Although both New York Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowski and coach Anne Donovan expected a better year from Leilani Mitchell -- who ended up being 2010 Most Improved Player -- they were even more excited about center Kia Vaughn.
NY Liberty Off-Season Breakdown: "Who Can't Get Excited About a Second Year for Vaughn?" - Swish Appeal
As much as Donovan plans to work with her on her skills, they are also focused on the intangibles - both thinking the game through film work and building confidence in her ability.
"The most specific I would say is just coming back confident," said Donovan on specific things she wants to work on with Vaughn. "There were times last year that she was the most confident player in our post rotation. And then there were times when she miss her first two shots and you could just see her confidence just go down. But I think one it's just the experience of being in the league, of having a tremendous off-season - she's playing extremely well in Israel - will give her that boost of confidence she needs.
"Now remember, she struggled somewhat at Rutgers throughout her career, she had some ups and downs. So it was only natural for her confidence to struggle her rookie year and I just think that she's setting herself up to come back her second year and make her strides."
After stepping up admirably in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to eliminate the Indiana Fever on Wednesday, it was confidence that seemed to remain the key in the eyes of Donovan.
WNBA.com: 2010 Playoffs: New York Liberty
Head coach Anne Donovan shared the same sentiment.
"There is nobody that has worked harder this year and not really seen the results. Last game, I thought she had good minutes at Indiana which fortunately gave her confidence coming into the game tonight and with Janel out, we had to have her in the rotation. I think she surprised herself with how well she played and I know she surprised Indiana."
Of course, it's not exactly rare for role players to step up in playoff basketball. New York Knicks fans might remember Indiana Pacers forward Austin Croshere who had an outstanding playoff run on the way to the 2000 NBA Finals...and might also remember Jerome James, whom they signed to a 5 year, $30 million deal after he had playoff success in 2005.
However, these players are considered examples of the "contract year phenomenon" -- players that step up big before becoming free agents -- which Vaughn obviously isn't. So the question for the Liberty is can Vaughn continue playing well against the Atlanta Dream?
With center Janel McCarville still considered day-to-day according to Liberty public relations as of today, Vaughn could end up being a key player against the Dream.
What the Dream have to do to win:
Someone recently compared the Atlanta Dream fastbreak to a "caveman coming at you with a club" -- it's nothing flashy, nothing complex, just a single-minded focus on getting to the basket with athletes like Angel McCoughtry who can do so with some effectiveness. In their halfcourt, the Dream are a similar team -- it's about their frontcourt combination of Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle as well as McCoughtry and the athletic Armintie Price hitting the boards hard to get them second chance scoring opportunities.
So the bottom line is that the Dream can thrive in a situation where the game is reduced to a sloppy, ugly, grudge match. But there was another equally important factor to the Dream's first round win: they found their touch from the three point line. During the regular season, the Dream shot 28.9% from downtown. Against Washington in the first round, they shot 45.5%. The importance of their three point shooting is quite simple: when the Dream can spread the floor like that, the defense can't pack it in to guard de Souza and Lyttle inside, which makes it much harder to contend with them on the boards.
And if perimeter shooting is the key, it's hard not to hone in on Coco Miller as the x-factor against Washington -- Miller was only shot about 19.2% from the three point line during the season, but went 2-5 against the Mystics and picked up her free throw rate and overall field goal percentage as well. Aside from the obvious of trying to figure out how to stop Cappie Pondexter -- and if All WNBA Defensive first team honoree McCoughtry is the one guarding her, it could be an interesting one-on-one battle -- the combination of continued success from beyond the arc and their standard play on the boards could catapult the Dream to the Finals.
What the Liberty have to do to win
Aside from hoping that Cappie Pondexter's array of shots (that would normally be considered ill-advised) go down, the Liberty are going to have to rebound on both ends of the court both to stop the Dream's fast break and limit their second-chance scoring opportunities. That would be why Vaughn figures so prominently, especially if McCarville is out. She is a physical specimen that definitely has the physical tools to stay with anyone on the league on the boards, but as Donovan seems to acknowledge, her performance seems to depend heavily on the mental side of the game.
In addition, the Fever successfully limited Mitchell by playing, um, "hard-nosed" defense on her and it's somewhat unlikely that she'll experience the same type of aggressive defense against Shalee Lehning and Coco Miller. If she can get back to shooting near 50% from the three point line as she did for most of the season, the Liberty become a much tougher team to defend. For whatever reason, Nicole Powell has been somewhat inconsistent throughout the season, but if she starts hitting it would make a huge difference.
But speaking of Powell, while everyone has focused on her shooting, it was her turnover percentage in the second half of the season that was more significant to her improved production. That improved turnover differential as well as increased scoring efficiency from Mitchell and Pondexter is what most helped the Liberty during their winning streak and those turnovers will be especially significant against the Dream.
The Dream led the league in points off turnovers this season and were second in fast break points behind the Mercury. Considering that the Dream were a team that struggled all season shooting from the three point line, limiting turnovers and keeping them off the boards to cut off their transition game might end up being as significant as stopping their perimeter shooting. Then again, in a three game series, it's much easier to get hot and live by the three so closing out on open shooters will be essential for the Liberty.
Prediction: Liberty in three
The Liberty hit lulls where they fall in love with their jump shooting ability although the jump shots aren't necessarily a bad proposition if Pondexter is the one shooting them. The series will quite likely come down to a matter of rebounding and while that definitely seems to favor the Dream who have been the better rebounding team all season, the Liberty showed that they can beat a physical Fever team in the first round. Being without McCarville will certainly hurt the Liberty in a three game series against an aggressive rebounding team like the Dream, but it's not a given that Mitchell will have another bad series and -- let's be honest -- Pondexter is the type of player who is so difficult to stop that she can carry a team to victory with big games. If it comes down to a close game, having a player like Pondexter to take that last shot is a huge asset.
The Dream are playing well but if their three point shooting falls back to the regular season norm, they'll have a difficult time keeping up with Cappie Pondexter and the Liberty.