Last Saturday evening, just over three minutes into the fourth quarter, the Connecticut Sun found themselves down four points to the Washington Mystics, 63-59. In just over five minutes of game time, the Sun had seen a seven-point lead slip away.
The Mystics seemed to have all the momentum, ready to possibly cruise to the comeback win and hand the Sun a second home loss within a week
After a timeout with approximately five minutes remaining in the game — and the Sun still down by one point — acting head coach Chris Koclanes reinserted Alyssa Thomas, DeWanna Bonner and Natisha Hiedeman. From there, Connecticut took control, demonstrating the combination of grit — epitomized by aggressive, attuned defense — and gusto — driven by confident, clutch shotmaking — needed to grab the momentum and, in turn, earn a 79-71 victory.
The ingredients required for that late fourth-quarter effort proved perfect preparation for the week ahead, when the Sun would need grit, gusto and some good luck as they headed west for a four-game road trip. Not only would they face a two-game fight against the league-leading Las Vegas Aces, but, to make things more difficult, the second contest in Vegas would be followed by a back-to-back against the Phoenix Mercury.
Today at 6 p.m. ET (Amazon Prime), the Sun will complete their westward swing in the Pacific Northwest versus the Seattle Storm.
But how have the Sun fared in the three games thus far? And what do they need to do to top the trip with a win against a Seattle team that has given them trouble in recent seasons?
Sun learn, apply lessons in Las Vegas
On Tuesday, the Aces defeated the Sun, 89-81.
The margin, however, is deceiving, skewed by a 14-2 fourth quarter run by Connecticut against Vegas’ reserves that required head coach Becky Hammon to reinsert her starters, but, otherwise, did not affect the outcome or overall assessment of the game.
The Sun were outclassed by the Aces, seemingly hanging on by a thread as they struggled to maintain contact with a Vegas squad that looked like the best team in the league.
The Aces jumped on the Sun at the outset, plundering the Sun for four steals and inducing 10 total turnovers in the first quarter. The Aces then turned defense into easy, transition offense. Vegas also effectively weaponized Connecticut’s eagerness to crash the offensive glass, racing up the court after Connecticut misses. The Aces scored 10 of their 22 total fastbreak points in the first quarter.
Although the Sun only were down two points after the first, the slight margin seemed miraculous, not an indication that the Sun also were exploiting the Aces.
Western Conference Player of the Month and 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson outplayed her counterparts in Eastern Conference Player of the Month Alyssa Thomas and 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones. Wilson notched a 24-point and 14-rebound double-double. Thomas also had a double-double of 12 points and 11 boards, but her team-worst plus-minus of minus-15 is a sign of her suboptimal decision making.
J. Jones only scored eight points on just four field goal attempts and two free throw attempts. Whereas Vegas rode their MVP, Connecticut failed to get theirs involved, allowing defensive schemes to take her out of the offensive attack. As noted in last week’s Sun update, J. Jones has yet to play like an MVP this season, a near-necessity for the Sun to beat a team of the Aces’ quality.
Jones was more involved in Thursday’s affair, scoring a team-high 20 points. Possibly not coincidentally, the Sun got the victory, 97-90, snapping the Aces’ seven-game winning streak.
Overall, the Sun asserted their will on the game, establishing a physical, aggressive tone. They flipped Tuesday’s script, nabbing five steals and forcing seven turnovers in the first quarter. The Sun scored 13 points off turnovers in the period. Connecticut’s early effort also was enhanced by incredibly hot first-quarter shooting, including a quartet of 3-pointers from DeWanna Bonner.
Critically, following a subpar second quarter, the Sun came out strong after halftime, dominating the boards in the second half to help them earn the tough dub.
I think they reffed it like a playoff game, a very high-level playoff game....Just super-physical; they weren’t going to give us anything....They came in and just played more physical than us from the jump. However the officiating is going to be called, we have to adjust. And I don’t think we did that.
Plum’s ultimate assessment is correct. If officials permit physicality, the Sun, with their size, athleticism and aggression, should never fail to take advantage.
J. Jones captains comeback in the Valley
In what had been a back-and-forth affair, the Sun seemed to have run out of gas.
With the game knotted at 68-68 after three quarters, the Mercury reeled off a 13-0 run to start the fourth. The rigors of a back-to-back, combined with way too many turnovers, appeared poised to bite Connecticut.
But then the MVP arrived.
Jonquel Jones scored 11 of her team- and season-high 24 points in the fourth quarter, draining a pair of buckets in the paint, swishing a triple and hitting all four of her free throws as she propelled the Sun’s response to the Mercury’s run. Following that 13-0 run, Connecticut outscored Phoenix 24-7, enough to earn the 92-88 win.
Head coach Curt Miller, returned from his stay in health and safety protocols, went with his jumbo lineup of J. Jones-Brionna Jones-Thomas-Bonner-Courtney Williams down the stretch. Connecticut owned the glass in the final period, grabbing 15 rebounds to Phoenix’s three. Both Bonner and Thomas were everywhere. Bonner netted five points, grabbed four boards and a block, while Thomas had four points, five blocks, three assists and a block.
However, it was the smallest Sun on the floor who secured the win. After missing a pull-up jumper with the Sun up by three with just under 10 seconds remaining, Courtney Williams snagged her own rebound, forcing Phoenix to foul and, eventually, send J. Jones to the foul line to ice it.
While this game showed the worst of the Sun, with a season-high 23 turnovers that led to 28 Mercury points, it also demonstrated the best of the Sun, with their ability to dial up their defense, dominate the boards, and, as has happened not often enough this season, get the ball to their MVP.
Can the Sun survive the Storm?
Last season, the Sun lost three times to the Storm, dropping both regular season contests and the Commissioner’s Cup championship due to the Storm’s ability to find cracks in the Sun’s defense and drain jumpers.
This season, the Storm’s shooting has not been as proficient; they sit at the bottom of the league with a true shooting percentage of 49.8 percent and the 10th-ranked effective shooting percentage at 46.1 percent. That the Storm have encountered more significant COVID-induced absences than any other squad somewhat skews these numbers. Nevertheless, outside a few explosive performances, the Storm have been winning with defense, sporting a defensive rating of 93.8.
This defense has grabbed a league-leading 9.9 steals per game, contributing to the 18.1 turnovers per game they have coaxed. The Storm score an average of 18.9 points off these giveaways.
These numbers should raise concern for the too-often turnover-happy Sun.
While the Sun currently top the Storm with 22.4 points off turnovers per game, the Storm take care of the ball, sacrificing only 13.1 turnovers per game. When they do give it up, they have prevented teams for scoring easy buckets, allowing a league-best 12.8 points per game off turnovers and only 7.6 fastbreak points, the second-best mark in the W.
In short, ball security will be of utmost importance for the Sun. Because they cannot expect to score as easily in transition, Connecticut must execute cleanly and effectively in the half court in order to escape Seattle with a victory.