August 31, 2021
Inside the Connecticut Sun’s 5-0 homestand
A title contender asserts its dominance
Even after finishing a five-game homestand undefeated, with a playoff berth and first place in the league standings secured, the Connecticut Sun still aren’t satisfied. Head coach Curt Miller said they all know they can be better, in their execution and their physicality, and the focus is on continuing to improve.
“They want to be better and it’s so great to have pure accountability in that locker room. That leadership, there’s an expectation to be better and it’s going to get harder,” Miller said after the Sun’s 76-61 win over the Los Angeles Sparks on Saturday. “We go on the road for four games and we know what the playoffs are going to be like, so I love the mentality. It doesn’t matter that they won tonight. They want to be better because they have some dreams and goals for this franchise for the first time.”
In five games at Mohegan Sun over the last two weeks, the Sun brought their win streak to 8 games and held their opponents — Minnesota twice, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles twice — to an average of 65.2 points per game. The Sun have now held their opponent to 70 points or fewer 13 times, including three against the Aces, who have been the most dominant offense in the league all season.
The Sun were mostly dominant at home, but they had a close call in their first game against the Spark last Thursday that came down to a late, game-winning layup from Jonquel Jones. The win Saturday was more comfortable, but the team turned the ball over 20 times, leading to 18 extra points for the Sparks.
Turnovers have been the Sun’s main struggle all season, but it was the first time they they’ve had 20 or more turnovers since June 29 against the Washington Mystics — aside from 26 in the Commissioner’s Cup loss.
Briann January reached double digits in scoring three times, including a season high 19 points against Las Vegas. She has put on a defensive clinic all season, locking up high scoring guards — and she grabbed 8 steals during the home stand. But January said the team needs to hold themselves to an even higher standard if they’re going to win a championship.
“We can’t allow teams to force us to play lower than lower than what we’re capable of,” January said Saturday. “That’s where we need to grow, and our expectations are, to play at a championship level.”
What did we learn about the Sun over the last five games?
The Sun’s defense is elite
It’s no secret that the Sun win games through their defense. The team ranks last in the league in offensive pace and is 10th in points per game, scoring about 78.8.
But the team holds its opponents to 71.1 points per game — best in the league by more than 7 points a game, as the Los Angeles Sparks allow 78.6. The Sun’s 91.6 defensive rating is currently the best the league has seen since the 2015 New York Liberty, and the Sun have allowed fewer than 70 points in half of the 26 games they’ve played.
Minnesota entered Mohegan Sun last week as the hottest team in the league, riding an eight game win streak. After a very slow start, the Lynx have been steadily climbing the standings since getting the team’s first win of the season back in May against the Sun in a close OT thriller in Minnesota— with Layshia Clarendon playing the hero in their first game with the Lynx.
That first matchup wasn’t exactly a barnburner, with the Lynx winning in OT by a score of 79-74, but the Sun were on another level defensively in the back-to-back matchups with the Lynx last week. In the two games at Mohegan, the Lynx averaged just 65.5 points per game — 17 points lower than their season average.
Sylvia Fowles, of course, was the Lynx’s top option and shot 15 for 22 — though Bri Jones made her work for them. And the Sun were able to hold the rest of the Lynx squad to shooting less than 37 percent.
“I understand how draining it is to play against Syl for such a long time. She is so strong and so physical, so what Breezy has been able to do on the defensive end is just amazing, but I also feel like Bri Jan, Jas, and even DB stepped up tonight, All of them really helped us. I was the person who kind of sit back a little bit and just watch everything and be ready to clean up rebounds Everyone on our starting five is just so good with their matchups.” Jonquel said after their second win against Minnesota.
It was a similar story for the Las Vegas Aces, who arrived at Mohegan as the most dominant offense in the league — and shaping up to be one of the highest scoring offenses in league history. Playing against the Sun, the Aces look like a completely different team. They managed to score only 62 points last Tuesday, including a 1-for-15 shooting night from reigning MVP A’ja Wilson.
Chatter after that game was that Wilson simply had a bad night. She did — it was the first time in 52 consecutive games that Wilson didn’t reach double digits, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Wilson never plays another game where she scores just one field goal — but that doesn’t give enough credit to the Sun defense, which has shut down the Aces each of the three times they played this year.
Wilson wasn’t missing open shots, she just couldn’t find room to work. The Aces lack of spacing didn’t do her any favors, and Wilson struggled to find her way to the rim with Bonner, Bri and Jonquel Jones packing the paint. Quickly frustrated by the impenetrable length of the Sun big three, Wilson was forced into difficult, contested jump shots from mid-range.
“We had different looks, JJ’s length, Bri Jones’ physicality, DeWanna is a different type of defender inside. So throwing multiple people at her, seeing things differently on different plays,” Miller said on Tuesday night. “A’ja had an atypical night, but give us some credit on how hard we worked on her.”
