THE PLAYOFF DISH
By Graham Hays, ESPN.com
The Sun's Katie Douglas, left, harassed Alana Beard all night, holding the Mystics star to nine points. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NBAE via Getty Images)
Someone get Hilary Swank a script and some sneakers already.
In a very positive sense, Katie Douglas has gone Hollywood this season. One of the leading candidates for MVP after averaging a career-best 16.4 points per game for a balanced Connecticut attack, Douglas seized an opportunity to shine on the biggest stage by earning All-Star Game MVP honors at Madison Square Garden in July. The now-platinum blonde even had a storybook wedding in Greece during the offseason.
But for all the accolades, interviews and flashbulbs directed her way, Douglas has kept at least one thing from those lunch-pail seasons trying to make the grade as a role player in Orlando and eventually Connecticut. Playing positional defense isn't glamorous work, and the only spotlight involved on that end of the court is the one Douglas seems to shine in opponents' eyes, like a big-screen cop interrogating a bewildered suspect.
With 30 seconds to go in the first half of Friday's game against the Mystics, Washington star Alana Beard earned a warning for slamming the ball down after getting called for a travel while closely guarded by Douglas. It was a rare display of frustration for the usually placid Beard, born of a first half that produced no field goals in eight attempts. Not every miss was a direct result of brilliant defensive play, and Beard -- who finished with nine points on 3-for-15 shooting -- certainly had her chances to make an impact on the game before sitting out most of the fourth quarter. At the same time, Douglas was undeniably a constant presence on defense, always in position and rarely gambling for steals.
When Beard finally did knock down her first jumper early in the third quarter, it came after a solid pick finally picked off Douglas and forced a switch. And it's rarely a good sign for the way a team's offense is functioning when a successful pick-and-curl play is that noteworthy of an event.
After the game, Beard sounded either defiant or delusional -- depending on your perspective -- in asserting Douglas had nothing to do with her bad night.
"Katie didn't guard me," Beard said. "It wasn't a matter of Katie's defense. If anything it was great team defense. I would never give all credit to Katie, I'm sorry. It was just a matter of me having an off night. I missed shots, rushed shots, and that's what happened."
Scorers rarely think anyone can stop them if they're on top of their game, but Beard's statement sounds like pure frustration. If Douglas' defensive acumen is really just her opponents continually having off nights, she's on the luckiest roll in the game's history. Simply knowing, consciously or subconsciously, that a good defensive player is always going to be standing too close for comfort is exactly the kind of thing that will keep an offensive player from finding rhythm on the court. And that, not bad luck, is what causes missed shots and rushed shots.
Fundamental defense isn't sexy (you can almost hear your old high school coach shouting, 'Get low! Watch the belly button!'), but that doesn't mean it's easy or commonplace. And every night, no matter what's happening with her now-celebrated shooting, Douglas is down in her stance on defense, making sure the opposing team's star doesn't get any alone time.
While the Connecticut backcourt was everything it needed to be Friday, the Mystics guards came up short in every category. With its lack of depth, Washington will never win when Alana Beard and Nikki Teasley combine to shoot 4-for-24 from the field, including 0-for-9 on 3-point attempts, and total just 13 points.
Beard's nine points were 10 below her regular-season average. And though she has steadily improved her 3-point shooting over the years, her inconsistency from beyond the arc continued to hurt her Friday. Until she proves she can knock down 3s on a regular basis, opponents are right in playing the percentages and taking away the lane. Though Katie Douglas got the bulk of the defensive assignment, the Sun did a nice job running Nykesha Sales and Lindsay Whalen at Beard, too, and they did a nice job going under screens and switching off on Beard. They didn't let her penetrate, and that also helped hold Beard to just four free-throw attempts.
