June 7, 2021
How the Sun dismantled the Liberty
And what Connecticut will do in Jonquel Jones' absence
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Jonquel Jones wants the league to know that Connecticut’s 85-64 win over the New York Liberty on Saturday night was a statement game. The team’s early success — an 8-2 overall record and a perfect showing at home that has them at the top of the standings — isn’t a fluke.
“We have a chip on our shoulder … I feel like we played extremely great basketball … and to us, it just feels like people just aren’t, you know, taking notice of what we’re doing,” Jones said. “We wanted to go out there and just show the rest of the WNBA that we’re here, and we’re making moves.”
Connecticut held their own in the first half, though, New York threatened to exploit the Sun in transition and through perimeter play. The Liberty outscored the Sun 16-9 at the start of the second quarter and ended up going on a 12-0 run to take a four-point lead with about four minutes remaining in the half before the Sun were able to squeeze in a run of their own that gave them a six-point lead at the half.
The Sun opened the third quarter with a 9-0 run in the first three minutes that stretched their lead to a 15-point advantage that would last until the 5:39 mark when Sabrina Ionescu cashed in on her first three of the game (but wouldn’t make another bucket that night). Overall, Connecticut steamrolled the Liberty in the second half, outscoring them 42-27. New York’s 64 points were their lowest scoring game all season, and only Rebecca Allen off the bench got to double figures in scoring with 14 points.
“I think you saw how hard and personally they were taking some of those individual matchups. While defense is a team scheme, we were really working hard,” head coach Curt Miller said after the game. “We talked about it for a week in between games. We talked about … everybody leave their tank empty. We have some days off, we have a light at the end of the tunnel for some rest, so we really talked about that all night, and you saw how hard we played all the way to the buzzer. The bench, everybody. We played hard the entire game.”
So what worked really well for the Sun during Saturday’s big win?
Defense has been the Sun’s calling card all season, but Miller put an emphasis on slowing down New York’s unique high-tempo, three-point shooting offense — especially in transition.
Miller applauded Jasmine Thomas and DeWanna Bonner’s intensity in locking down Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney. The duo have been able to lead the Liberty back from behind before, but combined for only 13 points.
The Sun started the second half with a 9-0 run, and never let the Liberty back into the game — holding them to 27 points on 33 percent shooting in the half. Laney scored eight points in the first half, but couldn’t get back on the board in the second half, snapping her eight-game 20-point scoring streak.
“We guarded their actions about as well as we could have hoped coming into the night,” Miller said. “And then in the second half, you saw that they didn’t make near the amount of difficult one-on-one plays that they did in the first half. And that’s a credit to our players’ intensity and they just are locked in.”
Brionna Jones found herself in a different situation on defense, playing in coverage against the ball-screening Liberty bigs after a stretch of games where she was tasked with holding down the low post against dominant centers like Liz Cambage, Sylvia Fowles and Britney Griner.
Jones found herself repeatedly pulled out to the perimeter on defense as Kylee Shook set screens for Laney. In one first-quarter possession, Shook set a screen on Bonner for Laney to drive left, but Jones jumped over to close that lane and force Laney back under the screen. As Laney tried to slip between Bonner and Shook, Jones jumped back over the screen and plucked the ball away.
Content to give her matchup some space, Jones seemed to have a hand in every play — filling lanes to stop cuts and drives, before darting back to her assignments to seal off any outlet opportunities. In the third quarter, she and Bonner blocked Laney from driving into the paint long enough to force a shot clock violation — one of two they forced against a Liberty team known for getting shots up quickly.
“She’s a huge key to what we do, and frankly, doesn’t get the recognition,” Miller said of Jones, who he called an elite post defender.
Impressive Ball Movement
The Liberty like to run and take shots early, while the Sun like to slow down and grind out possessions. Miller said whoever would be able to play their style would win the game, and he expected the Liberty to try to speed them up on offense.
New York did try to speed up the Sun, sending extra pressure often when the ball got inside to Jonquel or Bri Jones. But the Sun weren’t rattled, and continued to push the ball inside to take advantage of the matchups with smaller defenders.
