Trailing 2-0 in the Finals and facing elimination for the fourth time this postseason, the Connecticut Sun responded with their best performance of the 2022 WNBA Playoffs. The end result was a 105-76 win for Connecticut and a 2-1 series heading into Sunday’s Game 4 (4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Below are five key lessons learned after watching the first three games of this series play out.
Connecticut is dangerous with its back against the wall
Anyone that thought the Sun was just going to roll over and let the Aces celebrate their first championship on Connecticut’s home floor has not followed this team for the past six-plus seasons. The phrases “lay down” and “roll over” are simply not in their collective vocabulary.
The Sun are now 4-0 when facing elimination so far this postseason:
- First Round, Game 3 at Dallas: Winner-or-go-home game for both teams
- Semifinals, Game 4 vs. Chicago: Trailing 2-1 in best-of-five
- Semifinals, Game 5 at Chicago: Winner-or-go-home game for both teams
- Finals, Game 3 vs. Las Vegas: Trailing 2-0 in best-of-five
Sun vs. Opponents, when Sun facing elimination
“Connecticut came in, with a better mental approach than we did,” said Aces head coach Becky Hammon. “I don’t know if we thought we were just going it show up and they were going to lay down and hand us the trophy, but we should know better by now. That’s a team that is very resilient. If there’s one thing that this team, if you could encapsulate Connecticut, it’s physical, and very resilient.”
“I think it’s just the MO of our team is when our backs are against the wall, we play really good basketball,” said Jonquel Jones. “Sometimes you wish that you didn’t put yourself in those positions but that’s there now. All we can do is focus on the next game.”
When one team facing elimination, they can play with a sense of desperation that raises their energy level to new heights that can be tough to virtually impossible for the team trying to close out the series can match. What was impressive about Connecticut on Thursday is that they coupled that desperate energy with a sense of poise and focus. When the Aces jumped out to a 9-2 lead in the opening minutes and forced Curt Miller to call timeout, the Sun did not panic.
“They threw the first punch. We didn’t have a great first two minutes but we settled down,” said Miller. “The team, the veterans were talking to themselves before I even got into the huddle going, we’re okay, we have to settle in. We made a couple plays and the game settled in and we were fine.”
The Sun were better than fine coming out of that timeout, they were historically great. After trailing 9-2, the Sun outscored the Aces 32-10 for the rest of the quarter to take a 34-19 lead. The 34 points were the most ever scored in the opening quarter of a WNBA Finals game, and Connecticut’s 82.4% (14-17) shooting was the highest percentage of any quarter in WNBA Finals history.
Entering the Finals, neither the Aces nor Sun had lost three games in a row all season. Connecticut made sure that didn’t happen for the first time with a title on the line. When asked what this win represents for his team, Miller pointed to the toughness of his team.
“Toughness. You know, a grit, a fight, that we’re not going to go away; that we are going to force Vegas to beat us, and you know, it just uncanny how much adversity this team’s had: Two ACL injuries, losing your leader in the locker room right off the bat, for the third year in a row have something we have to pivot from, adversity within our locker rooms, COVID, the passing of my mother, you know, the daily grind that you deal with in a WNBA locker room, all the adversity that we have overcome to put ourselves in this position is just — I’m so proud of them that they just continue to have a grit and a fight and a determination about them.”
Connecticut happy to be home … particularly on offense
After Las Vegas’ win in Game 2, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich – who helped launched Hammon’s coaching career – was dragged into the Aces locker room by Hammon and addressed the team. He shared a message that he tells his teams, that the sweetest wins come on the road.
Getting that sweet road win and closing out the Finals in Connecticut is going to be a tough task as the Sun have shown throughout this postseason. The numbers – particular on offense – are stunning. The Sun have averaged nearly 20 more points at home (90.6 ppg in five games) than on the road (70.8 ppg in six games).
Take a look at these numbers:
- Off Rating: 113.8 (home), 91.4 (road)
- Def Rating: 97.7 (home), 90.5 (road)
- Net Rating: 16.1 (home), 0.9 (road)
- True Shooting%: 57.9% (home), 46.3% (road)
In their last two home games – facing elimination in Game 4 of the Semifinals against Chicago and Game 2 of the Finals against Las Vegas, the Sun have posted their two highest scoring totals in their playoff history: 104 points against the Sky and 105 points against the Aces.
