September 23, 2023
Behind DeWanna Bonner’s leadership, Connecticut Sun are ready for WNBA semifinals
Sun lean on one of the most experienced veterans in the game
After an 82-75 Game 2 loss at home to the Minnesota Lynx in the first round of the WNBA playoffs, Connecticut Sun forward/guard DeWanna Bonner challenged her team to stop playing so cautiously. She wanted her teammates to be confident and aggressive and to put everything on the line because their season was on the line.
It wasn’t a conversation the Sun coaching staff had to have with the team at this point in the season, Bonner said. But when the Sun’s most experienced player speaks up, her teammates listen.
“It’s win or go home. It’s playoff time,” Bonner told The Next after practice on Friday. “I think we just played too cautious the second game. It’s not a matter of playing hard because I still think we played hard, but we can’t play not to make mistakes. When that happens, when you play that way, nine out of ten times, you end up … losing the game. So you might as well be aggressive.”
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In the win-or-go-home Game 3, Sun MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas led with 28 points, 12 assists and six rebounds, while Bonner contributed 25 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three blocks. They punched the Sun’s ticket to their fifth semifinal series in as many years, setting up a date with their I-95 rival, the New York Liberty.
The Liberty had the Sun’s number in the regular season, but the Sun know what they have to do. They’ll have to be locked in and aggressive, and they have little margin for error against a team that has threats all over the floor, headlined by former WNBA MVPs Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones.
It will require a full team effort, but the Sun have one of the most experienced postseason players in league history to guide them there.
To say that Bonner’s been here before would be an understatement. The 36-year-old and two-time WNBA champion is having one of her best seasons in her 14-year WNBA career, and on Sunday she’ll play in her 77th playoff game.
That’s the third-most postseason games played in WNBA history, just six behind all-time leader Lindsay Whalen. And Bonner needs just 54 more minutes to pass Whalen and lead the league in all-time playoff minutes.
Bonner led the No. 3 seed Sun in the regular season with 17.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. In the first three games of the playoffs, she’s stepped up even more, averaging 22.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists in 30.1 minutes.
In Game 3 of the first round, Bonner passed 1,000 career points in the playoffs, joining Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, Tamika Catchings and Maya Moore as the only players to accomplish that. Parker, Catchings and Bonner are the only players to have 1,000 points and 500 rebounds in the playoffs.
It’s just another scoring milestone in Bonner’s stellar season. She secured the Sun’s single-season scoring title in 34 games with 619 points, and she rose from 13th in league history in career regular-season scoring to sixth overall, just 14 points outside the top five.
“It’s been a lot of fun this year. I think you’ll see it in my play that I’m having a lot of fun with the offense and just playing with one of the top players in the world in Alyssa, so it’s rewarding,” Bonner said. “To be at that point in my career at this age, and I’m still playing this way, I’m just honored to be in the league this long and be up there with those names. It’s a privilege, and I don’t take it for granted.”
Thomas played her standard role of doing everything for Connecticut in Game 3 against the Lynx. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said her team was met with “an Alyssa Thomas who was on 10.”
As intensely as Thomas plays in the regular season, she still finds another level in the playoffs — especially when her back is against the wall. Thomas tied her career high with 28 points, added 12 assists and six rebounds, and played all 40 minutes in Game 3. She also scored or assisted on 58 of the Sun’s 90 points, the most in WNBA playoffs history.
“I don’t know of a player with greater will to win than Alyssa Thomas,” Reeve said. “She just makes everybody better, and I think she’s been a big part of Bonner’s incredible season, who’s had a resurgence … [They’re] incredible players with incredible careers, and that’s obviously a really good basketball team … They earned it, and they’re going to be an awfully tough out.”
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Thomas has struggled at times against the Liberty this season, but she’s found another gear in the playoffs again, especially as a scorer. Thomas scored 23 points per game on 56.6% shooting against the Lynx after scoring 15.5 per game on 47.4% shooting all season.
And she continued to have a huge impact on defense and as a playmaker — leading the league with 9.3 assists per game in the first round of the playoffs. Her continuing to have that impact against the tough defensive frontcourt of Jones, Stewart and Betnijah Laney will be key for the Sun, as will the chemistry and experience of Thomas and Bonner.
“We go as she goes,” Bonner said. “She brings that toughness that every team needs, so we go off her offense and defense. We ask a lot of her to guard the best player and score and facilitate, so she’s taking that role on like a true champ and she makes everybody on that court better. I think us two in general play very well off each other. She makes my job a lot easier.”
Sun starting point guard Natisha Hiedeman was a rookie for the Sun’s first WNBA Finals run in 2019 and has been with the team for every semis run since then. After the Sun’s first game of the playoffs, Hiedeman moved into third in franchise history in playoff games played. At least one of Bonner or Thomas has been in the locker room for all of them.
“Them two have always just pushed me to be my best, and they know what I’m capable of and what I can do. So just holding me to that standard and keeping me ready, always talking to me, and just being positive, that’s what I’ve got from them,” Hiedeman told The Next. “Obviously with DB being the champion, she knows what it takes, so [I’m] just listening and doing what they tell me.”
Hiedeman said that Bonner doesn’t expect perfection, but she does preach maximum effort and energy from her teammates.
“This team is so together. This team rides for each other. We’ve always had each other’s backs,” Hiedeman said. “We just got to stay together and we’ve always been. Our togetherness this year has been closer than ever. When it comes down to the nitty gritty or when it comes down to the split-second plays, our togetherness is what’s gonna get us over the hump.”
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Bonner said that a team’s playoff fate comes down to doing what has worked all season and that trying to do too much for the playoffs can hurt teams. The Sun have been resilient all year long, Bonner said. As they prepare to play a team that’s given them fits all season, what’s important is they stay comfortable with who they are, Bonner said.
“They’re a great team with a lot of weapons. So we got to be on our p’s and q’s. We got to watch the video; we got to understand their offense and what they’re trying to do on defense. It’s a chess match,” Bonner said. “So I think if we play hard and keep them off the boards a little bit, I think we’ll be all right.”