UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Lindsay Whalen took jump shot after jump shot Tuesday testing her injured left knee while her Connecticut teammates ran drills at the other end of the court, preparing, if necessary, to move on without her.
She helped the Sun to the best record in the WNBA and home-court advantage throughout the postseason. But now a small fracture in the heavily braced knee may keep the gritty guard from the WNBA finals, which begin tonight against Sacramento.
"This is an opportunity for everybody to step up," Sun forward Nykesha Sales said. "Lindsay's a big part of our team but we have some other players who are going to have to come in and fill some pretty big shoes."
Whalen, who averaged 16.5 points and 36 minutes through the first two rounds, was injured in a collision with Indiana guard Tully Bevilaqua late in the first half of Saturday's Eastern Conference final. She's has been receiving treatment 12 hours a day and the location of the fracture is away from the area that receives the most of the stress when running. That's given Whalen and the team some hope that she'll be on the floor at some point in the Sun's second straight attempt at the title.
"It could be worse," Whalen said. "I'm already kind of running around and jumping. They kind of said to me 'just see how you feel.' "
All season, the second-year guard has aggressively attacked defenses and created opportunities for her teammates. She scored a playoff-high 27 points against Detroit in the first round, getting to the free throw line 17 times and making 15.
"Lindsay is unique in that she's a star in creating," Sacramento coach john Whisenant said. "She'll create something out of nothing, either for herself or her teammates. She's the Steve Nash of the WNBA."
Jen Derevjanik, a second-year player out of George Mason, would likely start in Whalen's place. A speedy and defensive-minded player, Derevjanik has averaged only 6.5 minutes in the postseason and has yet to score in the playoffs.
"I've been thinking that whoever I give the ball to, I know they're going to do something good with it, so it really doesn't matter," Derevjanik said. "I've just got to get it to the open person, run the offense, play good defense and that's really what I'm hoping to do for us to win the championship."
Connecticut won both games in the regular season against Sacramento, a team similar in many ways. They swept their opponents in the first two rounds of the playoffs and have veteran leadership with the Monarch's Yolanda Griffith and Connecticut's Taj McWilliams-Franklin.
They play unselfish and are among the top defensive teams in the league. Griffith has averaged a team-high 16 points and 6.8 rebounds in the playoffs and McWilliams-Franklin has averaged 17.3 points and 6.5 boards.
Sacramento point guard Ticha Penicheiro, the league's career assist leader, said the Monarchs have been relentless in their focus to reach the finals.
"From the beginning we were the only people in the world to believe we could be here right now," Penicheiro said. "I think we're hungrier. You get tired of losing and falling short every season. Everybody bought into the coach's philosophy of playing defense and sharing the ball."
Penicheiro is returning from an ankle sprain that kept her out of the Western Conference finals against Houston. The Monarchs swept the series as backup guard Kara Lawson made sure Sacramento didn't miss a beat. She had 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in the 74-65 clinching victory, and more importantly gave Penicheiro time to heal.
"I'll be able to go," Penicheiro said. "This is the WNBA finals. You suck it up and you rest after."
The Monarchs have the WNBA coach of the year in Whisenant and the league's most improved player in Nicole Powell. The team's offseason trade with Charlotte for Powell, the former Stanford star, has given it an outside offensive threat.
The Monarchs had no 3-pointers from their win position last season. Powell changed all that and finished the regular season with a league-leading 66 3-pointers. She's made 7-of-17 from behind the arc in the postseason. With Powell and Lawson on the floor, opposing defenses are stretched to cover the long-range threat.
"You didn't know how the trade was going to work out. She's given them a dimension they've never had," Sun coach Mike Thibault said of Powell.
Thibault said he's been encouraged by the progress Whalen has made since her injury four days ago, but doesn't expect to overhaul his game plan if she doesn't play.
"There are not a lot of secrets. We don't have time to make big adjustments. There's no reason to," Thibault said. "Both teams got here because they were playing well the way they were. Now you just go out and play the game."