“Tell ‘em a bunch of role players did that!” Courtney Williams energetically exclaimed after Connecticut’s 94-68 win over Los Angeles in Game 2 of their Semifinal series.
The Connecticut Sun have taken the “nobody believes in us” mantra to new heights throughout this year’s WNBA Playoffs. It started on Sept. 14 – on the eve of the second round – when the team launched the following video:
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) September 14, 2019
Small Market. No Mega-Stars. No One Thought We’d Make It This Far. Those words were followed by a voiceover from WNBA analysts and pundits while various tweets and headlines questioning the Sun’s odds to make a championship run flashed across the screen. The screen then went to black as the letters D-I-S-R-E-S-P-E-CT slowly spell out the disrespect with the CT highlighted in orange while the rest of the text is white. It ends with Jasmine Thomas quoting the team’s tagline for the season. Burn. It. Down.
It was all the bulletin board material a coach would use to motivate a team wrapped up in a well-produced one-minute video. A galvanizing call to the team and its fans that the rest of the league and the so-called experts that cover it can doubt us, but we’re going to show everyone what we’re made of.
Then it went to another level the following day when Jasmine Thomas was a guest on the ESPN WNBA halftime show during the second round games. It should be noted that the Sun were knocked out of the last two playoffs in the single-elimination second round by the Phoenix Mercury. By finishing this season with a top two seed, they earned the double bye to the Semifinals, which allowed Thomas a chance to discuss the games taking place and the Sun’s playoff outlook with the ESPN studio crew.
Hey! We know her!
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) September 15, 2019
It was all smiles until this happened.
Game 2 | Thursday | 6:30 PM
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) September 18, 2019
The stone-faced look on Thomas as she listened to her team be criticized for not have the star power of other teams was fascinating to see in real time and made for a perfect sequel for the DISRESPECT campaign.
It was the proverbial match that gets flicked onto a trail of gasoline and leads to a huge explosion and someone walking away as flames engulf the background. Now picture it as 12 players emerging from that fireball and walking into a WNBA playoff game ready to wreak havoc. That’s the Connecticut Sun right now.
For the sake of my mentions, I am not about to disrespect the Sun right now. But when you compare the resumes of the rosters between the Sun and Sparks there was a clear edge for the Sparks when it comes to accolades.
– Connecticut: 1 MIP, 1 Sixth, 1 All-WNBA selection
– Los Angeles: 3 MVPs, 2 DPOYs, 3 ROYs, 1 Sixth, 13 All-WNBA selections
Of course, basketball is not played on paper. And all the awards that the Sparks players earned over the course of their respective careers did not help them once the Semifinal series tipped off.
Three games. Three Connecticut wins with an average margin of victory of 19 points. One trip to the WNBA Finals, the first for the franchise since 2005.
🧹IT'S A SWEEP. 🧹
These Role Players are going to the WNBA Finals.
Get with us or get out of the way.
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) September 23, 2019
The Sun are leaning into the “Role Players” label as a way to taunt everyone that questioned them on their way to the Finals.
It is often said that stars are made in the playoffs, and that has held true for the Sun. With the spotlight shined on them, the Sun have made a strong statement that they have the game and the personality to be stars in this league today and for years to come.
To bring everything full circle, I believe it is how well Connecticut’s star players fulfill their roles and work as such a cohesive unit that has brought them just three wins away from their first WNBA championship.
Jasmine Thomas: The captain is a force on both ends of the court. She runs the offense with a steady hand, setting up her teammates or calling her own number like she did in the Game 3 clincher against L.A. when she dropped a playoff career-high 29 points. She is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league as she was just named to her third straight All-Defensive First Team.
Alyssa Thomas: They call her the engine and for good reason. Similar to Jasmine, Alyssa Thomas makes her presence felt all over the court. She’s one of the best playmaking forwards in the league and has a combination of skill and strength that not many players can match. Her toughness can’t be overstated as she continues to play with a pair of torn labrums that would sideline just about any other player.
Courtney Williams: She’ll be the first to tell you that she is a walking bucket. No player brings more swagger to the Sun than Williams. She also has her own hype man in her father – Don Williams – who has become a star in his own right during this playoff run. Courtney is averaging a team-high 19.0 points in the playoffs to go with her endless energy.
Jonquel Jones: Board woman gets paid! Jones is the muscle in the middle for the Sun. She led the WNBA in total rebounds and offensive rebounds and tied for the league lead in blocks during the regular season and has done more of the same in the playoffs. Against L.A. she averaged 5.0 offensive rebounds per game as the Sun dominated the glass and protected the rim with 2.3 blocks per game.
Shekinna Stricklen: Stricklen is the sharpshooter of the squad as she finished third in the WNBA in 3-pointers made this season. Having a threat like Stricklen on the perimeter opens the floor for the rest of the team to operate, as defenses have to respect her shot. However, Stricklen’s shot was not falling against L.A. as she made only three of her 16 attempts. Don’t expect that to happen for long.
The Sun are only the fourth team in WNBA history to start the same starting five for every game during the season and nothing has changed in the postseason.
No other team has gone 37 consecutive games from the start of the season with the same starters.
Only 11 teams have started 37+ games with the same lineup in a single season.
9 of them won the WNBA championship. All 11 made it to the Finals.
— Across the Timeline (@WBBTimeline) September 22, 2019
The Sun have been fortunate to have good health with their core group to allow them to have that type of continuity from May through September. The starting five averaged 16.9 minutes per game during the regular season and has increased that average to 18.4 minutes per game in the playoffs. Both of those marks lead the entire league.
During the regular season, that five-player lineup played 250 more minutes than any other lineup in the entire league. That’s 250 more minutes to learn one another and build the type of on-court chemistry that allows every player on the floor to know where their teammates will be at all times, to know where and when to get a teammate the ball to help them succeed, to sense when a screen or cut is coming a half-second before an opponent sees it coming.
That chemistry combined with an egalitarian style of play that doesn’t focus on one player but allows everyone to flourish set the Sun apart from other teams. During the regular season, Jones led the Sun at 14.6 points per game as Connecticut finished with four players averaging in double figures and all five starters averaging at least nine points per game.
Jones scored 24.4 percent of Connecticut’s points while she was on the court, which is a much lower percentage than the top players from the other two teams remaining in the playoffs. Liz Cambage scored 30.5 percent of Las Vegas’ points while she’s on court, while MVP Elena Delle Donne scored 29.6 percent of Washington’s points while on court.
Connecticut’s balanced scoring was on full display in the Semifinals against Los Angeles as the Sun had a different leading scorer in each game.
Game 1: Alyssa Thomas 22 PTS, 10 REB; four starters with 15+ PTS
Game 2: Jonquel Jones 27 PTS, 13 REB; Courtney Williams 25 PTS, 6 AST
Game 3: Jasmine Thomas 29 PTS, 4 AST; Courtney Williams 17 PTS, 13 REB
This is a case when not having a “mega-star player” can actually be a bit of an advantage. When you know a team is always looking for a particular player to score, you can hone in on that player and strategize ways to slow them down with different looks on defense. When you don’t know who is going to have the hot hand on a given night, its more difficult to game plan for that type of attack.
When the WNBA Finals tip off on Sunday (3 PM/ET on ESPN), the Connecticut Sun will have another opportunity to earn their respect and show the world that they are not a bunch of role players, but rather a bunch of stars that are great at playing their roles to become one of the best teams in the WNBA.