With 1:28 remaining in Game 1 of the 2022 WNBA Finals between the Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Aces, Sun MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas decided to get super aggressive on the player who is on the hottest playoff streak in league history: Chelsea Gray.
The gamble worked because Thomas is one of the best defensive players in the league and handled it perfectly. It was a trap that lasted about a split second because Thomas deftly reached out a considerable distance and knocked the ball out of Gray’s hands before fluidly taking the ball from mid-court to the Sun’s basket for an easy layup.
Talk about single-handedly putting the team on your back. It was about as dominant an individual play as one could imagine when you consider the ease with which she executed it. And it came at a critical moment as it cut the Sun’s deficit to 67-62 with 1:24 remaining.
Thomas’ second fast break layup in the final 1:24 wasn't quite as heroic, as the ball just happened to fall right to her on a broken Aces play. The score cut it to 67-64 with 34 seconds remaining, allowing the Sun to play straight up defense on the ensuing Vegas possession. And none other than Thomas grazed a Gray 3-point attempt, allowing the Sun to collect the ball and have a chance to set up a quick two or tying three with 13.4 seconds to go.
ESPN color commentator and women’s basketball legend Rebecca Lobo pointed out while the replay was broadcast that Thomas was smiling while guarding Gray. How many other players besides the one who came in second in Defensive Player of the Year voting this year would be smiling at the prospect of covering a guard who in the playoffs is shooting 61.1 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from three?
With 19 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks it had been quite the game for Thomas and her final two minutes were set up to be storybook if the Sun could pull off the miraculous comeback win.
Alas, DeWanna Bonner missed a three with 3.2 seconds left on the clock and Vegas took Game 1.
Thomas, who may have been the Finals MVP in 2019 had the Sun edged out the Washington Mystics in Game 5 and came back 48 hours after a dislocated shoulder to drop 23 points and 12 rebounds in a stunning 2020 semifinal upset, added to her postseason legacy in defeat. Perhaps it is meant for her to be Finals MVP if the Sun win the series and meant for A’ja Wilson to claim that distinction if the Aces win. There is still a long way to go before that award is decided and there are plenty of other stars on both sides, but Game 1 certainly looked like a rerun of the epic 2020 semifinal battle between Thomas and Wilson, the latter of whom finished with 24 points, 11 boards, two steals and four rejections.
A'ja Wilson and Alyssa Thomas the two best players on the floor. I saw that movie in the 2020 semis— Zack Ward (@Zack_L_Ward) September 11, 2022
After the game, Thomas and her co-star, 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, echoed similar sentiments.
“I’m happy with the game that we played and we gave ourselves a good opportunity to come out there with a win, and it just didn’t go our way,” said J. Jones. “But we are excited about Game 2.”
“I mean, after this game, we have to have a lot of confidence,” said Thomas. “I mean, this is a three-point game and we had a chance to tie.
“... we know that all you need is one, and then there’s two games at our place. So yeah, there’s some things we can clean up. Of course we can make more shots, but overall we played a hard game.”
“You know, certainly disappointed for our locker room with the loss, knowing that we did so much that we wanted to accomplish defensively and got the game, the style of play that we were hoping for,” said Sun head coach Curt Miller.
“But unfortunately the big stat line difference tonight in a lot of areas was their ability to get to the foul line and play through contact, and we struggled to get to the foul line and any kind of offensive rhythm there in the second half, and that’s a credit to their defense.
But you know, really pleased with holding that high-powered offense down and got the style of play we wanted. So we are encouraged but I’m disappointed that it didn’t equate to a win.”
Vegas got off to a 21-9 start, but that’s the score Connecticut won the second quarter by. At halftime, the Sun led 38-34 with Thomas at 10 points, Brionna Jones at 10 J. Jones at six. Thomas has been the best player on the Sun this season, but J. Jones is still their best player. Yet, sometimes easy layups from Thomas and B. Jones are more reliable than back-down fallaways or threes from J. Jones.
Do the Sun need Jonquel Jones to take over games, or is it better this way?— Zack Ward (@Zack_L_Ward) September 11, 2022
Alyssa Thomas 10 points
Brionna Jones 10 points
JJ 6 points
Of course, B. Jones didn't do all of her scoring on easy layups in this game. As Swish Appeal’s Sabreena Merchant points out in her recap of the game, the Aces forced B. Jones to take mid-range shots. The Sixth Player of the Year found success, but was not able to have a big game in the paint. She finished with 12 points, while J. Jones (nine rebounds) turned it up a bit in the second half to finish with 15 points.
Starting point guard Natisha Hiedeman was a solid 2-of-4 from three. On her first make, Kiah Stokes declined to close out on her, leaving her wide open. The Sun don't shoot a lot of threes, but the Aces need to be careful about giving Hiedeman (69 made threes at a 41.1 percent clip in the regular season) too much space. Hiedeman was good for 10 points and three assists.
Concerning for Connecticut were the offensive performances of Bonner (three points, 1-of-9 from field) and Courtney Williams (five points, 2-of-9 from field). Both are great scorers and more is expected of them. I mean, the Sun only scored 64 points as a team so this wasn’t an offensive triumph for them overall. It was a defensive one. Bonner did have five helpers.
“I think we got her some three-point looks that were good,” Miller said of Bonner. “You know, we’ve got to continue to find ways where she can get into the mid-range and get to the basket so she sees the ball go through the net.
“... they were physical with her tonight, but she’s the ultimate pro and a champion pedigree for us. So we know she’s going to bounce back.”
Also slightly concerning was DiJonai Carrington’s goose egg in the scoring column. She is averaging 6.2 points in the playoffs and is a key X factor.
Thomas, J. Jones and Miller’s takes on Game 1 are what you’d expect them to be. They know they gave the pretty heavily favored Aces a scare. As far as 3-point losses go, this one feels less deflating than most.