WNBA Finals 2022 – How the Connecticut Sun saved their season for another shot at a WNBA title

Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones sat on the podium after the Connecticut Sun’s 67-64 loss at the Las Vegas Aces on Sunday in Game 1 of the 2022 WNBA Finals. Outside of the first few minutes, it was the kind of game played stylistically to Connecticut’s tastes – more defensive babble than a high-scoring affair. The Sun had a chance to level the score after a 13.4 second timeout, but DeWanna Bonner missed a 3-point try, giving the Aces the win.

It would have been easy for the sun to fixate on it what could have been: Earn a coveted away win in front of a boisterous opposition crowd, especially after they controlled most of the first half and led by as much as eight points early in the third quarter. Instead, the players’ audio was composed in the post-match press conference. Even unshakable.

“We need to have a lot of confidence after this game,” said Thomas. “I mean, this is a three-point game and we had a chance to draw. I think we’re very confident and we know you only need one [win] and then we have two games.”

Jonquel Jones added: “Ultimately I’m happy with the game we played and we gave ourselves a good opportunity to come out with a win and it just didn’t go our way. But we’re excited about Game 2.”

The confidence that the sun channeled on Sunday didn’t come out of nowhere. Faced with elimination in the semifinals, veteran forward Bonner called a players-only meeting following the crushing home loss in Game 3 to Chicago Sky on September 4 for a first finals appearance since 2019; and continuing to play that way remains critical for the Sun to overcome a 0-1 deficit in the Finals and win the franchise’s first WNBA championship.

“I don’t even know if we even found that confidence in the playoffs until we won game four and then it was like, ‘Alright, let’s go,'” Bonner said. “‘This is how we want to play. We want to have fun. We can’t have fun if we play tight.’”

Aside from their Finals counterpart, no team has knocked on the door to win a title as often as the Sun in the last four years. Considering its early franchise history, competing in the 2004 and 2005 WNBA Finals, Connecticut has the unfortunate distinction of having the most non-title playoff wins (36).

In the 2019 Finals, the Sun led the Washington Mystics to a crucial Game 5 before Washington showed up late to win the championship. The Sun reached the semi-finals the next two seasons, 2020 without Jonquel Jones (exit) and 2021 without Alyssa Thomas (hamstring rupture) for most of the summer, but failed to progress both times.

2022 was looking good before longtime point guard Jasmine Thomas suffered a season-ending ACL tear in May. Bria Hartley, who was deployed to increase the team’s backcourt depth, suffered the same injury three games into her Sun career. The team also experienced personal tragedy when coach Curt Miller’s mother died in August.

Most teams facing an uncertain offseason claim that the future is not their priority, but the Sun hasn’t shied away from speaking publicly about their closing championship window. Brionna Jones is the sixth player of the year, along with starters Courtney Williams and Natisha Hiedeman going into the offseason as free agents.

The weight of it all was evident as the sun dug through the postseason, but especially in Game 3 of the semifinals when the series was tied. Connecticut played their favorite “messy” style of basketball, but failed to cross the finish line at home and unusually missed 39% of their shots within 5 feet of the rim. Miller, who was miked during the game, was caught telling national television he would be “fired because we can’t lay up.” After a tough night against Chicago’s length, Jonquel Jones, the 2021 WNBA MVP, sat most of the contest’s closing minutes – a move criticized by some fans – as Miller attempted to end with a smaller lineup centered around Brionna Jones.

What happened next had the potential to end or end their season. And so Bonner reached out to Miller after the game and insisted the team hold a players-only meetup rather than watch more movies.

Bonner said she saw a nervousness and tension that held the Sun back – that they were playing not to make mistakes, not to lose.

“I just sat everyone down and said, ‘Come on, that’s not us,'” Bonner said. “‘Let’s just play as it happens. They kicked our ass anyway, so why not just play?’”

“We weren’t even the first few games of the [semifinals]. In fact, throughout the playoffs, I felt like we just weren’t ourselves.”

Bonner, the oldest player on the roster at 34 and the only one to win a title, has the experience and pedigree to hold the team accountable, having been part of Phoenix Mercury’s championship teams in 2009 and 2014 when she starred alongside Diana as Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter, Brittney Griner and Penny Taylor.

“DB is a champion,” Sun Guard Hiedeman said of Bonner. “She was there. She knows what it takes. Your speeches have been on point lately, so we’ve been feeding on that. … She leads and we follow.”

Miller’s instinct is always to over-prepare, but he said, “At that moment, meeting with our team was just what DB needed and they absolutely benefited from that.”

The Sun stormed out of the gates against the sky in Game 4 with some of the best offensive moves and moves they’ve had in a long time, setting a WNBA playoff record with 66 points in the paint and, Miller said, made them confident about them could play chaotically and disruptively on defense while still being successful offensively.

Bonner, who played in 70 postseason games, said Game 4 felt unlike any playoff game she’s ever played in.

Miller acknowledged that guys like him and the notoriously intense Alyssa Thomas are very competitive, in contrast to players like Jonquel Jones and Courtney Williams, who have upbeat personalities and play better when they’re having fun. But staying loose was what this team needed to rediscover their groove.

“This group certainly thrives on it,” Miller said. “That was the message from the players to each other, that was the message from me, the last thing we said before we spoke [in Game 5]. Have fun.”

Game 5 in Chicago wasn’t entirely fun for the Sun, especially in the third quarter when their offensive execution lay in shambles against Sky’s empowered defensive aggression. The Sun were 11 points down at the start of game four but their defense stayed strong while the transition problem forced them into the lead. They finished the game on an 18-0 run, sending home a stunned crowd at the Wintrust Arena.

The Sun found ways to move the ball well in the second quarter of Game 1 of the Finals as they outplayed the Aces 21-9 and finished Connecticut with 18 assists from 28 baskets compared to Las Vegas’ 8 assists. But the sun stagnated more in the second half, allowing Las Vegas to run its course; and while their coverage efficiency blossomed in Games 4 and 5 of the semifinals, Bonner and Williams scored just eight points in Sunday’s 3-for-18 shooting from the field. At times, Connecticut didn’t seem to know the shot clock, and Miller thought his team didn’t always capitalize on the chances they got against the aces’ zone.

To even out Tuesday’s (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) streak before heading east to Uncasville, Connecticut must come out with a renewed commitment to offensive execution, something that — as the semifinals and even parts of Sunday’s Game 1 proved — proved – – tends to be easier the looser and freer you can play.

And an early 0-1 deficit? As Jonquel Jones posted on Instagram Sunday night, “We’re just getting started.”

“I think if we stick together, anything is possible with this team,” said Bonner at the end of the semifinals. “What we’ve been through this year… it was just crazy. We were just so relentless.

“We work so damn hard, but don’t count us out yet. Because we are relentless.”

https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/34576653/wnba-finals-2022-how-connecticut-sun-saved-their-season-another-shot-wnba-title WNBA Finals 2022 – How the Connecticut Sun saved their season for another shot at a WNBA title

Emma Bowman

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