It’s hard to miss the impact the Sun frontcourt has on defense, but the backcourt duo of Jasmine Thomas and Briann January are integral to the Sun’s strategy. Their pestering defense on the perimeter forces the opposing team to slow down. For teams like Minnesota and Las Vegas that live through the post — that means fewer chances for Fowles and Liz Cambage to wear down Bri Jones.
Here, with Bri and Jonquel Jones blocking the passing lanes to Fowles, January and Thomas combine to stall Clarendon and Bridget Carleton on the perimeter. With no options, Clarendon ends up dumping the ball off to Napheesa Collier, who has to fight through Bonner for a forced attempt to beat the shot clock.
Trying to get the ball past January in particular can be an infuriating task. Watch how she refuses to give an inch of space to Kelsey Plum as she tries to make a pass around the perimeter. January forces Plum to turn the ball over on a bad pass, and a frustrated Plum immediately gets a technical.
While the Sun individually are good defenders, it’s their ability to prepare, and to own their mistakes, that takes them to another level as a team.
“Our coaching staff does a good job of making sure that we’re prepared, so when we mess up we know instantly, ‘Oh I should have been there, I should have done this,'” Jonquel Jones said. “It helps us with the next play. We don’t harp on it too long. We understand where we need to be. It’s a veteran mindset. No one has to say much … Thats the accountability part. Being locked in. I feel like we hold ourselves accountable more than each other.”
The Sun are starting to show offensive versatility
The Sun’s back to back games against the Sparks on Thursday and Saturday provided a different set of challenges than the games against the Lynx and Aces. Los Angeles is a physical team, and like the Sun, they hang their hat on defense — allowing the second fewest points per game in the league.
As expected when the two stingiest defenses match up, the games were physical and hard-fought. Brittany Sykes — who has to be a part of any Defensive Player of the Year conversation — had her hand in every play and forced the Sun to speed up their decision making, sometimes causing them to lose their composure.
The Sun have proven they can lock down just about any offense, but playing another defensive-minded team forced them to push on the other side of the ball. The first game against the Sparks was the first time during the home stretch that the Sun had to claw back from behind after halftime.
Bri Jones played a major part in the Sun keeping pace with the Sparks after they raced to the lead with 29 points in the second quarter of the first game. After focusing mainly on slowing Cambage and Fowles over the first three games, Jones channelled Fowles and shot 10 for 13 in the first game against the Sparks, scoring 17 of her 23 points in the second half.
Miller said the game plan was to get Bri Jones the ball, knowing the Sparks would put so much attention on Jonquel Jones and Bonner. And when Bri Jones got the ball in a one-on-one matchup, she was almost impossible to stop.
On Saturday night, Bri Jones scored a game-high 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 15 rebounds, and three steals. On both nights, she did most of her damage in the second half.
“A lot of attention is given to JJ, a lot of attention is given to DeWanna, so this was a game we thought we could establish (Bri Jones),” Miller said after Saturday’s win. “It’s not easy because (LA’s) congestion is the best in the league, but it was just a tremendous night for Breezy and she knew we were trying to establish her from the tip.”
Deciding which post player to leave in single coverage is hard enough, but when the Sun guards and bench players are cooking on offense, it can turn into a long night for the opposing team. While the Sun’s offense is built around their three All-Stars, other players have stepped up when needed, like when JJ has a tough shooting night or is in foul trouble, or if Bri Jones and Bonner are locked down defensively.
On Saturday night, that effort came from Kaila Charles who provided 12 points on 71.4% shooting in almost 21 minutes, while the bench totaled 22 points altogether. The Sun average just six fast-break points a game, but the bench energy from Saturday, coupled with the team’s emphasis on defense and rebounding, led to nine fast break points, six of which came from the bench — including a cross-court pass to Charles that lit up the Mohegan crowd.
“There is a reason we play at the pace that we do, but that fast break where Kaila got behind everyone, it energized our crowd, it energized our bench, Miller said. “We need more of that, there’s no doubt. But we have to be smart and play at the pace and do what we do. We believe in it and it’s working and we believe it’s the right style for the players that we have.”
Out of the Sun’s final six games, they only face one team with a winning record. But for the Sun it’s all about matchups, The Sun will begin a four-game road trip on Tuesday night against the Washington Mystics. The Sun aren’t taking anything for granted and know how difficult it will be to square up against teams that are fighting for their playoff lives.
The Sun have locked in on their defensive identity and know it’s the key to their success, but when the offense is clicking and multiple people are contributing, the Sun can be very dangerous team. And they’re hungry, too.
“Were here to compete and we’re here to win a championship. It’s championship or bust for us,” Jonquel Jones said. “That’s our goal, that’s what we’ve been striving for all season, so we’re going to continue to do that.”