October 5, 2021
How the Connecticut Sun can win their WNBA semifinals series
But there's no panic in this Sun team
Three games into the WNBA semifinals, the Chicago Sky haven’t let the Connecticut Sun look like the unstoppable force that propelled them to the No. 1 seed during the second half of the season. And after 14 straight wins to end the regular season, the Sun now find themselves one game away from elimination.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Sun over the past few years, it’s that this team will not quit. They demonstrated that in the 2019 finals, and then backed it up again in the 2020 semifinals. They’ll pour everything they have on the table in a do-or-die game to force Game 5 back home on Wednesday night.
If the Sun want to make another finals appearance, and have a chance at winning that coveted first championship, they’ll need to get back to what carried them to the top in the first place: dominating the paint.
During the regular season, the Sun’s game centered on rebounding and defense, which led to a league-record 57.2 percent total rebound rate. But in the two losses against Chicago, the Sun tied and then lost the rebounding battle. Azura Stevens dominated the boards in the first half, grabbing 10 of her 11 rebounds in the first 20 minutes, including seven offensive rebounds — extra possessions the Sun can’t afford to give up.
The Sun’s offensive game plan all season has been to get the ball in the post and grind down defenses, but the Sky had the number of the Sun bigs on Sunday — keeping them off the boards and out of the basket.
MVP Jonquel Jones improved offensively from Game 2 – where she only shot 2-for-9 for 4 points – but was swarmed on practically every play from double or triple teams. Brionna Jones turned the ball over three times in the first quarter and struggled early to find space to get touches. She left the game for Alyssa Thomas in the third quarter and didn’t return for the rest of the night – playing a season-low 19 minutes.
Thomas looked like vintage playoff AT, sinking her signature floater at key moments in the fourth — including a 9-0 run that cut the Sky lead to one point with a minute to go. Thomas has averaged 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.0 steals in the first three games of the semis. With her play coming into form, and her history of clutch play in the playoffs, it isn’t difficult to see why Coach Curt Miller went to Thomas late.
But Bri Jones is also the Sun player most effective at getting to the rim for easy buckets, using her footwork and strength to push the Sky bigs deep in the post, where Jones is automatic. She finished a typically efficient 4 of 6 and didn’t turn the ball over again after her shaky first quarter.
With both Bri Jones and Thomas playing so well, head coach Curt Miller needs to figure out the best way to split time between them — especially with so much defensive attention committed to Jonquel Jones. While AT found success in crunch time, the Sun still needed to find a way to get Jonquel Jones the ball. The MVP didn’t register a shot in the final six minutes of the game.
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“AT in the last two games has really given us great energy and great fight. So you extend some minutes and you roll with it and she was starting to really score, especially in the second half at a higher percentage clip,” Miller said. “You kind of just play it by feel. The other night it was Bri Jones and AT (on the floor). Tonight it was JJ and AT. At times, it’s going to still be Bri Jones and JJ, so it’s just a feel on how Chicago is scheming us. We’ll play off that and divvy up the minutes between the three of them.”
Playing in close games is new territory for the Sun, who steamrolled the league after the Olympic break, and have only played one game that came down to the final possession since July. Chicago had five regular season games decided by six points or fewer in the second half of the season.
Playoffs are a different beast from the regular season, but Bonner said late game execution is something a team perfects during the season.
“That’s just something that you have throughout the season and when you get in that moment, you just got to knock down that shot,” Bonner said. “We had multiple times that we could have taken the lead, we just missed the shot. … That’s something that you can work on. You just got to put the ball in the basket.”
The Sun actually had their best shooting night of the series on Sunday – sinking 48.5 percent from the floor and hitting nine 3 pointers – but there were missed opportunities throughout the game. Briann January missed a fastbreak reverse layup to take the lead in the final 10 seconds after a remarkable steal. That shot and the two final shot attempts from Jasmine and Alyssa Thomas to tie the game as time expired stand out because they came at the end of the game, but the Sun had multiple opportunities before then to steal the win.
After the Sun went up eight points with 8:33 left on the clock, Connecticut turned the ball over six times, leading to an extra 9 points for the Sky and helping Chicago turn a deficit into a six-point lead. A lot of the Sun’s turnovers were self-inflicted from trying to make ill-advised extra passes and force other looks instead of taking the ball to the rim.
“We could have been more aggressive with our actions, and look to score on those initial actions and put the ball on the rim,” January — who was 3-for-4 from three and helped keep Courtney Vandersloot from scoring until the fourth quarter — said after the game. “We had multiple opportunities to do that and we didn’t. Not doing that led to turnovers, so we just have to be aggressive. I know we can execute better and we will in the next game.”
Chicago scored 23 points off of 17 Sun turnovers, but Miller said it’s never one particular thing when you turn the ball over, and since the wounds were mostly self-inflicted, it’s nothing the team can’t fix by Wednesday.
“(Chicago) is really dynamic going from defense to offense, so when you turn the ball over, they’re really hard to guard and you never really get your patented half court defense set. .. When they’re scoring on turnovers that gets into a pace into a scoring zone that we would prefer not be in with Chicago.”
Kahleah Copper was a huge problem for the Sun, and the team will have to learn to contain her unbelievable speed in Game 4. She scored a playoff career high 26 points and her force in the fast break bothered the Sun defense. At one point, Copper took advantage of a clear lane from the corner to the basket before any defender could sense she was there. She also capitalized when the Sun left her open from three, draining 3-for-6 from deep.
Chicago has proven to be a difficult matchup for the Sun, but the bonds between the tightknit teammates have held together a team used to cruising to victory through some intense and frustrating close losses against the Sky. One thing is certain, their confidence in each other won’t waver. DeWanna Bonner proved that in the post-game press conference, when she stepped in to support January after a question about her late-game miss.
“We’re gonna have that same breakaway layup in game four, and I guarantee you, [January] gonna put it in. We all believe her in the locker room. That is not why we lost,” Bonner said. “We’ve been playing basketball our whole lives, everybody misses layups. But trust me, in game four, she’s gonna have that same one, and we’re gonna give it to her again, and she’s gonna put it in. That’s it.”