From Whalen's best offensive game this season (22 points) to Douglas and Whalen combining to hit 6-of-13 3-pointers, and from Taj McWilliams-Franklin's double-double to the Sun getting five players in double figures, Connecticut was impressive from start to finish. Coaches are never happy with their team's performance, but even coach Mike Thibault had to admit, "Other than [17 turnovers], I don't think you could ask for a better start." Yes, Sales struggled (0-for-7), but she's still getting back after missing 12 games with an injury. I doubt you'll see another performance like that from her this postseason.
Margo Dydek remains the Sun's unsung hero, finishing with 12 points (on 6-for-8 shooting), five rebounds and two blocks, despite early foul trouble. Her 7-2 height and shot-blocking ability change the whole dynamic defensively -- and then the Sun don't lose anything when they sub her because Asjha Jones' athleticism is just as pivotal.
It'll be interesting to see what happens in Game 2 of this series. Friday's game was a virtual track meet, with Connecticut taking 68 shots and the Mystics 70.
-- ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman
VOEPEL'S MONARCHS-COMETS PREVIEW
The playoffs are under way, and they didn't get off to such an exciting start in terms of thrilling contests Thursday. If you watched the Detroit-Indiana game, though, you got to experience some of that great technology that allows the coaches to wear a microphone throughout the game.
So during the broadcast, you heard the announcers, the sideline reporter, the head coaches and bits of anyone in the vicinity of the coaches. It's the WNBA's own McLaughlin Group, a cacophony of hoops.
Of course, we writers typically don't have gadgetry. It's just us plugging away on the keyboard except well, I've decided to try an experiment. Six "fans" of the WNBA teams who did not make the playoffs have been "mic'ed" during the writing of this column to share their thoughts.
I figure this could be really interesting, and probably won't be confusing or distracting
LIBERTY OR DEATH: Fine. I don't even care anymore. We aren't in the playoffs. Fine. I needed some downtime anyway to reorganize my Sue Wicks autograph collection. But I'm telling you, the Liberty front office is a freaking environmental disaster! It's polluted another of my summers! They're trying to drive me into the asylum and
to you readers because people obviously can focus on multiple sources all saying different things at once. I mean, no problem. Now, about the Houston-Sacramento series, it seems as if the Monarchs are coming together
at just the right time. Kara Lawson is feeling better after being slowed by illness at the start of the season and DeMya Walker is continuing her comeback after giving birth.
Meanwhile, all the injuries have piled up on Houston, and it just doesn't appear the Comets have enough consistency at this point to be able to make a comeback and win two games in Sacramento. We don't want to say it's impossible, of course, because when you have players such as Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley and Tina
Thompson, there's always hope.
-- ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel
It's that time of year again.
Like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Seattle Storm are at their best when it takes the longest to list their headliners.
Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird and Betty Lennox get plenty of attention as the faces of the franchise, but Janell Burse proved in scoring 17 points Friday that if the Storm are to win a game in Los Angeles and win the series, it will be as a quartet playing in harmony.
Something of a bit player on the 2004 title team in Seattle, Burse blossomed even as the team struggled to live up to expectations last season. In shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and improving her rebounding numbers in each of the last two seasons, she has emerged as someone capable of drawing defensive pressure away from Jackson, allowing her more freedom to either set up shop in the post or run Seattle's vaunted pick-and-roll without having to worry about shaking two defenders.
"She's my sidekick being able to play with her again, it's tops, it's awesome," Jackson said with characteristic Aussie charm after Friday's game.
With both players battling injuries throughout the season, Jackson and Burse weren't on the court together for any of Seattle's three games against Los Angeles in the regular season. But as they proved on Friday, they're a tough combination to stop when they're playing together, even for a team with as much post depth at the Sparks. -- Graham Hays
0 Mystics star Alana Beard, who shot 49.5 percent from the floor in the regular season, went 0-for-8 from the field in the first half Friday. Sun All-Star Nykesha Sales finished 0-for-7 from the field, including an 0-for-4 effort from beyond the arc. After scoring 19 points in the first half, the Sparks' reserves failed to register a point after the break as L.A. went on to lose to the Storm.