“They just kicked our a** in every way possible. There’s no two ways about it,” said Becky Hammon immediately after Game Three to open postgame presser questioning. Facing elimination at home, the Sun blitzed the Aces early, ripping off an impressive run after an early timeout. Despite a third-quarter flurry that drew Las Vegas within six points, the Sun tightened up their defense and thrived off turnovers, stealing the ball six times in the fourth. That’s without counting the shot clock violations.
Curt Miller cross-matched (putting a different positional defender on an opposing player; Gray largely didn’t defend Bonner, but Bonner defended her almost the entire game) DeWanna Bonner onto Chelsea Gray for much of the game. Her added length was essential in stifling Gray, holding her to her lowest scoring game of the postseason (11 points) and least field attempts in the playoffs (7).
Bonner was adept at preventing Gray’s dribble penetration, providing that extra margin for error the Sun have lacked much of this series that allowed their off-ball defense to play so aggressively. For the first time in this series, it felt like Connecticut could consistently dictate possessions with their defense instead of playing on their backfoot for most of the game.
The Sun mixed up their coverages, showing traps and hedges to Gray, playing drop when Kelsey Plum ran pick and roll to make it harder for her to get her drives to the rim that punished Connecticut in Game Two. Alyssa Thomas played one of the best defensive games in recent memory, roaming off of Kiah Stokes and Dearica Hamby, mucking up and owning the paint defensively with incredible off-ball defensive rotations. Few can blend her level of timing, balance, and all-out attacking aggression without fouling every other possession.
Thomas’ all-around game was impeccable; dominant defense on and off the ball. She facilitated without hesitation, feeding her teammates off drives, in transition, off of offensive rebounds, and exquisite interior passing to Connecticut’s bigs. Her push shot was vital in exploiting Vegas’ defensive gaps. They are comfortable and have been all series, helping off of Thomas to contain drives, leaving her open on her rolls to the basket off of screens.
She made five of her patented push shots last night, including four straight makes to open the night.
Finishing with the first triple-double in WNBA Finals history encapsulated an incredible game from Thomas and a historic night from the Sun as they moved to 4-0 in elimination games this postseason.
Courtney Williams, Natisha Hiedeman, and Bonner combined to shoot 18/32 after making 16 total shots together across the first two games. The shotmaking was night and day. Las Vegas’ defense was less active, which undoubtedly played a part, but Connecticut’s shooters found a level of comfort in the halfcourt they hadn’t broached since the Semi-Finals.
Establishing themselves inside-out was pivotal, something Curt Miller harped on postgame. He used a timeout just over two minutes into the game as the Aces got out to a 9-2 lead, and the Sun launched up outside jumpers early. With a refocused mindset after the timeout, the Sun got to work, mainly behind the play and interior presence of Jonquel Jones.
Jones scored 20 points last night, but it was 20 points that felt like 37. It was akin to the “what falls faster? A bowling ball or a tennis ball,” the answer is neither (shoutout Galileo), but how can you look at a bowling ball and not feel like it falls faster? It was a much heavier, denser, and impactful 20 points than I could’ve perfectly drawn up.
“She was so physical tonight,” said Miller.
“Demanded the basketball. Active off the basketball in their rotations. You saw a determined JJ the entire time… just really proud with how she played.”
Her physicality was noticeable as soon as the ball tipped. She got to the foul line early, the first points on the board for the Sun. Jones has struggled a bit through contact during the postseason. She hasn’t gotten a bevy of calls in her favor. There have been understandable moments of frustration on either end. Last night was different.
Jones made a concerted effort to dominate in the paint, cement herself with deep seals and post position, and make herself a focal point. It was precisely what the team needed.
That part on rotations and activity without the ball felt like the key in watching and rewatching the game. She made herself a focal point within the flow of the offense.
Jones had moments in the previous two games, particularly in Game Two, where she was aggressive, diving in when spaced or ducking in when her defender had their attention diverted. With more dribble penetration and flow in the halfcourt offense in general, the opportunities grew exponentially for Jones to attack the gaps.
Even when she didn’t score herself, her ability to hit the glass, suck in the defense with her, and move the ball was the lifeblood of the team in the halfcourt.
Attacking the way she did forced defensive collapse and opened up the secondary opportunities the Sun thrived on last night; they outrebounded the Aces by 14, including +7 on the offensive glass. They set a WNBA Finals record, outscoring the Aces 66-24 in the paint.
“Going back to the last game before this one, I felt like I did a good job of that, and I also feel like the earlier I can duck in and do my work, the more opportunities I’m going to have because the defense can’t load up,” said Jones when asked about her aggression finding spots to attack the rim off the ball.
“I have to use those opportunities to get some easy buckets because it’s been tough. The playoffs have been tough. It’s been a lot of (defensive) attention. Anytime I can get an easy bucket, I’m going to try and get it.”
Becky Hammon mentioned that the Aces need to anticipate those duck-ins better. Jones got deep positioning much too often for Hammon’s liking.
With Thomas facilitating more, operating as the Sun’s point guard more often than not, Jones finding another gear of aggression and physicality, and the Sun finding some headway defensively, Game Four is an exciting proposition.
I’m done making predictions this postseason; The Connecticut Sun have repeatedly made me feel mighty foolish about them. While it would feel wrong to expect a win, it feels equally unfair to expect a loss, given the fortitude and grit this team has shown in the face of adversity and elimination. It sounds cliche, but it’s just true. At the highest level and in the most challenging circumstances, the Sun find ways to shine the brightest.
The Aces are undoubtedly coming back extremely motivated for Game Four. They were off in every facet in the loss. Their defense fell apart and was sluggish. Their offensive process was thrown out of whack by Connecticut’s pressure. They were dominated inside the arc in every way possible.
Strap up, folks. We have ourselves a series!
WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.