One of the first things Anne Donovan did after becoming the second coach in Connecticut Sun history was watch 2012 game tapes of those coached by her predecessor, Mike Thibault.
In the third year of a youth movement, the Sun soared to 25-9 and would have been in the WNBA Finals if not for a Game 3 collapse at home against Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals.
What Donovan says she saw in those games was a team with its act together on offense, but one that seemed to lag somewhat on defense and rebounding.
The Sun allowed 77.4 points a game last season, seventh among the 12 teams. Opponents shot 43.0 percent, also seventh. It was sixth in rebounding.
And so she set out to fix that as her first order of business.
“This was a helluva team to take over with a great, powerhouse offense,” Donovan said. “And it was pretty solid defensively, but in certain games, specifically in the playoffs against Indiana, it gave up too many points. Teams seemed to shoot the ball to well against [the Sun] historically. That’s one area I knew we could shore up. And we’ve focused on it.”
The time has come to see what the difference may look like. The Sun kick off the 2013 season Saturday against the New York Liberty at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Not only is this Donovan’s debut in Connecticut, but Bill Laimbeer, long a Sun conference antagonist as coach of the defunct Detroit Shock, makes his return to the league in New York.
When the Liberty opened the preseason in Connecticut two weeks ago, Sun fans still razzed Laimbeer like they did when he was jousting with Thibault.
“I guess it’s because we beat them so many times,” Laimbeer said laughing. “I have somewhat of a history with that region [dating to his days playing against the Celtics while with the Detroit Pistons].
“This team will resemble my Detroit [Shock] teams if it plays really hard, gets the ball up the floor, plays defense, to our strengths and wins. But it’s a different team, a different style.”
He also has players – Kara Braxton, Cheryl Ford, Katie Smith and Plenette Pierson – that trace back to Shock championships teams to complement Cappie Pondexter, Essence Carson and rookie Kelsey Bone.
“It’s not the same team, but it’s one that will rely on the same trademarks to win,” Laimbeer said.
Which brings things back to Donovan. She said the Sun players originally reacted quizzically when she mentioned its defensive breakdowns
“We needed to get them to think about [defense more],” Donovan said. “The professional mindset is to score points. The dirty work, the subtle things are harder to associate with creating a successful outcome. We may have won [in the past], but we still can do better.”
The Sun welcome rookie Kelly Faris, their first-round pick from UConn and free agents Ashley Walker and Natasha Lacy. White Walker and Lacy fought for their jobs in camp, Faris spent most of it continuing to recover from a foot injury she suffered March 4 while playing for the Huskies. She played just nine minutes in the preseason.
The Sun will play without veteran Asjha Jones, who is taking this season off to recover from chronic injuries.
They will again rely on league MVP center Tina Charles, an improved Kelsey Griffin and core of steady guards, led by Kara Lawson, Renee Montogmery, Allie Hightower, Kalana Greene and Tan White.
“I can improve on last year,” said Lawson, who scored at a career-high (15.1) pace. “I guess you’ll just have to see for yourself. I’d to think I still have some surprises in store.”
But more importantly, they will continue to grow accustomed to Donovan’s new voice and her insistence that victories don’t necessarily equate to solid basketball.
In the preseason, the Sun allowed an average of 77.3 points in three games and were ranked last in rebounding (28.3), although two teams played just one exhibition game which skews the numbers.
“Our thing in camp has been transition defense and getting rebounds and loose balls,” said Greene, who played for Donovan with the Liberty in 2010. “I don’t think there were enough reproductions for not playing well enough defensively. We won games, but when we lost you could see why we lost.
“But now, even if we win, there is going to be constant emphasis [on defense and little things. There wasn’t someone on us all the time last year telling us what we needed to do better if we won … We can’t afford to think like that this season because everyone is better. We need to step up effort on each possession.”