The unpredictability that has characterized the 2019 WNBA season began when the Connecticut Sun traded two-time All-Star Chiney Ogwumike to the Los Angeles Sparks in late April. The trade acceded to Oqwumike’s desire to expand her career in sports media, as well as play with her older sister.
Fittingly, the Sun and Sparks will face off in one of the WNBA’s five-game semifinals series, with Connecticut hosting Game 1 tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Neither team has hesitated to highlight how Ogwumike’s move from CT to LA looms over this matchup. On Instagram, the Sparks posted a graphic that depicted the younger Ogwumike as the team’s central star, showing Chiney driving against former teammate Alyssa Thomas.
On the other side, the Sun are advertising their status as a “disrespeCTed” small-market squad as a badge of honor; a team of underdogs instead of “mega stars.” (Although, they should be careful about throwing shade at their excellent NESN analysts, LaChina Robinson and Rebecca Lobo!)
This season, Los Angeles won two of the three games between the teams. However, two of these games occurred in late May and early June, with the Sparks missing the services of Candace Parker and Alana Beard for their May 31 win in Los Angeles and their June 6 loss in Connecticut. In the regular-season series, the Sparks received the extra home game, situating them also to secure a late August victory.
These results are not surprising. The league’s two most dominant home teams, both sporting 15-2 home records, successfully protected their home courts. All the more, the logistics of the Sparks-Sun matchup heightens the power of home court. A commercial trip from LAX to Uncasville (or Uncasville to LAX) is a complicated trek. As such, it would seem that Connecticut enters Game 1 with the advantage, enhanced by nine days of extra rest.
Yet, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s decision to provide charter flights for all semifinal teams changes the equation.
Not only are the Sparks coming off a convincing, confidence-boosting win over the Seattle Storm in their second-round game, but it is more than imaginable that this first-class treatment could further energize a squad that finished the season strong. In contrast, the possibly blurry line between rest and rust could raise questions for Connecticut, especially as the Sun closed the season on a two-game losing streak.
This confluence of conditions suggests an intriguing, unpredictable Game 1.
Yet, if there is one person who could staunch this unpredictability and serve as a stabilizing force, it’s the other, older Ogwumike, the All-Defensive First Team member and Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award winner. This season, Nneka Ogwumike has balled out against the Sun, seemingly intent on defending her sister’s decision by flashing her MVP form.
Against Connecticut, Ogwumike averaged almost 19 points and 11 rebounds, better than her overall averages of 16.1 points and 8.8 rebounds. Advanced stats also testify to her excellence, as she totaled a net rating of 10.0, versus 8.0 overall, and a player impact estimate of 21.0, versus 18.9 overall. In Sunday’s game against Seattle, Ogwumike was everywhere, troubling Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard with her combination of intelligence and persistence.
Of course, one also would expect the Sparks’ other stars, Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray, to exert their influence on tonight’s game. Yet, while she tallied a double-double against the Storm, Parker has struggled to string together consistent games this season, still somewhat hampered by injuries. On Sunday, she also seemed to suffer a severe leg cramp in the third quarter that, fortunately, quickly subsided. Nevertheless, it reminds one of the potentially lingering effects of injuries. Gray, a former Sun player herself, has not been herself against the Sun. Her overall player impact rating of 12.5 falls to 6.5 in the three games against Connecticut, with both her effective and true shooting percentages also dipping well below her averages.
The Sun’s Jasmine Thomas is responsible for Gray’s struggles, successfully hounding her into inefficient play. If Nneka Ogwumike serves as the Sparks’ stabilizer, then Thomas, who joins Ogwumike on the All-Defensive First Team, occupies this role for the Sun. In the three games against the Sparks, Thomas has worked her way to nearly three steals per game, while also upping her scoring numbers to nearly 14 points per game.
But the team that celebrates its lack of mega stars will need mega star-like play from its budding mega star, Jonquel Jones.
The ascendant abilities of Jones allowed the Sun to trade Chiney Ogwumike. As a full-time starter, JJ did not disappoint, inserting herself into the MVP conversation with her unicorn-like play. An All-WNBA honor is likely to follow her All-Defensive First Team award. Yet, Jones still seems stuck on the precipice of dominance, having yet to fully and consistently realize her ability to force her will on all aspects of the game. Can Jones take this leap and, in doing so, position the supposedly star-less Sun to snuff out the star-studded Sparks?
No. 2 Connecticut Sun vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Sparks
When: Tuesday, September 17, at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT
How to watch: ESPN2, SN1
Keys to the matchup: Which Williams will it be? Albeit in different ways, the Sparks’ Riquna Williams and the Sun’s Courtney Williams both have the ability to ignite. Riquna Williams uses her strength to repeatedly fire from three: In LA’s August 25 win over Connecticut, she made five of her eight threes on her way to 21 points. Courtney Williams, in contrast, uses her speed to pop-and-stop from her favored midrange. However, the confidence that allows both of them to get buckets in bunches can also backfire. Both Williamses can unwisely force things, resorting to contested jumpers early in the shot clock. Although it was in a loss, Courtney Williams tossed five assists in the final Sun-Sparks matchup. A willingness to distribute can make her and, in turn, the Sun offense, more dynamic, thereby advantaging Connecticut.