Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s contest between the Connecticut Sun and Chicago Sky, Alyssa Thomas hit DeWanna Bonner for an alley-oop layup. The bucket gave Bonner nine-straight points and the Sun an eight-point lead, 70-62.
After falling down by 17 points in the first half, Connecticut appeared to have recaptured all the momentum, well on their way to an inspiring comeback victory. However, Chicago soon came alive, going on a 13-2 run to retake the lead, 73-72, with five minutes remaining.
Following a tightly-contested final five minutes, the score was knotted at 84 when the final buzzer sounded, forcing the game into overtime. Halfway through the extra period, Courtney Williams drained a 3-pointer to give the Sun a five point advantage, 91-86.
Yet, from there, Connecticut managed to score only one more point, a Jonquel Jones free throw. The Sun’s final four possessions featured four missed pull-up jumpers, three by Williams and one by Bonner. Chicago, in contrast, executed down the stretch, with Courtney Vandersloot expertly orchestrating the Sky offense as she dished a trio of assists and drained a pair of free throws to secure the 95-92 win.
For the Sun, the frustration of the loss was magnified by the fact that it was a third loss to the Sky this season. Of course, Chicago also ended Connecticut’s championship hopes last season, with the 3-1 semifinal series upset. Dating back to the playoffs, the Sky have defeated the Sun five-straight times. Last regular season, Chicago took the season series 2-1, meaning that, over the last 10 meetings between the two teams, Connecticut has won two games and Chicago has won eight.
In short, there hasn’t been much Sun in Sky in 2021 or 2022.
On Sunday, the Sun will have the opportunity to (somewhat) salvage their underperformance against the Sky when the two squads meet in the Windy City for a nationally-televised showdown (1 p.m. ET, ABC).
What can Connecticut do to finally best Chicago?
Rely on the Joneses, not tough jumpers
How the overtime unfolded last Sunday helps to explain why the Sun thrice have fallen to the Sky this season, and why they could be vulnerable to another playoff upset against any opponent.
Down the stretch, the Connecticut offense devolved into Williams and Bonner taking tough jumpers. Certainly, both players are more that capable of making such shots. When Williams gets rolling, she can seem unstoppable, mesmerizingly dribbling into and then draining pull-up jumpers. Bonner likewise can catch fire, throwing up increasingly absurd shots that still find the bottom of the net.
Unfortunately, the boldness that allows Williams and Bonner to be brilliant also can be brutal. Both players are never shy about continuing to take shots, not cowed by consecutive misses or the occasional brick.
However, for a team that employs the Joneses, is the eager shot taking of Williams and Bonner the best offensive strategy?
Jonquel and Brionna Jones are two of the league’s best post players. J. Jones also is a better jump shooter than Williams and Bonner. While Jonquel has had two subpar games against Chicago, she did post 24 points — one less than her season high — in the June 29 matchup between the two teams. Brionna’s scoring and efficiency against Chicago is better than her season-long numbers.
Even though the Sky possess interior personnel that can trouble the Joneses — highlighted by Candace Parker’s elite intelligence and Azurá Stevens’ elite length — both Joneses have proven that they can efficiently get buckets against the Sky when given the green light.
Despite a strong record, the Sun still miss Jasmine Thomas
Here again, however, is where the overtime period of last Sunday’s game is revealing.
Whereas Courtney Vandersloot organized the Sky offense, the Sun resorted to less-than-ideal shots, lacking the kind of playmaker who can make sure that the Joneses get their touches. Although Connecticut admirably has compensated for the near season-long loss of Jasmine Thomas, the Sun’s halfcourt execution, or lack thereof, shows that, even if she is not a Vandersloot-caliber playmaker, Connecticut misses Thomas and her skillset.
Odyssey Sims, the team’s latest roster addition, does not bring much playmaking, as she, like Williams and Natisha Hiedeman, is a score-first guard. Additionally, while Alyssa Thomas has upped her playmaking, evidenced her career-high 6.2 assists, her passing possesses a more powerful punch in transition rather than in the half court because of her limited shooting.
That Jasmine Thomas’ absence was amplified in a clutch-time contest against the league’s best team, which is also the defending champion, suggests that insufficient playmaking, and, in turn, the tendency to turn to boom-or-bust tough jump shots, could doom the Sun in a down-to-the-wire playoff game. Against a team like the (depleted) Phoenix Mercury, who Connecticut took care of twice this week, these shortcomings often are not a problem. But for the Sun, how their strengths and weakness stack up against those of other title contenders, not under-.500 squads, is what matters.
Maybe, on Sunday afternoon, Courtney Williams will pour in midrangers as DeWanna Bonner drains deeper and deeper threes, leading the Sun to a win and avoiding an ignominious season sweep at the hands of the Sky. Although exciting, such an outlier performance should not encourage the Sun to ignore the underlying issues that could cap their playoff ceiling.