Uncasville, CT — The Connecticut Sun and Phoenix Mercury both had slow starts to the 2016 season: the Sun only managed three wins through their first 15 games, while the Mercury started a disappointing 5-9. As the end of June approached, the two franchises agreed on a trade that would shake up both teams for the better.
Connecticut traded a clearly dispirited Kelsey Bone, last season’s Most Improved Player, to Phoenix for two players and a 2017 second round pick.
That trade came full circle Friday night, as Bone played in her first game in Connecticut as a visitor since the trade. Connecticut dominated down low and won the game, 87-74. Friday’s contest comes at a time when both teams are playing some of their best basketball of the season, and both needed the win to keep their playoff hopes alive.
For the Sun, trading away one of their best players from a season ago may have triggered a look past this season and towards the future. The players on the Sun definitely did not mail it in. Since the trade, Connecticut has looked like a much-improved team, winning eight of their last 13 games, including two wins over the defending champion Minnesota Lynx.
“Since the start of July, we've put ourselves in position on most nights to have success, and that is because there's truly belief right now in that locker room,” Sun coach Curt Miller said after his team’s win over the Mercury. “There is a chemistry that continues to grow, and there’s a vibe in that locker room right now.”
The Sun could be tied for the eighth and final playoff spot with the Seattle Storm if the Storm loses in Chicago, while the Mercury currently are a couple games ahead of both Seattle and Connecticut.
Despite losing on the road Friday, Phoenix has won five of their last seven games dating back to before the Olympic break, and are playing more like the team that everyone thought they would be coming into the season.
One of the players Connecticut acquired in the trade from the Mercury was Courtney Williams, who has taken advantage of the increased opportunity she has gotten on the Sun during her rookie season. Williams played 15 meaningful minutes in the backcourt off the bench against her former team Friday night, scoring eight points and showing flashes of the player she can become.
“I think it's been easy (getting into a rhythm),” Williams said. “My teammates are helping me adjust, and have confidence in me to do what they need me to do. They’re making it easy for me.”
In addition to the trade giving the Sun a much-needed spark, it took some time for Chiney Ogwukime to get her bounce back after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Ogwumike finished with a team-high 22 points and ten rebounds against the Mercury, and seems to be back the consistently outstanding player she was before the injury.
“I think we play free (since the Bone trade), and we move the ball and were faster,” Ogwumike said back in July. “Kelsey was a force in the paint, but at the same time when you have that good of a player in the paint, you're offense can get stagnant.
“All of our posts are very mobile now, so I think that plays to our advantage offensively, and it keeps defenses on their toes, but also defensively we can move and rotate and switch. I think the pace has changed.”
Bone said prior to playing against her former team Friday that the trade was something that needed to happen.
“With the coaching staff change, it just was a different style, a different system,” Bone said. “I’m human enough to know when I'm not a good fit for something, and I don’t want it to be forced. I want it to be natural. I want to play somewhere where I can be of use, and can be effective.
“That just wasn't the case for me here, personally, anymore. Coach Miller has a system that he believes in that, clearly, with what’s on the floor now, it works.”
Miller in his first year as head coach now has a group of players that better fit into what he likes to do as a coach: play smaller, faster and be more versatile. Miller will get to continue molding this team to fit his system after being named the new general manager of the Sun. Miller will assume that role at the end of this month.
“It’s part of the culture that we’re trying to create,” Miller said in July. “We are trying to be a team that every single night competes. We talk about three words: preparation, attitude, effort. They are really buying into the preparation. We have to find ways to overachieve because we don’t always have as much talent.
“They have great attitude and effort, and again, it is hard to say what is going on, but there is a different vibe, there is a better vibe in our locker room.”
That vibe around this team is translating to better performances on the court, which is very good sign for a young team still trying to make it into the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
“We’re just happy to be playing this well,” Alex Bentley said. “We’re just gelling. We’re working so hard and it's paying off. So we’re all proud of each other. We just want to continue playing hard, executing game plans, competing and getting wins. That’s what we’re focused on.”