September 24, 2020
How A’ja Wilson provides Aces a question Sun can’t answer
On the stellar two-way play of the MVP, a lineup change, and an injury update
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PALMETTO, FL – SEPTEMBER 20: A’ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces handles the ball against the Connecticut Sun. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
A’ja Wilson, statistically, dominated Game 2, with a game-high 29 points on 13-of-19 shooting to go with seven rebounds, three assists and seven blocked shots. And that production came when most needed, too: the 2020 league MVP broke a 75-75 tie with driving layups on back-to-back possessions in the final 70 seconds of Las Vegas’ 83-75 win.
Whether the Sun can slow Wilson down when it matters, and who will be tasked with doing so, remains unsettled heading into Game 3 Thursday night.
After an efficient offensive outing and those two key scores in crunch time, though, Wilson pointed to the team’s effort on the other side of the ball.
“Defense won this game for us,” Wilson told reporters postgame. “When you get stops, and you can string them together, the offense just flows into it. As you saw in Game 1, we were awful on defense, which then made our offense look sloppy…For us, we just knew that we needed to come out and play great defense.”
Connecticut scored just 12 points in the fourth quarter on 6-of-17 shooting, and Sun leading scorer DeWanna Bonner shot 1-for-7 in the final stanza. Bonner finished with six turnovers and shot 10-for-26 from the field while playing all 40 minutes. Wilson blocked Bonner twice in the final five minutes of the game and set a new franchise playoff record with those seven blocks.
“I just knew that I needed to protect the basket for my teammates,” Wilson said postgame of her shot-blocking performance. “They trust the fact that I’m there, and I have to be there at all times. And just keep ‘em clean. I think the biggest thing is just not fouling because it could add up. But at the end of the day, I’ve just gotta make sure that my teammates understand that I am there for them if they get beat, or if anything, in help side. I take a lot of pride in that.”
Sun star forward Alyssa Thomas went down in the first quarter with a shoulder injury and did not return. The question of Thomas’ availability now hangs over the rest of the series. Connecticut released an updated Game 3 injury report on Thursday afternoon listing Thomas a questionable to play, and Wilson told reporters Thursday the Aces are preparing as if Thomas will be in the lineup for Connecticut.
Without Thomas, the Sun were forced to lean on different and unfamiliar combinations. Bonner and Thomas ranked fourth and fifth in minutes per game this season according to WNBA.com. Naturally, any long stretch in a game without Thomas will call for the use of groups that the Sun simply haven’t used together very often. Brionna Jones and Beatrice Mompremier logged 14 minutes together in Game 2 after playing just 15 minutes together in the entire regular season.
Neither player is much of a scoring threat away from the rim, and the Sun would miss Thomas’ playmaking both in transition and in the halfcourt dearly. Unfortunately for Connecticut, Wilson’s shot-blocking total in Game 2 may not prove to be much of an outlier if Thomas is unavailable moving forward.
Connecticut wouldn’t be the same team defensively without Thomas, either. In addition to being their best option on Wilson, the Sun can mix in more coverages with Thomas either jumping out to pressure ball-handlers on the perimeter or covering a bunch of ground around the basket to plug holes and make plays as the last line of defense. Here’s a quick breakdown of Wilson’s shooting in Game 2 by defender:
With Thomas as the primary defender: 0-for-2
Essence Carson: 0-for-0, one drawn shooting foul
Theresa Plaisance: 1-for-1
Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer made a lineup change in Game 2 as Danielle Robinson drew the start at the point over Lindsay Allen, who played just two minutes in the first half as Robinson sat briefly with three fouls. Laimbeer noted postgame that he had been contemplating that specific change prior to the start of the playoffs.
“DRob gave us a really good shot at the start of the game,” he said. “I made a change in the lineup. I contemplated that with three games to go in the regular season because I knew I would shrink my bench in the playoffs. But I didn’t. I stayed with it. We won the last three games. [That’s how] I started Game 1. That’s the way we’re gonna go forward, the way I played tonight.”
Robinson had four assists against zero turnovers in 29 minutes. The veteran point guard made two layups early then missed her next three shots, all in the first quarter. Wilson crashed for the putback on Robinson’s lone shot attempt of the second half. Save for those two minutes for Allen, Laimbeer did indeed shrink the rotation down to eight, primarily leaning on three bench players in Game 2: Jackie Young (21 minutes), Dearica Hamby (26 minutes) and Sugar Rodgers (seven minutes).
Sun starting point guard Jasmine Thomas shot 5-for-8 from the field in 36 minutes in Game 2 after erupting for 31 points in Game 1. Briann January stepped up for Connecticut in Game 2 with 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting after scoring just three points in Game 1, finding success in a similar fashion. January hit three pull-up jump shots in the second quarter, including one 3-pointer. Laimbeer cited the ability of Wilson and Dearica Hamby to switch onto guards and contain them, which forced Connecticut’s guards to work a little harder and the Sun as a whole to take some tougher looks late in the game.
Hamby struck in the final minute with a putback layup to put the Aces up by seven after Wilson’s missed free throw on her second and-one opportunity. Angel McCoughtry ended up tipping the ball to Hamby after Bonner failed to box out. McCoughtry came away with the steal on a pass by Bonner on the prior Sun possession as the Aces led by three. Bonner missed a 3-pointer over a good contest by Wilson after Hamby’s putback, sealing their fate in Game 2.
“[Wilson] kept us in the game all game with her shot-blocking,” Laimbeer said. “Seven blocked shots, a franchise record. That’s pretty solid. Like I said to everybody at the end of the season that listened, her defense this year has been outstanding. If she’s not on one of the All-Defense teams, there’s something wrong. But she made the plays on both ends of the ball. She kept us in the game the whole way then won the game for us down the stretch. That’s what leaders do; that’s what MVPs do…We got one. And she made the plays.”
The series is now tied 1-1 heading into Thursday’s Game 3 with the status of Alyssa Thomas (shoulder) still unknown. Will the Sun have any kind of answer for Wilson’s dominance on both ends if Thomas is unable to suit up? The Aces also got more from Kayla McBride and McCoughtry in Game 2. That duo shot just 3-for-15 in Game 1. Overall, Laimbeer did not seem too worried about the team’s offensive struggles in Game 1.
“I think the first game was just a one out,” he told reporters after Wednesday’s practice. “Who knows what our mojo was, but it taught us a lesson about the playoffs. I thought last game we came very energized, engaged. A little more physical. Challenging shots more, in people’s space…I think that’s what our biggest concern going into Game 2 was: Can we turn that up? And we did.”