Sun will learn something from this loss in game with a playoff feel

Mohegan — It has been a feel-good summer around the Connecticut Sun, the franchise finally snapping its five-year playoff doughnut with all these young, promising players. A slow buzz about them is returning among the region’s sports fans, who are beginning to remember how much fun this used to be.

This, however, is not coach Curt Miller’s first rodeo. He knows. Anybody who understands sports knows. It’s like something Yogi never said but probably should have: Until you do it, you haven’t done it.

The Sun’s 18-9 record before tipping it off with New York at Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday night belied the players’ relative youth. Sure, there are some veterans here. But most of them have never done any more than a cameo in the playoffs, if they ever got there at all. This is a concern. Because the playoffs are different.

It wasn’t the playoffs Friday night. But we’re heading there. Quickly. And Miller hasn’t been so sure how his team will react to big games, increased intensity and the general idea that 100-point games just don’t happen when the shadows lengthen. Know why? The other team might actually pay attention to the scouting report.

Miller after his team’s 82-70 loss:

“That game is so good for us, I can’t begin to tell you how good that game is going to be for us in the long run,” he said. “That game took on a playoff feel and the physicality that we knew was going to be in this game, the intensity of every possession, simulated as best we could a playoff game. For our young team to understand the grind of what the playoffs are going to be and not the 96 and 100 point games you sometimes get in the regular season is going to go a long, long way for us.”

New York is a different kind of cat in the WNBA. It’s a sports-ism that teams assume the personality of their head coach. The Liberty have done so with Bill Laimbeer, who plays the villain better than Olivier played King Lear. He did so with the Pistons as a player against the Celtics, the coach of the old Detroit Shock against the Sun and now with the Liberty.

The basic formula: Bemoan every call. Look like you’ve been bitten by a forest animal with every love tap; meanwhile make sure the rest of the game is measured by first downs. The Liberty are big and strong and play that way. They have an Olympian in Tina Charles and lead the WNBA in field goal percentage defense. There were 45 fouls called in this game.

And maybe — just maybe  — if the Sun get a playoff home game, the opponent will be the Fighting Laimbeers. Exciting? Sure. Daunting? You bet. And based on Friday, the Sun have some learning to do.

“They were tougher and played with better tempo,” Miller said. “A great learning lesson for us, I think. … (New York is) absolutely different than any other team. We so much needed this, I can’t explain it. You want to know how they’re going to handle adversity in a big game. We stuck together. We gradually made adjustments on the floor that I thought were positive. But we couldn’t find any offensive rhythm to spark us.”

Much of the reason: foul trouble to center Jonquel Jones, who watched the Liberty run body after body at her. It’s not easy for Jones, despite her success this season. She is a second-year player who does not yet get the star treatment from the officials. Tough spot. The Sun can't afford her to sit on the bench. But the longer she plays, the more susceptible she is to nickel/dimers young players are whistled for.

“They always put you in a position to foul around the basket,” Miller said of New York.

So now Sunday, Diana Taurasi and the Mercury make their return trip to Neon Uncasville, following their one-point loss here last week. This isn’t going to get easier. But then, why should it? The playoffs are coming. Do the Sun have the guts to compete? We’ll see.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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