“They are home. The momentum’s swinging. It was nothing — it was just energy, energy-wise and we lacked that, and I’m going to take full accountability of that,” said Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson. “We lacked energy at the end of the day and you need that coming into a road game like this with the first road game and they just had more energy than us. They looked new. They looked fresh. I think that was the biggest difference. They just came out and wanted it more and we can’t be like that. I don’t care what game it is; we can’t be like that at all.”
There are certain phrases in sports that become cliché and the benefit of “sleeping in my own bed” is frequently used when discussing the benefits of playing at home. On Thursday, it was DeWanna Bonner that broke it out when describing how being at home help her have her best game of the series.
“My teammates, thank goodness for my teammates because it was a rough two games for me in Vegas,” she said. “They just told me to stay confident and that’s what I did. And man, I got to sleep in my own bed. Being at home just feels so much better because we were on the road for like seven or eight days. With the playoffs, I feel like we’ve been on the road a lot and it was just so good to be home in front of these fans. I can’t shoot like that in front of them again.”
DeWanna Bonner unlocked on both ends of the court
Bonner shot just 1-of-9 from the field in each of the first two games of the Finals as she scored a total of five points on 11.1% shooting in Las Vegas. As the only player on the Sun roster with a WNBA championship (Bonner won in 2009 and 2014 with Phoenix), Bonner’s production on the court and leadership is critical to Connecticut’s championship aspirations.
In Game 3, Bonner’s offense woke up as she scored 15 points on 8-of-15 shooting and buried a pair of 3 pointers – including one off glass early in the third quarter to push the Sun’s lead back to 16 after the Aces had trimmed a 23-point advantage to 11 at halftime.
But as important as it was for Bonner to get going on offense, her biggest impact in Game 3 came on the defensive side of the ball as she drew the assignment as the primary defender on Chelsea Gray, who has been in video game mode with her shot making during this year’s playoffs.
After scoring 21 points in each of the first two games – and shooting 54.5% from the field on mostly contested shots – Gray was held to 11 points in Game 3, including zero in the second half. Putting the 6-foot-4 Bonner – and her 7-foot plus wingspan (a fact that was debated in the postgame press conference as ESPN’s Holly Rowe reported it as being 7-foot-4) – on the 5-foot-11 Gray was a key adjustment for Miller and the Sun to try to slow down Gray’s historic playoff pace.
“Length. Length,” Miller said of his decision to go with Bonner on Gray. “Chelsea Gray’s numbers are historic right now on contested shots. So, we are pleased going into tonight, two games, 27 of her 33 shots in this series had been contested. 27 contested shots. So, we were staying in place with her, trying to make them difficult but she has an incredible release point and incredible knack of scoring while contested. So, we decided a little bit more length on her, and we knew everyone’s going to guard her, everyone’s going to guard her tonight. But let’s put some length on her.”
Bonner’s defense began in the backcourt as she pressured Gray the moment she took an inbounds or an outlet pass. Once Gray got past half court to set up the Aces offense, the Sun brought a hard hedge on nearly every screen to pressure Gray, force the ball out of her hands, often having to retreat toward midcourt to find some space to see an open teammate. All of this disrupted the flow of Las Vegas’ offense, took them out of their normal rhythm, forced shots up against the shot clock and forced turnovers. Las Vegas finished with 16 turnovers that led to 28 Connecticut points.
“I’m just trying to stay locked in and limit her touches as much as I can, not give her too much room. Try to use my length more than anything,” said Bonner. “I’m a 6-4 guard for a reason so I just try to use my length, use my speed because I don’t even know how she’s been playing. Like she’s been playing incredible basketball. However, I can limit her touches or try to limit her from seeing the basket, get a clean look at the basket is what I’m trying to do before she even gets her a spot.”
Playoff series are often described as chess matches with both teams making adjustments from game-to-game to try to find an advantage. Miller unleashing Bonner on Gray was a huge move for the Sun – akin to being the first player to unleash the queen in a chess match – and now it’s time for Las Vegas to adjust to that move and come up with a better counter to help free Gray and get their offense back on track.
“They really trapped Chelsea hard, and we didn’t do a great job, personally, me, like figuring out — getting to those outlets,” said Kelsey Plum. “Becky calls it a .5 pass; so making a decision in .5 seconds. Like the ball stuck a lot and that was my fault, picked up the dribble a lot. Yeah, I mean, you have to give credit to their defense. They were super aggressive and they full rotated, and they made us hit, like, the third pass. We just didn’t keep the ball moving, and, you know, that’s on me. I’ll go back and watch the film and be better for Sunday.”
