September 26, 2023
Did the Connecticut Sun improve on their Game 1 deficiencies?
Mixed signs in Game 2 as the Liberty tie the series
BROOKLYN — On the heels of a 78-63 win in Game 1, the Connecticut Sun weren’t content to rest on their established level of performance. Immediately following the game, DeWanna Bonner repeatedly pointed out areas “we gotta clean up”, and ahead of Game 2, Sun head coach Stephanie White had her focus squarely on a pair of indicators that would determine whether the Sun could return home in this best-of-five series in a commanding position.
“I think we still need to be a little bit more disruptive,” White said pregame. “Defensively, we had some really good moments where we forced them out of rhythm offensively, forced them to catch the ball way beyond the three-point line, disrupted their timing a little bit more and then we had moments where we just got fortunate that he missed shots.
“The next thing is to box out,” White continued. “I mean, they still had double-digit offensive rebounds. They’re a great offensive rebounding team. But we have to, every possession, be committed to making contact on the box out and there were still too many times where we just turned to go get the ball and they just came flying in behind us.”
So how did the Sun do by their own standard in Game 2’s 84-77 loss? Let’s take a look.
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Clean up offensive boards
Well, Jonquel Jones on very first possession gathered a Courtney Vandersloot miss and scored it for the first bucket of the game. Stefanie Dolson did the same on a missed Marine Johannes three attempt to open the second quarter. But overall, the Sun actually improved on that performance in Game 2 by halftime — after allowing 12 offensive rebounds in Game 1, they cut that to four in the first half of Game 2.
Even on rare occasions the Liberty grabbed an offensive rebound, the Sun often mitigated the damage. Jones collected one late in the third quarter, only to have her shot blocked by Thomas, four inches shorter. On this front, the Sun clearly improved.
Still, White expressed some dissatisfaction with the overall performance.
“We didn’t give up a lot of offensive rebounds,” White said postgame. “But we did have some timely ones and that’s the thing I mean, you know, Stewie is just so good and JJ and keeping the ball alive. You know, they will shoot it and be there to tip it before you even like got off the ground. So, you know, for us it’s not necessarily the amount, it’s the timely ones too.”
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Other concerns, though, quickly manifested themselves. An open three from Sabrina Ionescu, though she missed. Jones getting position down low on DeWanna Bonner, taking advantage of the 72-pound listed weight difference.
But after taking an early 14-7 lead, the Liberty stagnated, the Sun countering with a 21-4 run. The Liberty missed eight of their first nine attempts from three, many of them rushed. And the Sun, just as they did throughout Game 1, made New York work so hard for their looks at the rim that New York, uncharacteristically, missed many of them. After scoring 40 and 52 points in the paint against Washington, they tallied just 22 in Game 1, but nearly matched that in the first half of Game 2 with 20.
Once again, Thomas did an exceptional job slowing down Breanna Stewart. The 2023 WNBA MVP shot 7-for-25 in Game 1. In the first half of Game 2? Just 0-for-5.
But there were other areas of growth for the Sun on Tuesday night. Plagued by foul trouble in Game 1, Tiffany Hayes was limited to just 12 points. She scored 12 well before the first quarter ended on Tuesday, and 17 by halftime, finishing with 30. Expecting another perfect game from Rebecca Allen was not reasonable, and it was Allen, instead, with three fouls before the first half was over, and her fourth less than two minutes into the third quarter.
“Tiff was awesome,” White said postgame. “That’s what we needed from her. She gets downhill, she gets to the free throw line… she is the only one we have who can really get downhill at will… she’s just a pro.”
Hayes herself demurred when asked whether she took it upon herself to carry the load the way she had so often during her time in Atlanta with the Dream.
“I mean, I just come out every night and do all that I can for my team as well,” Hayes said following the game of her offensive performance. “It was the same tonight.”
But Thomas had a simple explanation for how Hayes scored 30: “Yeah, they can’t guard her. They can’t guard her, whether they they tried to trap her, whether they tried to guard her one-on-one — hence why they went to a zone. They have no answer for her.”
Alyssa Thomas was scoreless well into the second quarter, but that isn’t necessarily a problem for the Sun. White spoke about the need for Thomas to be efficient in her possessions, whether scoring or distributing, and her five assists in the first half, before her single turnover ahead of the break, certainly qualified. The 2-for-13 from the field, not as much.
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Things began to turn in the third quarter, though. Stewart, angry about a no-call on what she thought was a hand to the face from Thomas, sprinted the length of the court and blocked Thomas twice on the other end. A possession later, on a step-through, she finally saw the ball go through the hoop on a field goal attempt. A Connecticut timeout didn’t slow them down, either, with Betnijah Laney, missing offensively for most of the first six quarters of the series, hitting a pair of third-quarter threes, before Ionescu found Stewart under the basket to increase New York’s lead to 57-47. It was the easiest basket Connecticut had allowed all series.
And the Liberty’s rhythm, instead, seemed to disrupt the Sun, who turned it over four times within the first six minutes of the third quarter after giving it up just three times in the entire first half.
The Sun recovered their equilibrium, though, managed to clog passing lanes over the remainder of the third quarter and finish the quarter on a 10-2 run. But ultimately, the Liberty’s offense, which was so potent in the regular season matchups — 112.4 offensive rating in four wins over the Sun — reasserted itself down the stretch when New York simply couldn’t afford a further drought.
And in the final minute, Courtney Vandersloot went to the basket uncontested for a dagger layup. New York had 32 points in the paint. Not as many as in either Washington game. But enough.
“We knew Sloot was going to be more aggressive,” Thomas said. “That’s on us. There were possessions we could have played a little bit better defense.”
But Thomas said the locker room wasn’t downcast, though there was an opportunity missed to go up 2-0. The Sun came to town needing a split to clinch this series at home, and got it.
Bonner credited the New York crowd for being the loudest she’d experienced, louder even than Target Center in Game 3 against the Minnesota Lynx. But then she addressed a follow-up to her own fans, with Game 3 coming Friday night at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“But we’re coming home,” Bonner said. “Be ready.”