At this point in the season, it’s no secret that the Sun play through the paint and teams have no choice but to send extra bodies to contest Connecticut’s frontcourt. New York swarmed the paint all night, but the Sun always seemed to know where their teammates were. If the Joneses didn’t have the right angle to make a sure shot at the rim, they used their length to kick the ball out to get a better look or reset the offense.
Jonquel Jones had a huge size advantage over Betnijah Laney and Michaela Onyenwere, and for most of the night they looked overwhelmed trying to stop her inside. Bri Jones dominated her matchup against Kylee Shook, and both did a good job at getting in position to box out and grab offensive rebounds to extend possessions. Connecticut outscored New York 44-18 in the paint, and the Sun’s 14 offensive rebounds translated into 22 points.
“I know we talk about it a lot, but our intent is to play inside and out, getting the ball in the paint off the dribble. And both with post touches and playing through JJ, that was big offensively,” Thomas said.
Jonquel Jones never panicked when she caught an entry pass and was instantly swarmed by defenders diving in from the perimeter. With the game tied in the first quarter, Bonner lobbed a pass inside to Jones, who was backing Onyenwere down into the paint. Jones caught the pass with one hand, saw Sami Whitcomb sprinting toward her, and whipped a touch pass out to Thomas, who cashed in with a three.
Jones unleashed another head-spinning touch pass out to the perimeter later in the game. She had already been showing off her passing vision, throwing darts to cutting teammates from the three point line and averaging three assists a game. But the touch pass could be a game-changing counter to the pressure opposing defenses will send at Jones in the paint.
Bri Jones was just as effective moving the ball from the inside out, even if she did it with less flair than Jonquel. She makes the right passes to keep the offense moving, and is quietly averaging 2.2 assists a game. She had two against the Liberty, including a beautiful lob over three defenders to Jonquel Jones, who had muscled her way under the basket for an easy lay-in.
A dominant Jonquel Jones
Jones finished the game with a season-high 31 points, just one shy of the career-high she set in Game 2 of the 2019 Finals. In just ten games this season, she has been even better in almost every major statistical category than she was in the Sun’s finals run in the 2019 playoffs, when she started to show just how dominant she can be.
Jones’ performance was also her seventh double double of the season, and has brought Jones to 200 points and 100 rebounds in just ten games.
Jones has drawn more defensive attention, but is still amazingly efficient. Her 65.1 percent effective field goal rate ranks fourth in the league, and she is shooting 48.9 percent from deep.
Against the Liberty, Jones shot 5-of-9 in the first half, and didn’t miss a single shot in the second half — going 7 of 7 from the floor, with two three-pointers, and 3-3 from the foul line. She scored 6 points in the Sun’s 9-0 run to start the third quarter, effectively closing the book on the Liberty.
“The first half just didn’t flow well for me. I felt like I was working on some of the touches and some of the things that I was doing just wasn’t really coming to fruition,” Jones said. “The second half is when I kind of really settled in, and it’s just the same thing that I’ve been saying all season, it’s just that my mental toughness is just different this year. I think years prior, I would kind of probably got down on myself and kind of got out of the game a little bit. But this year, it just feels different. … Just positive self talk throughout the entire game.”
She was a capable perimeter shooter in 2019, but struggled with consistency. This year, she’s shot at least 50 percent from behind the arc in seven games and has made at least two three pointers in every game except for the second game of the season where she went 1-of-3 from deep.
Jones’ MVP-level WNBA season will take a hiatus as she heads to Europe to play in the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket tournament for the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team, which she joined in 2018.
Jones said she hoped to meet the Sun back in Washington, D.C. for their June 29 game against the Mystics. The team said in a statement they expected Jones to miss four games from June 13 to June 22, but she could also miss games on June 27 and the Mystics game on June 29 based on how well her team does in group play.
Jones told media during Saturday’s shootaround that she believes the Sun have the pieces they need to be successful, and trusts her teammates to hold it down until she gets back, although after the monster win on Saturday, Jones seemed disappointed in how the timing worked out.
“It’s gonna suck,” Jones said. “I’m proud to represent the Bosnian national team, but it’s a tough time to be going. I feel like we’re playing really really great basketball. I feel like I have a good flow right now. Yeah, I just feel like things are just trending upward for us. So I hate that I have to leave, but it’s necessary.”