August 13, 2021 

The Connecticut Sun’s aspirations crash into Storm

WNBA championship is the goal, but Commissioner's Cup performance won't be enough to do it

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Curt Miller. (Screenshot via WNBA Content Network)

The inaugural Commissioner’s Cup was supposed to be a litmus test for the Connecticut Sun. Instead, it ended up being more of a wake-up call. 

The Seattle Storm cruised to a lopsided 79-57 victory over the Connecticut Sun in the Commissioner’s Cup tournament. Connecticut never led, allowing Commissioner’s Cup MVP Breanna Stewart to score 15 of her 17 total points in the first quarter. 

“This game was like a championship mentality,” said DeWanna Bonner, who matched a team-high in scoring with 11 points. “It’s one game, you win the money, and it just takes a different type of mentality to play in these games, and they have it right now. We are still trying to figure it out, so hopefully we can figure it out before this next half of the season.”

The Sun turned the ball over 26 times, resulting in 25 extra points for the Storm, and shot a season-low 32.9 percent from the field. Stewart hounded Jones practically the entire game, holding her to just 10 points — and aside from Jones’ first bucket, all of them came from offensive putbacks. 

“We just couldn’t disrupt them,” Sun head coach Curt Miller said. “All credit to Seattle, their activity was great, but we just never found an offensive rhythm to give us a chance. It’s uncanny, with that many turnovers — 26 turnovers — we still took five more shots than they did.”

The Sun’s offense was stagnant from the start, although there were glimpses of hope of catching up at the end of the first quarter and throughout the second. But the Sun couldn’t capitalize on some of their biggest strengths — points in the paint, defense, and second chance opportunities. Connecticut had no problem outrebounding the Storm throughout the game, and even ended with 12 offensive rebounds (more than their current season average), but were only able to convert 10-of-22 attempts in the paint and 4-of-8 second chance opportunities in the first half.

And while dominating the paint is the Sun’s bread and butter, the Sun can usually find ways to get the offense going through their inside-out game and scoring on the perimeter. They scored just three three-pointers in the first half and were held to 5-of-18 from three for the entire game. 

The Storm jumped out at the start of the second half to build on an 11-point advantage, and outscored the Sun 22-5 in the third frame — another season-low for the Sun — effectively closing the book on Connecticut’s chances at revenge and a $30,000 bonus. 

Despite Jonquel Jones and Briann January playing the entire third quarter, the Sun had a paltry defensive effort that led to the Storm shooting 50 percent, and the only quarter where Seattle outrebounded Connecticut. The Sun went 0-9 in the paint during that frame and only grabbed one offensive rebound. By the time the third quarter ended, the Storm held a 28-point advantage and its big three of Stewart, Loyd, and Bird outscored the entire Sun team 43-40. Both second units played the entire fourth quarter. 

In the grand scheme of the season, the game doesn’t count for anything, and at least gave the Sun a chance to shake out the cobwebs from the Olympic break before they visit the Dallas Wings to open up the second half of the season on Sunday. 

And while the extra $10,000 each player on the losing squad will earn is not a bad consolation prize, the team was clearly disappointed that they didn’t play their best basketball. 

“Ten grand, we are not thinking about that right now because, quite frankly, we were outplayed tonight,” Jonquel Jones said after the game. “We got to get back to the drawing board because our mission is to win a championship and the way we played tonight is not going to do that, so we need to get back to work.”

The Commissioner’s Cup provided a unique opportunity to simulate a playoff game environment before actually heading into the postseason, and even more so against the defending WNBA champions, led by a trio of Olympic gold medalists. 

While the Sun had rest on their side, as Coach Curt Miller put it after the game, Stewart, Loyd, and Bird, “looked like three players that were averaging about 30 minutes in the Olympics and we looked like it was our first game in nearly five weeks.”

The Sun’s three leading scorers for the night — DeWanna Bonner, Natisha Hiedeman, and Jonquel Jones — didn’t want to chalk the game up to rest, though.

“We’ve been practicing for like two weeks for this game, so not really any rust,” Hiedeman said. “We just didn’t play our best game tonight.”

What might have been even more disappointing for the Sun was that this was the first matchup with Seattle this season where both teams were at full strength — the Sun were without Briann January and Curt Miller in their overtime loss in May and played without J. Jones during Seattle’s blowout in June. Despite the overtime loss in their first meeting, Jones put on the more impressive showing between the two league MVP candidates, scoring 28 points and adding 13 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals, while Stewart scored 17, although the Sun held her to just five points after the first quarter. 

Jones ended the Commissioner’s Cup with 10 points on 5-of-15 shooting and 0-for-2 from three-point range. It was just the second time this season that Jones didn’t make a three-pointer. 

Miller said they couldn’t get Jones in actions where she had space, and that Stewart did a great job forcing Jones to make one-on-one plays. But he doesn’t think that takes away from the MVP-caliber year that Jones is having, or the Sun’s chances at achieving something special. 

“You’re getting to see the versatility in her game where she’s playing offensively at the four, she’s guarding four players and she’s thriving at it,” Miller said. “You’re seeing more of her facilitating opportunities now. You just see that she’s one of the rare few in this league who can put themselves in position to be the MVP. We are going to need her to play like an MVP to chase some of the goals that we have.”

The Sun will need to get back to honing in on their identity — defense, rebounding, playing inside-out — to match the success they had during the first half of the season. Although, even after an extended break and a second mini training camp, there are still weaknesses that need to be taken care of if they have a chance of beating a team like Seattle for the franchise’s first WNBA Championship. Turnovers are the team’s Achilles heel, but finding ways to get the offense going during slumps will also be crucial against offensive powerhouses like Seattle, Las Vegas, and even Chicago. 

And while the outcome was a disappointment, preparation was not the issue, nor was underestimating how dominant Seattle’s big three would be — even after flying more than 5,000 miles and dealing with jet lag throughout the week. 

“They are a well-oiled machine, man,” Bonner said. “They have been a top team in this league for years now with those three players. Doesn’t matter if they were in the Olympics, they play the exact same way no matter where they are on the court. Those three have been playing together for a very long time from the beginning. We never said they were in the Olympics or they were tired. It was always focused on those three. They just play well together.”

Miller said during pre-game that regardless of the Commissioner’s Cup’s outcome, all their focus would have to turn to preparing for Dallas on Sunday, beginning with an early morning flight on Friday. During his postgame, he said that it was during the third quarter where he had to start thinking about the remainder of the season, including the Sun’s seven games in 17 days throughout the remainder of August. 

“Tonight was a lot of pressure on ourselves. I don’t know why but we missed a lot of easy shots,” Bonner said. “But I think if we can get back to the way we play, we’ll turn it around in Dallas.”

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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