May 21, 2021
West Coast road trip will be Sun’s first true test of the season
Connecticut will play four games in seven days, including three on the West Coast
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A little more than eight hours after the Sun’s dominant 88-67 win against the Indiana Fever at home on Wednesday night, the team climbed on the bus at 5:15 a.m. to embark on what promises to be a grueling three-game West Coast road trip.
The game against the Fever was the first of four the Sun will play in a seven-day span. The team flew to Phoenix on Thursday before their Friday night rematch, then will head to Las Vegas and Seattle. What Curt Miller called a “Murderers Row” will be a major test for a Sun team that has cruised to a 3-0 start.
“May basketball is not always pretty in the WNBA, while you’re trying to build chemistry and cohesive play, but we’ll find out a lot about ourselves and that’s great,” Miller said. “This road trip’s really going to help us be able to focus on what we’re doing well and what we need to improve.”
There were question marks heading into the season opener, but Jonquel Jones has quickly returned to being the superstar fans saw in 2019, DeWanna Bonner is averaging 20.3 points a game and third-year guard Natisha Hiedeman has managed to put up career numbers in each of the first three games.
Not everything has gone right for Connecticut, though. Briann January injured her left ankle after landing awkwardly on a 3-point attempt minutes into the third quarter of Wednesday’s blowout.
Curt Miller said on Thursday that January suffered a “traditional ankle sprain.” There’s no timetable on her return. It hurts to lose another starter, especially in the first game where all the team’s starters were finally playing together.
Miller said everybody is ready to step up with January out, and the bench should benefit from the valuable playing time they got over the first three games of the season — including the entire fourth quarter of the Fever game.
“Something that we all think about is just be ready when your number’s called. And with (Natisha) today, she came out off the bench on fire with a lot of energy,” Stephanie Jones said after Wednesday’s game. “It doesn’t really matter how much time you play, it’s just like taking advantage of it and playing as hard as you can.”
Hiedeman in particular has been stellar on both ends of the court and already has started twice — against Atlanta and Phoenix — in place of late-arriving Jasmine Thomas. Hiedeman will most likely get the call to start again, and will look to continue building on her impressive start.
Defense is the “calling card”
The Sun’s offense has been good on paper — averaging 84.0 points per game on 47.4% shooting from the floor and 45.9% from deep, and bolstered by the highest offensive rebound rate in the league.
Spacing has been improved with Jonquel Jones back in the lineup, and one-third of the Sun’s offensive production so far has come from three-point shooting. They are moving the ball well, assisting on nearly 70% of their field goals.
Still, Miller has been frustrated with the execution. Even against the Fever, where the Sun quickly recovered from an early deficit and had all but won the game by halftime, Miller said he was on edge all game.
“We needed to move into actions more fluidly so sometimes, you know, you’re never as good as you think you are, you’re never as bad as you think you are, so we can be better offensively,” Miller said.
But the team knows that defense is what they’ll hang their hat on all season. The Sun held both the Dream and the Fever to shooting below 37% from the floor and has won the rebounding battle every game.
Phoenix was more competitive. The Mercury shot 43.9% and had the game tied with two and a half minutes left, before a Hiedeman steal led to a Bonner three that put the Sun up for good.
Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith hit big shots throughout the second half to scare the Sun, but Hiedeman and January hounded the guards all night, and the Mercury only made 8-of-25 from three. On the boards, Jonquel and Bri Jones dominated Brittney Griner and Brianna Turner, who combined for only 12 rebounds.
Miller credited his defensive-minded veterans for the early success. He said he thinks his team can be “special” on defense, which is even more impressive considering they are missing Alyssa Thomas, who Miller said he considers the best defender in the world.
Even beyond the veteran core, players like Hiedeman and rookie DiJonai Carrington are making an impact on defense.
Hiedeman has been the team’s craftiest pickpocket, and she’s currently second in the league with eight steals — one behind Indiana’s Danielle Robinson. The third-year guard has also done a good job turning those steals into points. In the third quarter of the Indiana game, she reached out to snag an inbound pass intended for Robinson, fell to the floor with the ball and still managed to push it up to Bonner, who cashed in with a floater in transition.
Carrington has only played 26 minutes so far this season, so her impact isn’t as obvious in the box score. But the energetic wing has made an impact in her sparse minutes by locking down on defense and diving after loose balls.
She drew a charge in the fourth quarter of the Fever game, and then a minute later, she ripped the ball out of 6’10 Bernadett Hatar’s hands and flicked it over to Beatrice Mompremier for an easy layup.
Even without January, the combination of Hiedeman and Jasmine Thomas is shaping up to be a real challenge for opposing guards. They’ll have to be on top of their games for the upcoming road trip, during which they’ll face six All-Star guards, beginning with the rematch against Taurasi, Diggins-Smith and Kia Nurse tonight. Bonner knows the team will have to step up even more on defense to take another game from the Mercury — especially considering it will be Phoenix’s home opener.
“They got back into the [first] game,” Bonner said. “They have great players, great shooters, one of the best players in the WNBA in Diana. So we’ve got to clean some things up for this next game. They’re going to be on fire at home.”
How does the Big Three match up against other stars?
The Sun’s “Big Three” of Bonner, Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones, are making a quick impact for the team. Jones and Bonner are shooting 60% from deep, and Bri Jones is taking advantage of the open looks she’s getting in the paint as opposing teams chase her running mates out to the perimeter.
Just like she was last season, Bri Jones has been a monster on the offensive boards, and seems to be settling into her role playing alongside Jonquel Jones. Bri Jones shot 8-for-12 and scored a season-high 16 points in just 25 minutes on Wednesday, after shooting a combined 7-of-21 over the first two games.
“Playing off of (Jonquel) more and reading what she’s gonna do was better for me this game than it was the first game, and I’m getting used to playing with her again,” Bri Jones said after the Fever game. “As we continue, it’s just going to get better and it’s going to be harder for other teams to guard.”
The frontcourt has already had its work cut out for them in the first few games, going up against Griner and Turner of Phoenix, and then Teaira McCowan, Jessica Breland, and Hatar, who the 6’3 Bri Jones matched up with for a good chunk of time on Wednesday. They’ll see Griner and Turner again before they go up to Las Vegas to challenge reigning MVP A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage, and then to Seattle to face Breanna Stewart.
If the Sun can continue their impressive 3-point shooting and continue to build on their inside-out offense, it could give them an edge against the Aces. The Aces won’t make it easy, though. They gave Seattle its only loss and held the normally sure-shooting Storm to just 28% from the field.
The Aces averaged 19.2 free throw attempts throughout their five-game semifinal series against the Sun last year, so Connecticut is familiar with the damage the Aces can do from the stripe. The Sun are averaging 20.3 personal fouls a game. It’s not the worst in the league, but could be costly against an Aces team that not only draws the most fouls in the league, but also commits the fewest.
The Sun have also struggled with turnovers. Miller chalks that up to a lack of practice together, and said he hopes it will improve over time. But it could be a major problem if the Sun can’t figure it out before they face the Storm, who were able to fuel a comeback after a 19-point halftime deficit against Minnesota yesterday with 26 points off 17 turnovers, including 12 steals.
“We will be a work in progress, obviously in May, and you’ve just got to play through some of those things. In terms of the fouls, we are going to be aggressive, we want to be disruptive. We’ve got to be smart and keep our total low, but again, I love the potential of this team defensively,” Miller said. “This team is really X’s and O’s smart, work with a staff that is crazy scout-heavy, I just think we have a chance to really become a good defensive team before it’s all said and done.”