Mike Anthony: Winner-take-all Game 5 is what WNBA and this Sun-Mystics series deservesThe Hartford Courant — By Mike Anthony The Hartford Courant
Oct. 09-- The Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics will square off one more time in Washington D.C., where this complicated and thrilling series started last week and where it will end Thursday night.
The WNBA Finals is headed to a decisive Game 5 and one of two teams will celebrate its franchise's first championship Thursday at Entertainment and Sports Arena.
This, I submit, is fun.
"This is not fun," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said.
"We're having the time of our lives," Sun coach Curt Miller said.
The Sun's 90-86 Game 4 victory Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena tied the series at two games apiece. It was the result, obviously, that Thibault dreaded and Miller absolutely needed.
And with one coach's chagrin and another's relief, it created the perfect scenario for the WNBA-a winner-take-all game as the continuation, and finalization, of a matchup intriguing on so many levels.
"I wanted to win it in four," Elena Delle Donne of the Mystics said. "But I think it's great for the league. It's great for fans. It's great to get more people excited about our game. So for that, I'm grateful. I think this has been quite the series, and people better be tuning in because this is some great basketball and some really good teams. From that sense, it's great for this league."
Sure, Thibault would have loved to grab the championship trophy at center court Tuesday in the arena where his WNBA career began as Sun coach back in 2003, and that would have been both bizarre and fitting enough to be recognized as one of the great stories of any season in WNBA history.
Instead, he left having to prepare for another game. When you're this deep into a series, when the teams have seen just about everything the opponent has to offer, are there really any remaining tweaks to be made? Are there any alterations of the game plan that will actually make a difference in advance of season's final two hours of basketball?
"I mean, I'm not going home and putting my feet up on the coffee table," Miller said. "I can tell you that. The coaching staff will watch hours and hours of film before we (travel on Wednesday). So there's still a lot of coaching and trying to show your players that.
"But, ultimately, when the ball tips up on Thursday, it's going to be who stays true to themselves, who imposes their will on their style and their system, and who plays with more energy. But it is exhausting. You know, I can't wait to have a few days off."
That is coming. Rest is ahead for everyone. And what's at stake Thursday is slipping into the offseason depression of "almost" versus skipping into the offseason euphoria of "finally."
Thibault and the Sun share some of same end-of-season nightmares.
He was the team's coach for a trip to the Finals against Seattle in 2004, when a Nykesha Sales shot that would have won the series at the buzzer hit the side of the backboard. The next year, the Sun were incomplete for a Finals loss to Sacramento, with point guard Lindsay Whalen injured.
Thibault was fired after the 2012 season, his 10th with the Sun, and went on to be become the WNBA's leader in career victories. Now 69 years old and 17 seasons in, he's still chasing that first championship.
So are the Sun, also 17 years in. They found a terrific coach in Miller, who in his fourth season has taken a rather nondescript roster of players and turned it into a unified force. All five starters scored between 14-18 points Tuesday as the Sun jumped to an 18-point lead, allowed a 16-1 Mystics run to start the third quarter, and then prevailed in the final possessions of a fourth-quarter tug-o-war.
The Sun stared that late deficit, and elimination, in the eye and didn't blink. They made 23 of 26 free throws and Shekinna Stricklen's late 3-pointer, followed by a missed 3 by Washington's Aerial Powers in the closing seconds, helped push this series back to D.C.
It is good for the sport.
"When you sit there with your coach's hat on, there are times where this series is maddening that you can't get stops," Miller said. "But from a fan perspective, from a league perspective, the amount of shots in pressure situations, with how hard everybody is playing, has got to be amazing TV, and good for our league. Both teams in the fourth quarter were making big shots. We would make a three, they'd answer. Ultimately, we made a few more plays down the stretch."
Thibault's return trip to the Finals last season, his first with the Mystics, was marred by a Delle Donne knee injury and his team was swept by Seattle. This year, the Mystics won Game 1 and Delle Donne missed most of a Game 2 loss with what was later diagnosed as a herniated disc.
Delle Donne returned, stiff but making a difference, for a Game 3 victory at Mohegan Sunday and there she was again Tuesday-a mask protecting a broken nose, a brace on that knee, the back issue.
That situation has been fascinating. So has the basketball chess match playing out between Thibault and Miller, each making adjustments that have led to wild swings in momentum and produced a dead heat through four games.
It is easy to appreciate the journeys of each coach and each team, perhaps natural to have a they-deserve-it feel for a particular side.
You know who deserves it?
Whoever does their job better, whichever team plays better, on Thursday. Whoever earns it. Whoever wins, that's who deserves it.
This has been a wonderful series, and it is time to end it and hand someone a trophy. Game 5 will be the 11th winner-take-all-game in the WNBA's 23-year history.
"You dream as a little kid being in a deciding final game, a Game 7, a Game 5 of a series to win a world championship," Miller said. "If you grew up a basketball fan, these are the moments that you dreamed of."
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