“I’m not surprised they did [put Bonner on Gray],” said Hammon. “Why wouldn’t you try something different? That’s about the only matchup they didn’t try. So, I think it’s a good adjustment by them. And when they had early success with it, it fuels the fire when you don’t burn it early. So again, we’ll go back, look at some tapes and things we can do better.
“You know, but at the end of the day, as great as they were, I think we were way below average in things that we needed to do, and things that we can control. You can’t control what they do. You can’t control the adjustments or what they do but in things that we can control, we can do much better.”
Alyssa Thomas makes WNBA history
In a game that saw the Sun set several WNBA Finals records as a team, Alyssa Thomas also put her name in the WNBA record books as she became the first player in league history to record a triple-double in a WNBA Finals game. Thomas finished with 16 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists in 34 minutes of action as her entire skillset was on full display.
“She kind of gets us going. She been doing this all year, so shout out to her for getting another triple-double but to do it in playoffs is unbelievable,” said Bonner. “She brings a toughness to our team. Really when you say she’s the engine, she’s the engine. Don’t use that loosely. Shout out to her. We were able to hit a couple shots tonight so she could get her triple-double, so she needs to thank me (laughing).”
There may not be a nickname better suited for a player than “The Engine” for Alyssa Thomas. Her energy, passion, toughness and skill drive this Connecticut team; when Thomas is at her best, this Sun team is nearly impossible to stop, making her one coach’s dream (Curt Miller) and another’s nightmare (Becky Hammon).
“She’s a beast,” said Hammon. “I went to a UFC fight the other night; I would not want to get in the cage with her. She is just tough. Tough, tough, tough. Tough, and then a playmaker. You know, I think they do a good job of finding her in spots where she can be effective but also, she does a nice job of trying to find her teammates, reading defenses constantly. She’s the point guard, basically, in a lot of ways. So, when she’s making great reads like that, they become very hard to guard.”
On Thursday, “The Engine” not only got revved up into high gear, Thomas went Fast and Furious style and hit the NOS to help the Sun blow past the Aces and get back into this series.
“For me I approached the game like I approached any other game,” said Thomas. “I think we just wanted it. We’ve been struggling offensively. We haven’t really been hitting shots and tonight we came out ready. My teammates hit their shots and I always say without them, none of these triple-doubles are possible.”
In 224 career games in the regular season and playoffs from her WNBA debut in 2014 through 2021, Thomas had zero triple-doubles. In 47 games in 2022, Thomas has three triple-doubles – becoming the first player in league history with three in a single season, and tying Candace Parker and Sabrina Ionescu for the most in a career.
“She’s probably the toughest player I’ve ever coached, but she’s the most consistent player in terms of effort that I’ve ever been around,” said Miller. “I know what I’m going to get every single day if that’s how she plays and that’s what makes her special. She doesn’t know how to play other than that way.”
Aces have two days to regroup and prepare for their next chance to close the series
After just one day off (that included travel from Las Vegas to Connecticut) between Games 2 and 3, there are two off days heading into Sunday’s pivotal Game 4.
The Sun will once again be facing elimination, but got a serious confidence boost from Thursday’s win. The Aces will have another shot to close out the series after suffering just their second loss of the entire playoffs. After their last loss (Game 1 of the Semifinals against Seattle), the Aces bounced back with a five-game win streak. They don’t need five wins here; they only need one.
“Oh, I’ve got a ticked off crew in there,” said Hammon. “I’m not going to have to say much. Go back. Look at ways we can exploit what they are doing and go throw the ball up. This game was about physicality and mental toughness, and they smoked us on it, period. The physical follows, but the mental for them was there and not us. And kudos to them for executing their game plan and executing it hard. They didn’t do it a whole lot different. They just did it harder. They have been blitzing us the whole series. They just did it harder, and we responded soft.”
The Aces are 3-0 this postseason with two days rest, with an average margin of victory of 19.3 points per game. The extra day not only gives the team more time to strategize and look for solutions to what the Sun threw at them in Game 3 – most notably the defense on Gray and how slowing down the head of the snake, threw off the entire flow of the team – the extra day off could help Dearica Hamby as she continues to deal with the bone bruise in her knee. In Game 3, she finished with just two points and one rebound in 12 minutes after giving Vegas such a huge boost in both Games 1 and 2.
While the Aces are unbeaten on two days rest, the Sun are just 1-3 in such games this postseason. However, being at home and facing elimination have brought the best out of the Sun, will we see it again on Sunday?
Longtime WNBA reporter Brian Martin writes articles on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.