August 24, 2022 

How the Connecticut Sun can save their season

The Sun were able to run away with the first win by playing their game forcing turnovers and dominating the paint and sharing the ball on offense

From a 25-point win to a 10-point loss, the Sun faces elimination earlier than expected and on the road.

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After the Connecticut Sun split a two-game home stand at home — winning in dominating fashion in Game One, then seeing the roles flopper completely in a lopsided Game Two loss — they have one more chance to keep their championship dream alive on the road against the Dallas Wings — who will likely see the return of their All-Star guard and franchise cornerstone Arike Ogunbowale after missing most of August.

The Sun were able to run away with the first win by playing their game — forcing turnovers, dominating the paint and sharing the ball on offense.

A surprise shakeup to the Wings’ lineup in the second game took Teaira McCowan out of the starting lineup to avoid a tough matchup against Jonquel Jones. Dallas won decisively by beating the Sun at their own game–creating possessions with turnovers and offensive boards.

Now Connecticut will need to find a counter for Wings head coach Vickie Johnson‘s chess moves and find their way back to their roots if the Sun want to meet the Chicago Sky in the semifinals.

What went well for the Sun in Game 1?

Leading up to their first postseason game, energy, intensity and effort were described as part of the key to winning. Being locked in and playing playoff basketball and that’s what ultimately led to a dominant first win for the Sun, who flustered and frustrated their opponents throughout the game. 

The Sun were locked in on both sides of the ball from the opening tip. Jonquel Jones went to work immediately, finishing the first half with 15 points, five rebounds and a block as the Sun took a 47-37 lead against the Wings. And the Sun’s long frontcourt did their job to contain McCowan, who only scored seven points on four shot attempts in the first half. By the end of the game, she had only taken one more attempt. 

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“It was real obvious from the tip JJ was really involved and engaged – Playing hard and playing with a bunch of energy and fast twitch in short areas. For Teaira to play nearly 30 minutes and only get six shots is a credit to JJ, and Breezy, but everybody contributes with dominant low post players. You have to have good ball pressure; you have to try and disrupt them So the timing, those passes are off target, off timing, and maybe its harder to get catches.”

The Sun’s pressure forced Dallas to abandon their game plan and they stopped moving the ball, assisting and getting the ball to McCowan low in the post. Dallas jumped out to a quick run to pull within six points at the start of the third quarter, but the Sun countered with a 13-0 run that put the game out of the Wing’s reach.

“We just wanted to come out with the same intensity we started the game with,” Jones said. “Third quarters in the regular season for us have been kind of hairy where we didn’t come out as strong as we have wanted to, so we wanted to make sure we put emphasis on that and we brought that playoff intensity.”

The Sun were disruptive on defense. They knew the Wings were going to play through McCowan and they focused on keeping Dallas from passing the ball in to their star center. Alyssa Thomas and DiJonai Carrington read the Wings perfectly and were able to pick off passes and run to separate from Dallas. DeWanna Bonner’s length challenged Allisha Gray and Odyssey Sims was glued to Marina Mabrey.

Together, the Sun held that trio of McCowan, Gray and Mabrey to 35 points — especially holding McCowan to six shots and Mabrey to just 11 points and no free throw attempts.

Dallas head coach Vickie Johnson said sloppy passing hurt the Wings, but she also said the Wings couldn’t match the Sun’s energy — especially early on.

“We didn’t throw the first punch,” Johnson said.

What went wrong for the Sun in Game 2?

Johnson’s message clearly got across to the Wings, who dominated the Sun in the first half of Game 2 on Sunday. Her decision to sub out McCowan — whose entrance into the starting lineup in July brought on Dallas’s late-season surge — for Isabelle Harrison in the starting lineup led to a complete reversal from Game 1. Miller said that all of the stats that mattered for each team had flipped.

Johnson said after the game that she had decided to alter the rotation in practice the day prior with McCowan’s agreement.

“Teaira and I had a great conversation. She approved it because I wanted to make sure she was okay with it … and she just rocked with it,” Johnson said. “Her leadership was huge in that decision making and she came through for us. It was great for us.”

The Wings were the team sharing the ball, turning turnovers into offense and stealing second-chance points with a dominant offensive rebounding performance from McCowan, who found a better matchup going against Brionna Jones. McCowan proved to be one of the few players who could match Bri Jones’ strength and she was able to use her size advantage to pull down boards and snag entry passes over Jones.

