Guard play puts Sun atop East
Tina Charles is putting up MVP numbers, the Connecticut Sun lead the Eastern Conference and that should be the crux of the story. But it's not.
Charles has put up stellar statistics in her two previous seasons in the league, but it hasn't yet led the Sun nearly as far as they want to go.
This season, the fact Connecticut is 9-3 overall (8-1 against conferences foes), playing with consistency, balanced scoring and setting the pace in the East, is a testament to what's happening in the backcourt as much as it is to Charles' emergence as one of the most dominant post players in the league.
"I think it takes the pressure off of her," Sun coach Mike Thibault said last week. "She doesn't have the entire load of the offense on her back. I think there were nights last year where she felt that if she didn't have 17-18 points, we couldn't win.
"The way we play now makes it hard for other teams to lock in."
Charles and her team-high 19.0 points per game still lead the way. But the Sun backcourt has experience, youth, players willing to score and others ready to defend.
Kara Lawson, in her 10th season in the league, is experiencing the best start of her career. Through Sunday, she is averaging 13.8 points a game (second on the team) and has scored in double figures in 10 straight contests. Through 12 games, she has established career-best numbers in scoring, minutes played (29.0), field goal percentage (52.5), 3-point percentage (47.1) and free throw percentage (94.9).
Lawson, in the best shape of her career after switching to a vegan diet late in 2011, is also motivated to avoid being brought off the bench again as she was last season.
"It wasn't something that I liked, but I don't think anybody likes that," Lawson said. "Nobody grows up dreaming of coming off the bench or wanting to be a role player. Everybody wants an opportunity to play a significant role and I would expect nothing less."
Lawson, who is "looking to attack as much" as she can this season, is flanked much of the time in Connecticut's backcourt by Renee Montgomery. The fourth-year guard is the one coming off the bench this summer, playing behind second-year guard Allison Hightower.
Still, Montgomery ignites the offense whenever she gets in the game, and ranks third on the team in averaging 13.6 points.
"I am having fun, I have fun every year," Montgomery said. "In our offense, if you're open, shoot it. We all have the green light, and that's one of the good things about our team."
Thibault said he believes Montgomery has handled her role off the bench well.
"You'd have to ask her, but at least outwardly, she's accepted the role she's in," Thibault said. "Early in the game, we need to make sure our post players get enough touches. She comes in, gives us an energy boost off the bench and she's on the court most of the time finishing games, too. She is doing what this team needs and there's a great value to that."
Hightower, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the league's best perimeter defenders, assigned to the likes of Becky Hammon, Cappie Pondexter and Katie Douglas.
"She's one of the most underrated players in the league," Lawson said. "Too much evaluation of defense is geared toward players who go for steals or blocks. There is not really a stat for making somebody works as hard as they can to take a shot."
Yet, Hightower is establishing a "calling card," Thibault said.
In fact, each one of his backcourt players can say that. In addition to Lawson, Montgomery and Hightower, there's Danielle McCray, Tan White and Kalana Greene.
"It's like looking down to the bench and you know that if somebody's struggling, you have somebody else who can pick them up," Thibault said.