Last Sunday, it seemed the exhaustion of jam-packed four-game road trip had caught up with the Connecticut Sun, as they fell down by 10 points, 65-55, to the Seattle Storm with approximately one minute to play in the third quarter.
However, as they did in Phoenix two nights before, the Sun found a reserve of energy and demonstrated their resilience. Again recalling the win against the Mercury, it was Jonquel Jones, the soon-to-be-named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, who propelled the comeback, netting 12 of her game-high 25 points in the period.
With just over a minute into the fourth quarter, the game was tied. Connecticut would extend its advantage to 13 points before Seattle began to cut the margin, with the Sun clinging to a four-point lead, 87-83, with 1:20 remaining. A series of clutch free throws from Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas would seal the deal, a 93-86 win, for the Sun.
The reward for the hard-earned 3-1 road trip would be a much needed comfortable home victory over the Indiana Fever on Wednesday, with strong second- and fourth-quarter performances, and four double-figure scorers, powering the 88-69 dub.
On Friday, a tougher foe arrived in Mohegan Sun Arena: the defending-champion Chicago Sky. That the Sky eliminated the Sun in the 2021 WNBA playoffs added extra oomph to a contest between two of the top three teams in the league.
Yet, the Sun could not reprise the fourth-quarter clutchness that was key to victories in Phoenix and Seattle. Even as B. Jones unleashed a blitz of low-block scoring in the fourth quarter, with 10 of her team-best 20 points coming the period, the rest of the Sun could not generate enough buckets, as they Sky, behind some disruptive defense from Rebekah Gardner and clutch free throws from Candace Parker, won the final quarter by seven points, 24-17, to again defeat the Sun, 83-79.
Despite the loss, the Sun should be satisfied with their standing 14 games into the 2022 season. At 10-4, Connecticut sits second in the league, one game behind the Las Vegas Aces. The Sun deserve additional credit because they have secured this record with team’s longtime rock, Jasmine Thomas, suffering an ACL in the season’s fifth game. Once again, Curt Miller and company have exemplified adaptability through adversity, chugging along as a championship-caliber team even when confronted with a longterm absence to a key player.
Here are some key stats that explain the Sun’s success:
Team stats: The areas where the Sun have been best
How have the Sun been so good? These numbers explain some of the ways.*
The Sun lead the league in the following categories:
Plus-minus: 3.4 per game
Rebounding percentage: 55.4 percent
Offensive rebounding percentage: 38.4 percent
Free throw attempts: 23.1 per game
Points off turnovers: 21.2 per game
Second-chance points: 13.3 per game
The Sun are in the top five in the following categories:
Net rating: 11.5 (2)
Offensive rating: 108.3 (2)
Defensive rating: 96.7 (5)
Effective field goal percentage: 51.1 percent (3)
True shooting percentage: 56.4 percent (3)
3-point percentage: 36.4 percent (2)
Steals: 9.0 per game (2)
Fastbreak points: 12.6 per game (2)
Points in the paint: 38.9 per game (3)
Lineup stats: Is the big four is the best four?
When grabbing comeback wins in Phoenix and Seattle, as well as when trying to overcome Chicago, Curt Miller went with his jumbo lineup down the stretch, with the big four of Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones, Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner surrounded by one perimeter player.
Although not the Sun’s best four-woman lineup, the stats show why Miller has turned to this group late in close contests, as it has a registered a plus-minus of plus-50 and net rating of 30.2 (115.3 offensive, 85.1 defense) in 73 minutes.
The best foursome is the unit of J. Jones, B. Jones, A. Thomas and Courtney Williams, which is plus-53 with a net rating of 31.8 (113.6 offensive, 81.8 defensive) in 79 minutes together.
Among five-woman lineups, the Sun’s second-most used lineup, the big four with Williams, is best, tallying a plus-31 and net rating of 29.2 (111.3 offensive, 98.2 defensive) in 48 minutes. The most used fivesome is the current starting five, with Natisha Hiedeman in for B. Jones. In the 110 minutes, the staters have a net rating 2.3 (100.4 offensive, 98.2 defensive).
Might Miller consider going bigger to begin games?
While the starting five includes more spacing, as Hiedeman, combined with Bonner and J. Jones, gives the Sun three players who attempt at least three 3-pointers per game and convert them at better than 36 percent, the reduced spacing of the bigger, best five has not hampered the offense, fueled in large part by a prowess on the boards, with a 63.0 percent rebounding percentage and 34.1 percent offensive rebounding percentage.
Individual stats: Keepin’ up with the Joneses
Scanning the Sun’s best lineup combinations, the name that consistently appears is “Jones,” and often twice. Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones, frequently in tandem, have been the foundation of the Sun’s success.
Although J. Jones’ numbers are down compared to last season’s MVP performance, Connecticut is a team-best plus-136 for the season when she is on the court. Last season, per 36 minutes, Jones averaged 22.0 points on 15.7 attempts, with a true shooting percentage of 61 percent and usage percentage of 26.3 percent. This season, per 36 minutes, she is putting up 19.8 points on 12.9 attempts, with a true shooting percentage of 65.7 and usage percentage of 22.0.
With the returns of Alyssa Thomas and Courtney Williams, it makes sense that J. Jones’ usage has dropped. However, it is hard to argue that directing additional offensive possessions back to the reigning MVP would not maximize the Sun’s attack.
So far this season, B. Jones matches J. Jones with a team-best 19.8 points per 36 minutes. This mark betters her per-minute point production from last season. Her true shooting percentage, at 63.1 percent, also has improved. At 20.1 percent, her usage percentage is slightly reduced. The Sun are plus-116 with her on court.
In short, the 2021 Most Improved Player is still improving. Such continued improvement, and if she continues to come off the bench, might result in another trophy: Sixth Woman of the Year.
*All stats from stats.wnba.com and current as of June 10.