If winning a WNBA title depended only on talent, the Connecticut Sun certainly may have had one or two by now. But there’s much more to it, of course.
Ill-timed Injuries to players to stars like Wendy Palmer, Lindsay Whalen, Katie Douglas and Asjha Jones have had as much to do with Sun postseason problems in their first nine years as anything else.
“You need both on your side, fate and talent,” Sun coach Mike Thibault said. “And you can’t have one without the other. All you want is the chance to be able to battle it out.
“Where luck comes into it is in regard to health. … And you have no control over those things. They just happen. I remember the conference finals in 2006 [against Detroit] when Asjha and Katie were taking injections just to be able to play. We could barely walk in the deciding game.”
The Sun played in four Eastern Conference finals (2003-06) and for two championships (2004-05) but haven’t been able to wrap their hands around any hardware. And that has been a source of frustration to the organization.
“It’s what everybody plays for,” Thibault said. “Anyone who is worth anything in professional basketball is dying to play in a playoff game. It’s exciting. It’s like being a little kid in your driveway.”
It’s a new day for the Sun, another chance to do something for the first time.
“It sure would be nice to get to the Finals this season with everyone on the team healthy,” Sun forward Asjha Jones said. “And that’s what we are aiming for.”
With the best record in the East (25-9), the Sun opens the postseason Thursday against the New York Liberty (15-19) with Game 1 of a best-of-three at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Sun won 4-of-5 against New York this season, losing only in the first game following the Olympic break, Aug. 16 in Newark, N.J., when center Tina Charles, their leading scorer and rebounder, was held to four points.
Connecticut is in the midst of a long postseason drought. It has not won a playoff game since Sept. 18, 2008, a Game 2 win over New York. They did not even make the playoffs in 2009 or 2010 and was swept by Atlanta in the opening round last season.
This team has been consistent enough not to lose consecutive games this season. But it has only one player, Jones, who has ever won a playoff game with the Sun, and just one, Kara Lawson, with a championship (with Sacramento in 2005).
“It takes a little maturity, a lot of skill and being able to stay in the moment [to succeed],” Thibault said. “The one thing I am worried about, with a young team like ours, is its ability to maintain its focus.
“Whatever happened against New York this season doesn’t matter. What happens Thursday is all that matters.”
And that brings us back to injuries and the status of Jones, the Sun’s veteran leader.
Since 2009, Jones has been dealing with a chronically sore Achilles’ tendon. It has required surgery in February 2010 to relieve an impediment that was causing her pain. And then on July 11, she stepped on the foot of Washington’s Michelle Snow, causing a new injury to the area.
“It’s an irritant, but when you think about it, everyone in the league is hurting now to some degree,” Jones said. “I’m not special. It’s not a problem. I try not to get frustrated. It’s just a part of the game.
“We all wake up in the morning wishing we didn’t have to go to [physical therapy]. Then you quickly realize it’s a lot better than going [to work] 9-to-5.
“We get paid to play basketball, to do something we love. And this comes with the territory. You have to put things into perspective, reality-check yourself and realize it’s a lot better than it could be. Part of being in this league is learning how to deal with [the discomfort].”
After playing an accessory role on the 2012 Olympic team in London, she finally returned to the Sun in a 5-minute cameo Sept. 19 against Indiana. The Sun increased her time to 12 minutes in Sunday’s finale against Atlanta.
But to win the championship there is little doubt that a functional, if not healthy Jones, will be of major importance.
“I am not at all the same player in 2007. And before the Olympic break this season, I was playing well before getting hurt again,” Jones said. “Now, it’s just a matter of working with the problems and finding ways to get around them.
“I do get stronger every day, and even though I might not be the same player I was in early July, I can do whatever I need to help the team. I feel it’s going to be more of a collective effort than just the team depending on my help.”
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