Sun rebounded, but must stay there

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas  Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas and Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 24, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas and Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 24, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

The Connecticut Sun entered the All-star break on a high and a league-best four-game winning streak that put them back on top of WNBA standings. It was a statement for a team that had started the season strongly but lost five games in a row before their run, after a key injury and then a long road trip.

To some extent, Connecticut seems to have recovered some of their confidence. What is missing, and for good reasons, is the swagger they displayed in May.

The issues raised during the string of losses have players and coaches seeking solutions. Those included sloppy and low-scoring first quarters, an abundance of turnovers, and long periods of unfocused play.

A return to their home court helped gloss over those issues, but the Sun struggled with some of the same problems in an ugly 69-63 win over the sub-.500 Liberty in their final game before the break.

Coach Curt Miller naturally saw a number of causes to the slump, but what stood out in every one of the losses were slow starts.

“The one common denominator that I saw through that stretch was teams shot consistently over 50 percent in the first quarter,” he said.

“We always felt on our heels, and we were always digging ourselves out of a hole. And so we just could never get ahead. . . . So we had some first quarter struggles defensively in that stretch. So it wasn’t just one thing in that stretch. . . .  Did we have the right game plan in, did we come out flat? I’m not sure. I’m still not sure.”

Veteran point guard Jasmine Thomas ascribed the first quarter problems to “a lack of energy. Those are things that we can control. It’s a work in progress, but it has been acknowledged. It’s something we talk about. It’s a focus for us to get better.”

On June 21, Connecticut was 9-1 and alone at the top of the league. They had already won the season series with Washington, and had a sparkling 18-2 record in regular-season games bridging the 2018 and 2019 seasons. That consistency and dominance was overlooked by national media outlets because the Sun lost a one-game second round playoff in 2018 for the second straight season to Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury.

Their playoff failures and the springtime defection of Chiney Ogwumike combined to push Connecticut to the sidelines of preseason predictions, where they were barely mentioned.

They answered the silence by running off that 9-1 start to this season. Jonquel Jones emerged from Ogwumike’s shadow to dominate the paint, and fans were asking, “Chiney Who?” Suddenly, the Sun were seen as the contender they always had been.

But their win streak was, in some ways, misleading, and the first extended road trip exposed how tenuous their league lead was. Thomas acknowledged that some of their streak had to do more with other teams than with Connecticut.

Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 24, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 24, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

“You know, we started the season off strong,” she said. “A lot of other teams started off either without their full team or with people in different roles, not shooting as well, or not finding their rhythm.”

“So as the season went on a little, I feel like we needed to make some more adjustments. We needed to get ourselves more the way we wanted to be because we weren’t shooting well, we had people inconsistent, myself included, in some slumps. So I feel like going on the road at that time, when everyone knows in this league how hard it is to win on the road, just led to a bad little stretch for us.”

For now, even back at the top of the standings and tied with the Las Vegas Aces, the Sun does not appear to be where they want to be as a team. Each game sees dead stretches, where concentration or motivation seems to wane – usually immediately after a scoring run. Opponents creep back into games.

The injury bug has also caught up with the team. In mid-June the Sun were the only WNBA team which could claim a complete, and completely healthy, roster for the whole season. Then that week in practice, former All-Star and backup point guard Layshia Clarendon injured her ankle in practice, and quickly learned she would have season-ending surgery.

Her energy and leadership was missed more than anticipated, as she had been the antidote to the mid-game slumps. The team had to replace her minutes with reserve guard Rachel Banham – a streaky player who is not a true point guard. It was hardly a replacement, but more of a substitution.

Following the injury, Connecticut garnered one more win at home over lowly Atlanta, but as they hit the road, the wheels fell off.

They began with a double-digit loss to Chicago, then dropped a game to the last-place Dallas Wings. Then they were blown out by 43 points at the home of the Washington Mystics. Their slump was capped by a loss to the Lynx.

Miller saw the slump as an aggregate of things that had been there all along.

“There’s not one thing you could put your finger on,” he said. “There were games where we probably played well enough defensively on some nights to win, but our offense was off.”

“There were nights where our competitiveness was good enough to probably grind out a win, but we had too much defensive slippage. You know, there were certain individuals that in those stretches who had shooting slumps. So as we addressed one leak, something else would open.”

