Sun-Aces showdown will be a defining game for both teams

Kelsey Plum and the Aces will battle Jasmine Thomas and the Sun for playoff positioning Friday night. Chris Poss photo.
Kelsey Plum and the Aces will battle Jasmine Thomas and the Sun for playoff positioning Friday night. Chris Poss photo.

The Connecticut Sun clinched a playoff spot over the weekend, but they’re not satisfied.

Since the 2018 season ended, the team’s goal has been to avoid the one-game playoff rounds of the tournament which has been unkind to them the last two years, as only the top two teams in the standings get the no-single-elimination bonus with a two-round bye.

“I mean that’s always our first goal going into the season is to make playoffs,” point guard Jasmine Thomas said. “So that’s one thing we got taken care of and now we just get to play out for a position.”

“You know, we want to be in that first or second spot for sure.”

A healthy Washington Mystics team has a lock on first. They are 11-1 in since mid-July, and face a relatively easy schedule over these last two weeks of the regular season that includes only three winning teams in their remaining seven games, with two of them at home. The road game is against a Chicago Sky team they have beaten twice already.

So it is likely that Connecticut is playing for second. One major advantage in that quest is their home court dominance, a best-in-league 13-1. But they will need all of that home court magic Friday, as they face the third-place Las Vegas Aces, who stand just a half game behind them for second place.

A win, and the Sun win the season series against Las Vegas, as they already have over Washington. It would also give them a 2.5 game lead over the Aces in the standings. The cushion will be crucial, as Connecticut will still face Los Angeles and Seattle on the road, where the Sun is just 6-7 on the season. Just one of the road victories was over a team with a current record over .500, although that team was Las Vegas.

Tomorrow’s home court showdown is the biggest test of Connecticut’s resolve to stay in second (or possibly steal first).

“It’s the rubber match, obviously, so it’s the tiebreaker,” coach Curt Miller told the Hartford Courant. “It’s a really big game. It’ll be a great crowd, Friday night crowd, and it’ll be a very physical game, that’s for sure.”

The Sun, after a grueling five games in ten days, got some rest this week – an important factor for a team whose bench has been less than stellar. The starters should be able to play extended minutes. The team also brings high confidence into the contest, as they  showed remarkable toughness in a gritty one point victory last week over Seattle, in which they invoked stifling defense to come from seven points down in the last 1:47 for a 79-78 victory.

They followed that on Sunday with a great shooting night (47 percent) over Dallas.

The Aces on the other hand, will be playing their third game this week, which included travelling to Chicago, back to Las Vegas, and now to Connecticut. Their week also included a sloppy overtime win at Phoenix on Tuesday, in which the starters averaged over 35 minutes each. Fatigue could be a factor.

Both over the last five games and on the year, the Aces’ offensive statistics are better by small margins across most categories: points, field goal and three point percentage, rebounds, and free throws. Connecticut turns the ball over less often, and have a distinct steals advantage.

The keys to the game:

Sun:

Thomas has been stellar over the last month, holding her team together, and averaging double-digit scoring. She has a knack for scoring in spots when the team needs her most.

Center Jonquel Jones needs a massive game against dominant Las Vegas posts Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson. Most important, she needs some help on defense to keep her out of foul trouble.

Defense has been winning games for the Sun, with none moreso than the victory over Seattle. They need to play that defense for 40 minutes, which has been problematic throughout the season.

Courtney Williams needs to start hitting shots. The only Connecticut player who can regularly create her own shot, Williams has been rushing things lately, and her accuracy has fallen. Without her ability to scramble defenses, the Sun offense will have a much harder time.

Aces:

The Aces are all about the frontcourt., Cambage is a versatile player who can dominate the low post, then step out and shoot threes.

Wilson, back from an ankle injury that caused her to miss five games, scored nine points in overtime on Wednesday, and is rounding back into All-Star form. A strong game for her could turn the tide.

Jackie Young needs to be effective on offense. The rookie has struggled to score, and is shooting just .319 on the year. As point guard, her ability to protect the ball against the Sun defense will be crucial.

X-Factor: the benches

The Connecticut bench has been disappointing since Layshia Clarendon’s season-ending ankle injury in June, contributing little, and generally surrendering leads. Over the last five games, however, wing Bria Holmes has averaged 10.4 points in 17.8 minutes and hit nine threes. Her long wingspan and quickness are a tough assignment for any of the Las Vegas guards.

The same could be said for the Aces’ bench: little production, and difficulty holding a lead. Dearica Hamby is a double-figure scorer but a streaky shooter, who has been less than stellar of late. She has the height, but not the speed to cover Holmes, as she is more of a four than a three. As such, she has been more a sub for Wilson than for one of the guards.

The winner also wins the season series, which is the key tie-breaker for season standings. A Sun win gives them breathing room, while the Aces, coming from behind, would remain tied in the loss column with Connecticut.