It seems like the All-Star break served the Connecticut Sun well.
The Sun stumbled into the midseason(ish) pause, losing four of their last six games and raising questions about their status as a championship contender.
Out of the break, Connecticut has looked more like the best version of itself, with a pair of dominating road wins over the Indiana Fever, 89-81, and Atlanta Dream, 93-68. In particular, the team has, at least temporarily, rectified the ill that repeatedly beset it before the break — subpar first quarters. After winning the opening quarter over the Fever 21-14 on Wednesday afternoon, the Sun blitzed the Dream in the first quarter on Friday night, 28-15.
The @ConnecticutSun ball movement is just *chef's kiss* pic.twitter.com/LwtIgl8Xo9— WNBA (@WNBA) July 16, 2022
However, it cannot be disputed that Connecticut has faced two ideal opponents, as the Sun have owned both the Fever and Dream this season. Connecticut’s victory over Indy gave the Sun the 4-0 season sweep. They have had no trouble taking all three games against the Dream. In this week’s most recent matchups, they deployed their versatile defensive capabilities to cause problems for the WNBA’s bottom-ranked offenses.
IN. TRANSITION. #CTSun pic.twitter.com/F5krFuTNY1— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) July 13, 2022
Sunday afternoon, Connecticut will encounter a much tougher test, which will offer a more informative assessment of their upside. At 1 p.m. ET on ABC, the Sun host the Las Vegas Aces.
Can Connecticut ace test against Vegas?
Similar to the Sun, the Aces’ immediate pre-All-Star break play was not inspiring, as they dropped five of seven games as their defense disappeared.
In their first post-All-Star contest against the New York Liberty, Vegas got the win but still allowed New York to light up the scoreboard for 101 points. In a rematch two days later, the Aces appeared to have rediscovered their defense, holding the Liberty to 74 points as they romped to the 108-74 victory.
As evident by the fact that they racked up 215 total points over the two games, the Aces offense has not been a problem, with this recent scoring rampage propelling them to a league-leading 109.1 offense rating — almost four points better than the Chicago Sky’s second-ranked offense.
The Sun and Aces previously met for a two-game set in Sin City as the calendar turned from May to June. Although never able to put Connecticut away, Vegas controlled the first contest, winning 89-81. In the second game, a scorching first quarter positioned the Sun for the 97-90 win in what became a chippy affair.
Some fireworks could fly on Sunday afternoon, whether due to an offensive explosion or physical play.
The key question for the Sun’s chances: If Connecticut cannot contain the Vegas offense, will it also impact their ability to score with the Aces?
Turning defense into offense is essential for the Sun, especially if 3-pointers are not falling. Repeatedly taking the ball out of the basket will require the Sun to generate consistent halfcourt offense, something that does not always come easy. While the Vegas defense has proven exploitable, they have successfully limited opponent’s points in the paint and second-chance points — the primary ways that Connecticut scores against set defenses. A jump shooting exhibition from the likes of Courtney Williams or DeWanna Bonner certainly could render these concerns moot. Yet, counting on the two streaky scorers to drain tough buckets is not the best recipe for success.
Rather, the Sun must play near their peak on both ends if they are to take down the Aces.
Bria it on?
The coming week presents three more potentially informative contests for Connecticut, with the Sun welcoming the Liberty for a day game on Tuesday before heading to Minnesota for a two-game set against the Lynx on Friday and Sunday. On June 22, a slow start doomed Connecticut against New York, contributing their inability to complete a comeback and, instead, forcing them take the 81-77 defeat. The Sun have yet to face the Lynx this season.
We also might see a slightly different Sun team. According to Khristina Williams, the Sun are expected to sign Bria Hartley, who was waived by Indiana.
It is hard to see the Hartley we have seen this season helping the Sun. She has played in only 10 games, averaging 8.7 minutes and 2.5 points. It is arguable that the Fever — a team invested in developing young players — chose not to try to maximize the veteran guard.
Last year, coming off an ACL injury, Hartley saw action in just six regular season games with the Phoenix Mercury. She did play in 10 games during the Mercury’s run to the WNBA Finals, seeing the floor for less than 10 minutes per game as she struggled to find her shot.
However, before her ACL tear in 2020, Hartley was putting together the best season of her career as a superb sixth woman for Phoenix. In 13 games in the WNBA bubble, she was scoring a career-high 14.6 points per game on career-high shooting percentages from the field (42 percent) and from 3 (38.5 percent). She also tallied career-best assist (4.5 per game) and steal (1.2 per game) numbers.
If Hartley can tap back into the player she showed herself to be in 2020, she certainly can help a Sun team lacking reliable guard depth. So far, it does not seem that head coach Curt Miller trusts Nia Clouden or Jazmine Jones in high-leverage situations, leaving playmaking duties to Alyssa Thomas if both of Natisha Hiedeman and Courtney Williams are not on the floor.
A Hartley who can drain open jumpers, create for herself and others and be active on the defensive end would increase the Sun’s championship equity.