to fight hard and make it a physical contest with Jones and Charles, because based on consistent level of performance this season they’re outmatched. Charles is a legitimate MVP contender, a skilled finisher inside with range out to 18-feet, and she constantly piles up rebounds. Jones has built up a nice chemistry with Charles over the last few years, and they work well together. Jones gives them an extra scoring threat who can stretch the defense, and as long as she’s fully recovered a more mobile defender than backup Mistie Mims.
Pierson’s the most reliable of New York’s posts, with a varied game that includes post scoring, some range, and an all-out hustle defensive game. But the Liberty are going to need some of their less reliable options to step up for this series. Braxton occasionally has breakout scoring runs, but her fitness doesn’t allow her to stay on the floor for long, and she’s prone to dumb errors and turnovers. Vaughn has had a quiet season, but at the very least they’ll need her to use her size and mobility to make life tough for Charles. If Walker ends up playing a lot of minutes, something’s probably gone wrong for New York.
Where you’d typically expect to find an advantage for the Liberty in this matchup – star guard Cappie Pondexter – there isn’t even much of an edge this year. While she had a slow start to the season, ultimately Pondexter’s been pretty much her usual self for New York. She runs a lot of the offense, does most of the creation, takes a bunch of shots, and scores a high percentage of their points. Sometimes, she tries to do a little too much, and her teammates end up standing around watching her. This season, thanks to the outstanding year Kara Lawson’s had, the Sun have a perimeter player scoring on a similar level. She doesn’t take over the team like Pondexter – you wouldn’t want her to with Charles and Jones as alternatives – but she’s been shooting exceptionally well all season. The Sun also have multiple defenders to throw at Pondexter, starting with Allison Hightower but continuing on through Kalana Greene, Tan White, Renee Montgomery, Danielle McCray and Lawson. Pondexter won’t find it easy to score, and neither will Essence Carson, who tends to play the Cappie-lite role alongside the original. The only way New York have a chance in this series is if they don’t rely on Cappie for everything. They have to use their post players, work inside-out when they can, and wear down the Sun. They’ll also need supporting acts like Leilani Mitchell and Nicole Powell to knock down some shots when the ball’s kicked to them. Constant isolation plays where Pondexter and Carson try to score on their own won’t get the job done.
One area where the Sun have shown occasional weakness this year is against zone defenses, which is where this matchup is fortunate for Connecticut: New York don’t play any zone. Liberty head coach John Whisenant’s infamous ‘white line’ defense, featuring lots of fronting in the post and weak-side help, is what we’ll see for 40 minutes every night. Zones have sometimes left Connecticut stagnant offensively, trying to beat the defense by firing up endless shots over the top of it. In a perfect world for New York, the white-line will have a similar effect. It would cut off entry to the post, and even if the ball did get inside, force passes back out. The problem is that Connecticut are a smart team, well coached by Mike Thibault, who also has a talent for fixing things during breaks if they’re not working initially. They’ll push the ball when they can to score before the defense is set; they’ll reverse it to create better angles into the post; and they’ll skip or kick to find open shooters on the weak side. Sometimes they shoot too much from the perimeter, but between Lawson, Montgomery and the other wings, they’ve also got multiple players who can get hot out there. When everyone’s collapsing to try to cover Charles and Jones, those gunners are only going to be even more open from beyond the arc.
Key area to watch: Free throw attempts
New York were last in the league by a mile in free-throw attempts this season. They averaged 13.4 tries per game; every other team in the WNBA had at least 17.3. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. The Liberty are middle of the pack in points in the paint, they’ve got a couple of guards who like to create in Pondexter and Carson, and they do at least show a willingness to try to feed Braxton and Pierson down low at times. It perhaps reflects how often Pondexter and Carson settle for jumpers on the end of their drives, rather than initiating contact at the rim, and maybe the lack of aggression and consistency from their posts. Even the lack of atmosphere in their borrowed home out in New Jersey may be a factor (although other teams seem to overcome that). Regardless of the reason during the 34-game regular season, it’s something worth keeping an eye on against the Sun. If New York can play aggressively enough and draw enough contact to get well beyond that 13-per game mark (over 20 would be nice), they could make a fight of this. If they’re at their usual number, it’ll probably produce the same results they had most of the year.
Summary and Prediction
It’s just hard to see where New York are going to turn around what these teams have shown over the course of the season. The teams know each other very well, so there won’t be any surprises on either side, and that 10-game edge Connecticut had in the standings was no fluke. They have better chemistry as a team at both ends of the floor, they move the ball better, there’s a more consistent balance between post and perimeter, and they tend to play more cohesive defense. Plus there’s the basic problem of how Braxton, Vaughn et al are going to handle Tina Charles. It’s certainly not impossible to see New York taking a game off them, and in a best-of-three series you never know what might happen, but all the signs point to this being a straightforward introduction to the 2012 postseason for the East’s #1 seed.
Connecticut Sun, 2-0 sweep.