Each of those different negatives seemed to sit heavily on the players, as the losing continued. The team went into a collective shooting slump. Courtney Williams, a third-year player with endless potential, shot just 27 percent from the field during the streak, down from 46 percent in the first 10 games. Shekina Stricklen, the three-point specialist who had been shooting near 50 percent to open the season, shot just 3 of 15 during the losing streak. Even Jones shot poorly for those five games.

Despite four consecutive wins, the team does not seem to have truly recovered from their slump. Three of the recent wins were on their home court, where the Sun are a league-best 9-1. Most important, those four games were against teams with a combined record of 29-49 (.371). In the second half of the season, they will play 11 of 15 games against teams with winning records.

So what does Connecticut need to do to stay on the top of the league?

Thomas said they need to play to their strengths.

Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones looks to shoot during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 24, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones looks to shoot during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 24, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

“We just have to stay focused on what we do well,” she said. “I think sometimes we get so concerned about what other teams do, that we forget to play Sun basketball. Which is defending, you know, playing great help defense, rebounding and getting out and running.”

“When we can get out in transition and get some easy baskets, get some advantages, it then helps our half-court offense. So you know when we play slowly, it gets harder for us. And teams know that, and they are trying to slow us down.”

Teams have discovered that playing Connecticut physically slows them down. Miller observed that the Liberty nearly pulled off a road win in their last game by doing just that.

“There were stretches in the first half where they got us out of rhythm with the physicality”, he admitted. “And I challenged their toughness. I challenged if we had the toughness to beat that team.”

The Sun managed to respond with some toughness, and the support of their home crowd. But Miller and his team know “that’s the kind of game we are going to see in the second half.”

His analysis of the games to come was far more nuanced than that of his point guard. For the coach, the key to keeping their lead through a tough August schedule lies in maturity as much as it does on improved on-court execution.

“People fail to . . .  they forget. We’re proud of the front office commitment to let us keep this core group together [the five starters are together for their fourth season],” he explained. “But we still don’t have a 30-year-old.”

“So sometimes the challenge is the overall professionalism. . . . We can’t practice duration-wise or the preparation-wise, in August. For 11 games in 29 days. We just don’t have that time. So how are they going to keep themselves in shape? What’s their recovery time look like? What’s their nutrition, their sleep patterns? Those are the challenges for a young team that’s not won a championship at this level. Can they sacrifice?”

Miller said such sacrifices include getting enough rest, watching film and the like.

“Being able to continue to prepare like a champion would? . . . Not that it’s not being done, but the commitment to staying with it,” he said. “When we have adversity, can we stop a losing streak, and not let it all of a sudden turn into a five game losing streak? Can we have a bad performance one night and 48 hours later turn around and get back on the right track? All those things are going to be challenges in August.”

Miller conceded that his team has “got to get better.” He began the season asking his them to take care of details on the court, and that hope hasn’t changed. But for the last five weeks, the team has had a tougher time consistently doing those little things. The coach hopes the break gave his team time to reflect on that goal.

“There’s a huge room for improvement in a lot of areas, but it just needs to be a fraction,” Miller said. “A fraction in this area, a fraction in that area. . . .If each player makes a slight improvement, then the team will be a lot better.”

Those little fractions of improvement need to include:

  • Better shot selection by Williams, whose strength is a 15 foot pull up. She is always among the quickest players on the court, but too often that leads to quick shots taken from less than ideal court position.
  • A commitment by Jones to spend more time in the paint. Miller said, “that’s going to be her challenge, to not only score outside but inside. And we know we’re going to go as she goes, and she’s gotta be better, and she knows that.”

“We reminded her, first play of the [Liberty] game we got her a basket on the block, and then it was a long time in between. So, we’ve gotta sprinkle that in, that’s for sure.”

  • Some regular contributions from the bench. Clarendon was the most consistent contributor. Bria Holmes, returning to the game after a year off to have a child, provides a spark, but often seems so hyper-active that her effectiveness is affected. Banham is a calming influence, but is a spotty shooter, and only an average defender. Rookie Kristine Anigwe, a dynamic rebounder and active defender, is slowly adjusting to the speed of the game, and could contribute the most by season’s end. But “she needs to slow down,” according to Miller. “She’s a whirling dervish sometimes when she gets the ball.”

A road win over one of the league’s best teams would be a much-needed boost in confidence, and it would perhaps even be enough to return the swagger the losing streak suppressed.

Connecticut hosts the Chicago Sky tonight at 7 p.m. ET.

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