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WNBA Playoffs Preview: Is Connecticut a regular-season paper tiger?

The Sun had the best regular-season net rating for the second straight season; now, they seek playoff success.

Dallas Wings v Connecticut Sun Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Curt Miller is tired of pivoting.

After the Connecticut Sun finally broke past single elimination (and Diana Taurasi) to make the WNBA Finals in 2019, many assumed that the Sun would be a regular attendee on the league’s biggest stage. This was a team on the upswing that was finally starting to put the pieces together.

Instead, the puzzle has remained incomplete.

In 2020, Jonquel Jones opted out of the WNBA bubble, leaving Connecticut without a former Most Improved Player, Sixth Woman of the Year, and All-Star. The Sun started 0-5 that season, but rallied to make the postseason and were up 2-1 in the playoff semifinals before falling to the Las Vegas Aces.

Jones returned in 2021 with an MVP campaign. This time, however, Connecticut was without the services of Alyssa Thomas, who tore her achilles playing for USK Praha in January. Despite a miraculously quick recovery that saw Thomas return before the end of the regular season, the Sun couldn’t get all of their frontcourt players on the same page after Bri Jones had spent the whole season as a starter, eventually winning Most Improved and being named to the All-Star team, only to be relegated to the bench during the semifinal defeat to Chicago.

Finally, in 2022, Connecticut began the season with all of its key players. But tragedy struck yet again, as Jasmine Thomas tore her ACL five games into the year. The Sun have adapted to playing without their floor general, and finished just one game out of the one seed this season. That doesn’t make the task any more pleasant.

“I’m still angry that once again, we’ve had to pivot with a season-ending injury to a starter,” Miller said during the last week of the regular season. “It’s not easy to be the winningest team in the league in the regular season since 2017 when every single year, we’re pivoting and playing people out of position. So to lose Jasmine Thomas, one of the iron women of this league who had never really been injured, it’s still frustrating to me.”

Connecticut Sun v Los Angeles Sparks
Jasmine Thomas has had to lead from the bench after a torn ACL ended her season prematurely.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The Thomas injury gives Connecticut an easy out if this postseason run is the latest to fall short. Other than 2021, the Sun haven’t necessarily underachieved in the playoffs, but they also haven’t reached their ultimate goal, and being without one of the league’s great floor generals is a convenient excuse should 2022 not bring home a WNBA title.

But just as the team is tired of pivoting, Connecticut is also tired of losing the last game of the season. This Sun squad is capable of beating anyone on any given day, even if Jasmine Thomas is providing that extra leadership from the sidelines instead of the court. A title is within reach this year.

First-round series schedule

Game 1: Dallas at Connecticut, Thursday, Aug. 18 (8 p.m. ET, ESPNU/NBA TV)

Game 2: Dallas at Connecticut, Sunday, Aug. 21 (noon ET, ABC)

Game 3 (if necessary): Connecticut at Dallas, Wednesday, Aug. 24 (TBD)

The first step in that championship run comes against the no. 6 seed Dallas Wings. Connecticut lost the season series 1-2 against Dallas this year, even though the Sun outscored the Wings by 12 over the three games.

Both losses provide some insight as to how Connecticut could falter against Dallas. In the first matchup, the Wings made great headway with a five-wing lineup of Marina Mabrey, Allisha Gray, Satou Sabally, Kayla Thornton, and Isabelle Harrison. That grouping stifled the Sun offense with its switching and pressure, and could be of use in the playoffs since the Dallas is missing Arike Ogunbowale for this series. However, Sabally and Harrison could also be out.

The second Sun loss came when the Wings had turned to Teaira McCowan for heavier minutes. She effectively bullied the Connecticut bigs in her 26 minutes, and two-thirds of the Sun perimeter (Natisha Hiedeman and DeWanna Bonner) were unable to make McCowan pay from long range. That’s where a player like Odyssey Sims comes in for some diversity off the bench.

“We really felt we needed a veteran guard off the bench,” Miller said about Sims. “We really explored Odyssey a lot in the offseason. I traveled out to AU league in Vegas and followed her around and we were very close to bringing her in, even in a training camp. So we’ve had our eye on her for a long time. She brings us a ball defender, can play multiple positions offensively, she can play downhill. And she’s just a vet and she brings us someone that’s not going to back down to these great players in this league, and I think it will be beneficial. Already paid dividends with a great game against Chicago, but I think it’s going to help us in playoff time that we won’t hesitate to have that veteran off the bench.”

Miller also has more faith in DiJonai Carrington in her sophomore season, plus an additional spark plug in Nia Clouden should his backcourt need more punch against the Wings.

However, the strength of the Sun has and remains its frontcourt. Jonquel Jones wasn’t as involved as she wanted to be in the 2021 postseason — often a function of the Chicago Sky defense — and has spent 2022 learning to make her touches as productive as possible, even as the rest of her team eats.

“The moments where I get it, try to make the most out of it,” Jones said. “Even when I do get it, even though my touches are down, there’s still a lot of attention. So just trying to be ready to be aggressive, but also being aware of where the double teams are coming. So it’s been a learning process, I’m not gonna sit up here and and talk as if it’s not, but definitely feeling better as we get into the playoffs, and this is the time when we need to be well-oiled and working like a well-oiled machine.”

Bri Jones is the team’s ace in the hole off the bench who has absolutely obliterated Awak Kuier in the matchups against Dallas this year. Running the ball through the presumptive Sixth Player of the Year in the post is something of a security blanket for Connecticut, allowing the team to settle in the halfcourt.

When the pace picks up, that’s where the engine Alyssa Thomas takes over. No forward in the league is a better facilitator in transition, and her motor never stops. The Sun have a bevy of finishers on the break, including Courtney Williams and Bonner among the starters, and Carrington in the second unit.

Connecticut Sky v Seattle Storm
The Sun have the most talented frontcourt in the league.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

This is a team that doesn’t generally beat itself. Connecticut didn’t lose to any of the bottom five teams in the WNBA standings — the Sun take advantage of their strengths and force good opponents to be at their best.

But they’ve also been tested. Unlike last year’s group that didn’t lose after the Olympic break heading into the playoffs, this year’s squad has faced challenges against the Sky and the Aces, in addition to the Wings. Connecticut has tasted defeat and is better for it, both for the lessons learned and the hunger it engenders.

“I would say that we got comfortable, because last year we rattled off like 14 in a row, and I think we kind of got lackadaisical a little bit,” Jonquel Jones said after a win against the Sparks. “A lot of times when you’re winning, everything seems like it’s going well, and then you lose and you’re trying to find ways to be better because you lost. And so for us, those losses came at a very crucial time in the season which was against Chicago. And so before we get there, we just have to continue to stay on top of everything that we’re doing, whether that’s cutting hard, rebounding, running, all the little things. So the conversation is that, you know we’re not going to get complacent... We’re not going to come in here and win this game and feel like we don’t have ways that we can be better. And so as we do that, we just we hold ourselves accountable, and we put ourselves in a better position going into the playoffs.”

The Sun aren’t considered a favorite in this year’s postseason. Most people have pegged Chicago or Las Vegas to win, or perhaps Seattle given the singular talent of Breanna Stewart. But Connecticut is a complete team that knows how to win. This is the Sun’s chance to prove its winning ways can also translate to the playoffs.