September 6, 2022
With championship aspirations on the line, how will the Connecticut Sun respond in game 4?
'We have to do a better job if we want to beat Chicago'
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — After trading scores throughout an evenly matched physical game for most of the second half, the Chicago Sky regained a two-point lead with 6:14 remaining in Game 3 at Mohegan Sun Arena after Kahleah Copper made the Sun pay for leaving her wide open from three-point range. From that moment, the game was stagnant at 66-64 for almost four minutes, with the Sun and Sky trading turnovers and tough defensive stops.
Looking back, that drought proved deadly for the Sun, who ultimately dropped a 76-72 decision to the Sky on Sunday, putting their season on the brink. So what happened, and how can the Sun correct it for Game 4?
During the stalemate, Sun head coach Curt Miller decided to bench reigning MVP Jonquel Jones with 3:37 left in the game, still only a one-possession chess match, for Courtney Williams, opting to run with a lineup of Natisha Hiedeman, DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas, and Brionna Jones alongside Williams. A little more than a minute later, Emma Meesseman ended the offensive drought with a bucket off some extra effort from Chicago to keep their possession alive after a miscue.
Jonquel Jones was not having her best night – she had just six points on 3-of-10 shooting and four turnovers – but no one on the Sun was having a particularly efficient night. The Sun shot 36.8% overall from the field for the night, and went stale in the second half, only putting up 34 points in the final 20 minutes compared to their 38 points after the first half. According to ESPN, the Sun missed 61% of their shots from five feet out on the night.
The Sun offense ran out of gas about three and a half minutes into the final frame, and managed one field goal during the last 6+ minutes of the game before Hiedeman drained a layup at the end of the buzzer after Chicago already put the game away.
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The implications of the Sun’s struggle to find an offensive heartbeat when the game matters the most, now has the Sun in a 2-1 hole, with a final chance to even the series in front of their home crowd tonight.
Miller said after game 2 that it was hard for the Joneses (Jonquel and Bri) to score and step through Chicago’s double teams with the Sky’s laser focus on limiting the Sun’s damage in the paint. He said people get hung up on how many shots Jonquel takes, but it’s more important that the Sun are taking good shots, and those were difficult to find against Meeseman and Parker.
“It’s sometimes offense-defense … Can we get them spread out and moving with a small lineup? What is that going on? I have to make those calls, difficult decisions all the time,” Miller said. “They at times don’t come with as many doubles to Bri Jones, so at times, do we get the ball inside with spacing that we want because they send so much attention to JJ? It’s kind of a feel.”
Miller characterized his decision to bench Jonquel as a search for more movement late in the game as the Sun struggled to score, and fewer dead balls didn’t provide much opportunity to sub her back in afterward.
Miller was searching for offense in a stretch where the Sun could not find a shot, wasting stop after stop, and allowing Chicago to hold a slim lead despite the Sun locking down on defense.
But the Sun offense remained stagnant with Jonquel on the bench, and the spacing from Williams didn’t open up any opportunities for Bri Jones or Alyssa Thomas inside. The Sun missed four shots within five feet or less before Williams finally ended a nearly five minute drought with a pullup shot at the 1:45 minute mark to cut the Sky’s lead back down to two points.
That would be the Sun’s last field goal of the night.
“There’s moments when you think we’re getting point blank shots, but their length can bother us. First, it’s a credit to their length around the rim. They’re not easy to score against,” Miller said. “At times you try so hard to get the catch and get things (and) we weren’t efficient, but we have to be. We have to be more efficient around the rim.
Miller said after the game that he thought the style of play throughout was messy enough to give the Sun a shot at winning, his team just didn’t do enough to convert. The Sun forced Chicago to miss 44 shots, and the Sky only scored 30 points in the paint — as the Sun stalled the Sky’s motion on offense and forced Chicago to settle for taking threes
But Connecticut’s failure to capitalize on that defense by putting together runs on offense made it impossible for the Sun to pull away, even when the game went the way they wanted it to. Even when the Sun got their looks against a tough Chicago defense, they just couldn’t make them.
Connecticut didn’t have a terrible night from beyond the perimeter, compared to the Sky’s 24% line from deep, but they didn’t do enough to entice the Sky to abandon the paint on the defense, especially in the second half when the Sun were only able to convert 1-of-5 atttempts from three-point land, compared to hitting four in the first half.
“We focused too much on getting the foul instead of going up to the rim and finishing,” Bonner said after the loss. “We have to do a better job if we want to beat Chicago.”
Bonner also said she thought the Sky did a good job of speeding them up in transition, partly from the excitement of wanting to play fast in front of a home crowd, but also from not slowing down to set the offense in the half court. The Sun’s miscues led to 17 extra points for Chicago from 17 turnovers. The game was messy, but the Sky managed to keep their turnovers low and did the most with the opportunities they were given – like scoring more second chance points than the Sun despite only grabbing half the offensive rebounds.
The Sun won game 1 because they made it “messy,” disrupting Chicago’s free-flowing offense and signature brand of “beautiful basketball.” But Connecticut also benefited from efficient production from their bigs. Jonquel Jones only scored 12 points but scored efficiently on 5-of-8 shooting. That allowed the Sun to overcome a combined 10-32 shooting night from Thomas and Bonner and 3-11 from Williams
Even in the first game, Chicago packed the paint and kept Jones relatively quiet throughout the night. But Jones came up big in crunch time, with a go-ahead bank shot and crucial block to help seal the win in the final minutes. Sunday was a different story, as Jones was held to single digits and attempted zero free throws and watched crunch time from the bench.
The Sun have their backs against the wall, facing elimination and needing back-to-back wins to advance out of the semifinals for the first time since 2019. They need to quickly find an answer on offense — finding some way to counter Chicago packing the paint and bringing double-and triple-teams against Jones – but it goes back to offensive questions that have hung over the team throughout the regular season. What lineup provides the best spacing? And how can the Sun find an offensive rhythm while playing their best players on the floor at the same time?
Simply having Jonquel watch from the bench wasn’t the answer. Miller will have at least one more opportunity Tuesday night to show that he can draw up an offense that puts his best player in a position to succeed — and the Sun players will have an opportunity to show that they can make shots when they need to. They’ll need a big game from their best player, but the Sun are at their best when their offense is balanced. The team will need to make their shots and find a flow against a Sky team that’s willing to match their game in physicality and adjust in real time.
For Bonner, who led the team with 18 points on 4-14 shooting on Sunday, she knows the team needs to start making their shots and they collectively need to do a better job of getting Jonquel the ball when she has an opportunity to make an impact. Behind the scenes, the Sun players know their championship window is closing, but that’s not the focus heading into their most important game of the year.
“Once you start stressing, they already have you beat,” Bonner said.