When you have a best-of-five series, everything becomes a game of counters. What can each team do best, who can force another team out of their play, and which team can ultimately come out with three wins first?
In these WNBA Finals, the bigs are the stars. The Sun have a clear depth advantage in that department with Alyssa Thomas, Jonquel Jones, and Brionna Jones, but the Aces have the ace with MVP A’ja Wilson. In guard play, the advantage goes to the Aces with Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray, and Jackie Young. One could easily argue if you rank all the guards from both teams, the Aces would have the first three. This is one of many reasons people had the Aces as the clear favorites before the series, and why they are still the favorites now up 2-1.
The Sun bigs have played about as well as can be expected of them. Through the first three games, they’ve won the battle of the boards 110-90 and dominated the paint. Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas are both outperforming their season averages in points, assists, and rebounds, while Brionna Jones has taken a slight dip in points and rebounds, but it’s not significant enough to be detrimental to the team’s success. So while they haven’t played perfect basketball, they’ve done their job by giving Connecticut an advantage inside.
Despite the Sun bigs playing well, they are down 2-1 in the series. That’s because the key to winning this series lies not on the shoulders of Jonquel, Brionna, or Alyssa but on the shoulders of their guards: Courtney Williams, Natisha Hiedeman, and DiJonai Carrington. The Aces are dominating guard play with the trio of Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young. Can the Connecticut guards keep up bucket for bucket with these three? Probably not, but if they push beyond their normal performances, they can keep games close and give their team the best opportunity to win.
Courtney Williams was brought back to the Sun this past offseason to help control the offense and give the team a dynamic scorer. “She is a dynamic guard that can create her own offense, which fills one of our biggest needs,” Curt Miller said at the announcement of Williams’ arrival this past February.
In these Finals, Williams has been hot and cold. In the Game 1 loss, she played her worst game of this series, only scoring 5 points, committing 2 turnovers, and being responsible for three shot clock violations. In a game the Sun lost by 3, Williams having a great or even just good game could’ve made the difference between victory and defeat.
These past two games, she’s been much better. In game 2, she scored 18 points and 5 assists; in Game 3, she scored 11 points and was a plus-18 on the night. When she’s keeping turnovers low, shooting well, making the right decisions in pick-and-roll action, and staying defensively engaged, you are reminded that she was a 2021 WNBA All-Star. She is the team’s spark plug, the X-factor. She has the ability to drop 20 points and put the nail in the coffin of a team. All Sun guards need to play well to pull off the upset, but Williams is the best of the group and is the most likely one to do it.
Natisha Hiedeman doesn’t need to be a superstar, she just needs to stay productive. In game 2, she had 0 points in 15 minutes of play. If that happens again, I promise you Connecticut will lose. Yes, she has tough defensive assignments, but she has to stay involved on the offensive side of the ball and hit open shots. A perfect example is Game 3; she scored 14 points and shot 3-for-3 from three.
The Aces are working so hard to defend Bonner and deny ball entry into the paint that every three-point shot made by Hiedeman is devastating. The Aces can’t perfectly guard everything, and those open threes will be available for Hiedeman. If she’s hitting them, it forces the Aces to either keep letting her score or have to help more and leave the paint open. Neither option is good for Vegas, and that plays right into Connecticut’s strengths.
Curt Miller is notorious for playing only eight players. DiJonai Carrington is one of those eight. If she gets hot like she did in Game 3, it helps balance out the production from the Las Vegas trio of guards. The Sun guards don’t have to outscore the Aces guards, just like the Las Vegas bigs don’t have to outrebound the Connecticut bigs. They must keep it respectable and competitive and hopefully let their strengths shine. So while the Sun guards are not the best players they have, they will be the difference between winning and losing.
Like swing states in an election, the Connecticut guards outperforming expectations can tip the scales in the Sun’s favor. We know the bigs will play relatively well. How will the guards play Sunday in another must-win game? If they play as well as they did in Game 3, we should be heading back to Vegas for Game 5. If they play at or below their averages, then only the Aces will be returning to Vegas for a championship parade. So while everyone else is talking about Chelsea Gray, A’ja Wilson, and Jonquel Jones, I’ll keep an eye on the performances of Courtney Williams, Natisha Hiedeman, and DiJonai Carrington. For the Sun will only go as far as these guards take them.