July 31, 2022
How can the Connecticut Sun finally beat the Chicago Sky?
The Sun are 1-5 against the Sky since last year's playoffs.
The Chicago Sky have been the biggest challenge for the Connecticut Sun since they met in the playoff semifinals last season – pushing Connecticut into frustrating, close losses.
Their meeting Sunday afternoon at Mohegan Sun Arena could boost the Sun’s playoff seeding, and potentially get them over a mental hump by beating a team that has become their most challenging rival. But Sun coach Curt Miller said the team is more focused on staying calm against the Sky than it is on any of those implications.
Between last year’s playoffs and their two meetings this season, the Sun are 1-5 – and Connecticut’s 79-68 win in Game 2 of the playoff semifinals was the only one of those games decided by more than 10 points.
Miller said the Sun had chances to win three of those games in the last 30 seconds, but fell short. He said it would help the team’s psyche to win a close game against Chicago – which is 18-7 in games decided by fewer than 10 points this season.
But he said it wasn’t “essential” to beat Chicago on Sunday, especially since the advantage of a number No. 1 or 2 seed is much less in this year’s playoff format, where they won’t earn a double-bye. The Sun’s goal is a top-four seed and home court advantage, he said.
“It’s not essential, it’s not going to change anything going into this year’s playoffs,” Miller told The Next. “But certainly it would be great for our confidence to win a close game against them, since we’ve dropped three close games against them in our recent cluster of games.”
The Sun clinched a playoff spot with their win against the Seattle Storm on Thursday night. They have stayed firm at third in the standings, but are only two games behind first-place Chicago — and there’s a prime opportunity to climb higher, too.
The Sun play Chicago twice in a week, but the remainder of their games are all against teams below .500. Chicago plays five of its final seven games against winning teams, and the second-place Las Vegas Aces play four of their last seven against winning teams.
But unlike last year, where the Sun were open about their goal of earning the top seed and the advantages it came with, this year the Sun are focused more on preparing themselves for the playoffs. They know that there’s a good chance they’ll have to go through the Sky if they are going to win a championship this season.
“We know we can beat them. It’s just, we haven’t done it this season,” Jonquel Jones told The Next. “So I don’t think our confidence is gonna waver whether we win or lose, but we do want to win because [a championship is] the ultimate goal.”
So what will it take for the Sun to beat the Sky?
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The last time the Sun and Sky met in a camp day game at the end of June in Chicago, the Sun erased a 23-point deficit in the second half to bring the game within six points in the final minute before losing 91-83.
Chicago is shooting 47.5 percent from the field, the best in the league this season. And they shot nearly 60 percent against the Sun the last time they met.
It’s obvious, but the only way to beat the Sky is to disrupt their shooting – and even that only helps your chances. They are 10-1 when shooting better than 50 percent, and 12-6 when making fewer than half their shots.
Miller said the Sun need to focus on defense, but accept that Chicago is going to score anyway. They can’t let themselves get frustrated when Chicago gets buckets, because they are going to score, and it can come from anywhere.
“We have to understand they’re going to score. We’re not going to pitch a shutout and we can’t get frustrated,” Miller said.
The Sun like to play in transition, but the key to slowing down the Sky is to slow them down and make them get set in the half court, Miller said. That means cleaning up turnovers to keep Kahleah Copper from running in transition.
In half-court sets, the Sun can find ways to disrupt the Sky, but they’re still an offensive juggernaut, Miller said. The Sun and Sky are the two most dominant teams at scoring in the paint, with Chicago thriving on drives into the lane.
But the Sun also have to respect the Sky’s shooting, Miller said – so they can’t focus too much on the paint. Jones said the key to Chicago’s offense is movement – a lot of their sets have all five players moving at the same time.
“You might be focused on a pin-down on one side, and at the same time, someone else is attacking the lane where you’re supposed to be the help-side defense,” Jones said.
The constant motion gives them more ways to attack, and decoy motions keep the defense off balance. Miller said the Sun have to be proactive on defense instead of reacting to the Sky’s actions – and stay in plays to contest shots.
“Chicago’s a team that if you let them get comfortable with their ball movement. It’s a different game and they can pick you apart,” Jones said.
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Since the All Star break, the Sun’s inside-out game has been a big part of their success. The Sun shot 26 percent from three while going 3-4 in their last seven games before the All-Star break. Since the break, they’re 6-1 while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.
But Chicago might be the best in the league at disrupting opposing shooters, and they allow the fewest 3-pointers in the league this year. Miller said their success as a team comes from their ability to play defense as individuals – challenging opponents one-on-one and not over-helping at the expense of leaving someone else open.
If Connecticut can get Chicago to focus on stopping its shooters, it can open up space inside for Jonquel Jones, Bri Jones and Alyssa Thomas. And even Chicago will have to send help to stop them in the paint – ideally opening more opportunities from the outside.
“It’s hard to do both in this league,” Miller said. “It’s hard to guard well in the paint, and then it’s hard to guard on the perimeter – so it’s that chess match all night.”
Natisha Hiedeman has started to find her shot again after struggling in the games leading up to the All Star break. But Sun’s bench has been a major contributor to their three-point resurgence –shooting 14-27 from three over their last five games.
Nia Clouden, who has had a quiet rookie campaign, played meaningful minutes in the Sun’s win against the Seattle Storm on Thursday. Miller told Clouden not to pass up open shots, and she didn’t – going 2-2 from deep.
The Sun will also look to keep up their offensive balance, as the team has had four or five players with double-digit points in each of their seven games since the All Star break.
Even with the implications in the standings, Miller thinks the final two games of the regular season series will give both teams an opportunity to experiment and practice new things in game action before the playoffs begin.
“Both teams get to experiment, knowing that a win is not an end-all-be-all, and a loss is not an end-all-be-all,” Miller said. “What’s the harm in trying some different things?”