Sun Game 1Wings Game 1Sun Game 2Wings Game 2
Offensive Rebounds881013
Second Chance Points1271123
Points off Turnovers20141320
Fastbreak points162410
3 pointers5/14 (36%)5/20 (25%)4/14 (29%)11/26 (42%)
Points in the paint54384240

Dallas played like a team whose season was on the line and had the intensity to match. 

“As soon as we lost, we came in with a different focus and we were able to carry it through,” Johnson said after clinching the franchise’s first playoff win since moving to Dallas (and the first since 2009 as the Detroit Shock).

The Sun didn’t lock in on defense and the Wings got hot early, jumping out to a 7-0 start. The Sun missed their first six shots, some of which were open looks — or at least looks they were capable of making. Jonquel Jones wasn’t able to take advantage of the size mismatch with Harrison and when McCowan subbed in at the same time as Brionna Jones, the Sun’s long afternoon really began.

Jonquel Jones said it was the Sun’s defense that was their downfall. She said the Sun’s defense has been their catalyst all season, but it felt like they couldn’t string together multiple stops in a row on Sunday. Jones said the Sun’s offense still operated well, but they missed open shots and couldn’t keep up with their lapses on defense.

“It’s tough when you put yourself in a hole in the first quarter. We got to be better coming out from the jump. We know what we can do. We had some open shots and we missed them. But the fight that we had at the end of the game, we need to bring that coming out of those situations,” Bri Jones said. “If somebody throws a punch, we got to throw one right back. We’re built for it and we’re ready to go down there and take care of business.”

What needs to happen in Game 3?

Game 2 flipped on a lineup adjustment and Miller needs to be ready for another game of adjustments with Arike Ogunbowale listed as probable after missing most of August with an abdominal injury. Dallas has been rolling without their franchise player and it’s not clear what role Ogunbowale will play or how much — but just the threat of an aggressive scorer will have to change how the Sun approach this game. 

While the Sun will need to adapt to what Dallas throws at them, they’ll also need to get back to what they do best — playing disruptive defense, attacking the paint and rebounding the ball.

“They were just crashing (the boards) really hard. They got us into rotations to that second level essentially. And once they started rotating they had guards that weren’t necessarily matched up to the person on the boards and getting in the paint and getting rebounds,” Jonquel Jones said of Sunday’s loss. “McCowan is so big to move that you got to do your work early, and once you get to that position, the most you can do is just try and tip it out. Just got to be a little more proactive in doing our work early and understanding that you might not necessarily be boxing out the person that you’re guarding, but you got to put a body on somebody.”

The Sun need to get Jonquel Jones the ball early and often, especially if McCowan starts on the bench. Harrison’s quickness helps the Wings cover Jones away from the basket, but Jones can use her size and touch near the rim to make Harrison work. If the Sun can get Jonquel Jones into a rhythm before McCowan enters the game, they’ll have an easier time controlling the pace on offense and playing to force turnovers on defense.

The Sun’s game plan always goes through the frontcourt, but they still find the most success when they can find balance throughout their lineup. In game 2, starting guards Natisha Hiedeman and Courtney Williams combined for just five points (all Williams) on 2 of 12 shooting and just 1 of 7 from three. Miller defended his guards, saying Williams missed shots she would typically make and Hiedeman is one of the best shooters in the league, who will step up and make shots in Game 3.

“It’s no secret our guards through the years have heard the whispers that our guard efficiency has caused some playoff series losses,” Miller said on Sunday. “I’ll defend our guards all the time, but they hear those whispers. They’re going to step up to the plate and we’ll give it our best shot.”

For the Joneses, who both led the Sun with 20 points each in their loss, a do-or-die game in the first round of the playoffs isn’t a means for panicking. 

“We’re so hungry we’re ready to go. We know we didn’t play our best basketball tonight and we know (when) we see them we’re going to be ready and execute all of our plays and finish some easy ones that we missed tonight. We’re going to be on top of our defensive assignments,” Bri Jones said. “We’re going to be more looked in and more ready to take care of business.”

“It’s the playoffs. One moment you’re up and the next minute you’re down, but you have to weather that storm,” Jonquel Jones added. “We know what we’re capable of. We’re not in panic mode at all, but the beauty of winning game one is that we have an opportunity to go in there and close it out.”

Written by Jacqueline LeBlanc

Jacqueline LeBlanc is the Connecticut Sun beat reporter for The Next. Prior to The Next, Jacqueline has written for Her Hoop Stats and Sports Illustrated.

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