From sweep-less in Seattle to sweeping Seattle!
Last season, the Seattle Storm had the Connecticut Sun’s number, with the Storm taking all three matchups against the Sun, including the Commissioner’s Cup championship game.
This season, the Sun turned the tables, as Thursday night’s 88-83 victory over the Storm gave Connecticut the 3-0 regular-season series sweep over Seattle.
That it was on Sue Bird Day — when the devotees of Husky Nation descended on Mohegan Sun Arena to be part of the sellout crowd that would witness Bird’s last (regular-season) game in Connecticut (and exult upon each of her four made threes) — might have made the win sweeter.
However, the victory also had more consequential ramifications.
Not only did the Sun clinch the playoffs for a sixth-straight season, but they also are in strong position to secure a top three playoff seed, which would allow them, in all likelihood, to avoid a first-round tilt with the Storm or Washington Mystics and instead face a (somewhat) friendlier foe in one of the four (or five or six) under-.500 teams fighting for the the final three playoff spots.
Connecticut currently holds a two-game lead over both Seattle and Washington for the third spot. All three teams have seven remaining games.
So how did the Sun manage to sweep the squad that gave them so much trouble last season?
Return of AT helped CT flip the script on SEA
In large part, roster recomposition explains why the Sun-Storm series took on a different texture this season.
This past offseason, Seattle decided to bolster their defense, swapping Katie Lou Samuelson for Gabby Williams while also luring Briann January from Connecticut to the Pacific Northwest. This offense-to-defense shift is evident in how the Storm have performed against the Sun. Last season, Seattle flashed their offensive prowess against Connecticut, bettering their season-long offensive net rating of 103.6 to 109.1 in the two regular-season games against the Sun.
This season, the Storm’s offense has not operated at full capacity against the Sun, a circumstance for which the Connecticut defense also deserves credit. While, overall, the 2021 Sun sported a better defensive rating (91.7), the 2022 Sun (97.0 defensive rating) arguably are better equipped to guard the Storm.
The return of Alyssa Thomas, who missed last season’s two regular-season matchups due to her nearly season-long Achilles injury, has much to do with this.
Although Breanna Stewart, one of the league’s leading MVP candidates, will almost always get hers, evidenced by the team-high 17 points she tallied on Thursday night, the dogged Thomas did not make things easy for her. In the tightly-contested fourth quarter, Stewart missed her last three jump shots, a likely indication of the fatigue accumulated from battling Thomas and the Sun’s other long and strong defenders. Thomas also used her physicality to wrestle away a pass intended for Stewart as the game clock ticked under two minutes and the Sun clung to a three-point lead.
Thomas also juiced the Sun’s offense. While one traditionally imagines Thomas fueling the Connecticut transition game, the Storm, one of the league’s best teams at preventing opponents from scoring points off turnovers or on the break, were more successful than most teams in limiting the Sun from scoring too many of these easy buckets.
Rather, Thomas provided important playmaking in the halfcourt, helping a Sun offense that can sometimes stall out find and create cracks in a stout Seattle defense. In the three Sun-Storm contests, Thomas totaled 31 assists, with 11 of these dishes coming on Thursday. In the halfcourt, the Engine often operated from the free throw line and elbows, pinging passes to shooters or initiating high-low action with Jonquel Jones.
Thomas’ 11 assists combined with her 19 points to give the Eastern Conference Player of the Week another double-double.
How the Sun escaped with the win
Yet, for all the ways Thomas boosted the Sun, the game hung in the balance until the final buzzer sounded.
Each time Connecticut appeared on the verge of extending a lead into double digits, Seattle responded. With just over eight minutes remaining in the game, Connecticut went up by nine points, 79-70, only for Seattle to respond with a 9-0 run and tie the contest at 79 with under six minutes to go.
After an impressive layup by Gabby Williams knotted the game at 83 under the three-minute mark, Natisha Hiedeman fearlessly fired a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Connecticut the three-point lead, 86-83.
From there, both teams struggled to put the ball in the basket, as the Sun missed a number of easy looks that could have proven costly.
When Stewart misfired a 3-pointer that would have again tied the game with 13 seconds remaining, DeWanna Bonner skied for the clutch rebound. Seattle then was forced to foul, with Courtney Williams sinking two free throws with seven seconds left to seal the victory.
Both Bonner and C. Williams had solid all-round games, with Bonner posting a 12-point and 10-rebound double-double and C. Williams adding five rebounds and three steals to her 12 points. Super sixth woman Brionna Jones also was her always steady self, chipping in 13 points and five boards.
Interestingly, head coach Curt Miller did not opt to close with his jumbo foursome of Jones-Jones-Thomas-Bonner, as has been the case in most tight games this season. Instead, after giving Thomas a quick breather, Miller subbed her in for Jonquel Jones with approximately two minutes to go. Miller going with his two small guards in Williams and Hiedeman over the reigning MVP was a curious choice. However, rather than a significant strategic shift, this decision could be explained by the fact that J. Jones only recently has returned from a stay in the health and safety protocols.
A few final notes
Since the All-Star break, the Sun are 5-1, suggesting, after some uneven midseason play, Connecticut could be beginning to peak at the right time. Sunday’s contest against the Chicago Sky (1 p.m. ET, NBA TV) will be an important data point in evaluating the Sun’s playoff upside.
But it’s not all good news for the Sun.
The recently-acquired Bria Hartley tore her ACL in Connecticut’s win over the Minnesota Lynx last Sunday. It is some brutally bad luck for Hartley, who might have been on her way to re-establishing her footing in the WNBA after tearing her ACL in her other knee in 2020.
The Sun replaced Hartley with Kiana Williams, the national championship-winning point guard for the 2021 Stanford Cardinal who, after spending her rookie season with the Storm, saw action in three games with Seattle this season before bouncing around the league on several temporary hardship contracts.