After two early exits, Sun looking for some byes

Courtney Williams, Shekinna Stricklen, Jasmine Thomas and Jonquel Jones celebrate Stricklen's game-winning three-point shot against the Storm. Chris Poss photo.
Courtney Williams, Shekinna Stricklen, Jasmine Thomas and Jonquel Jones celebrate Stricklen’s game-winning three-point shot against the Storm. Chris Poss photo.

With less than a week left of the regular season, the Connecticut Sun are so very close to winning a jackpot of sorts.

The 22-9, second-place Sun need only a single victory – or a Los Angeles Sparks loss – to guarantee them the second spot and secure a double-bye into the playoffs. And given their first round exits the last two years, a high seed this season is worth fighting for.

Though they have struggled on the road, Connecticut is a league-best 14-1 at home, with their 2011 franchise record of 15-2 in reach, as they have two more home games to play.

Their first opponent Wednesday is 10-21 Dallas, with the fifth-place, 19-13 Chicago Sky visiting Friday. The Sun’s last game is Sunday against the 11-21 Fever, in Indianapolis.

Heading into the playoffs, it seems all but certain that Connecticut will meet their year-long goal of finishing in the top two, and avoiding the first-round one-game playoff series. They have proven their ability to win close games more than a few times this season.

What have we learned through this season that can help and hurt them in the playoffs? There’s a lot more good than bad to catalog, but we can be sure coach Curt Miller is stressing the deficits as the season draws to a close.

Jasmine Thomas out-reaches the defense for ball possession. Chris Poss photo.
Jasmine Thomas out-reaches the defense for ball possession. Chris Poss photo.

Strengths:

Coaching: After three seasons under Anne Donovan, the Sun hired Miller in 2016. After a first year (14-20) in which he rebuilt the roster with young players and instituted a disciplined approach to winning, Miller has led Connecticut to three consecutive 20-plus win seasons. They are the only team to accomplish this feat over the last three years.

Home court: The Sun simply refuse to lose on their home court this year. The most dramatic example of that came Aug. 16, when they came back from seven points down with just 1:47 remaining to defeat Seattle, 79-78. Connecticut, which can be an outstanding defensive team, forced five turnovers during that brief stretch.

Starting five: The starters have been together for three years now, and their team chemistry is second to none. They have a feel for who is hot, and each of them is willing to let that player or players have the spotlight when the time is right. Egos simply don’t get in the way of this team’s performance.

Jasmine Thomas, the point guard and dean of the team, just turned 30, and is the oldest player. She leads the team and, when needed, can take over the scoring.

Alyssa Thomas – perhaps the fastest and strongest player in the league at her height (6-2) – is also the team facilitator from the power forward position. She does not score outside 10 feet, and shoots just .500 from the free throw line. But those offensive limitations are not enough to keep her outstanding defense and 12 ppg, 8 rpg stats off the floor. In the last few weeks Thomas has been electrifying, with games of 27, 22, 20, and 17 points in the last six contests.

Center Jonquel Jones leads the WNBA in rebounds (9.9) and blocks (2.2) per game. After a torrid start, during which she led the league in points per game as well, Jones has tapered off a bit. Nonetheless, she notched her 26th double-double of the season this weekend. At 6-6, Jones has become a premier rim-protector this year, and has held her own against most of the other centers in the league. For the Sun to win it all, however, she needs to be in top form, and totally focused.

Courtney Williams may be among the most under-rated players in the league. One of the precious few who can always create her own shot, Williams specializes in the pull-up jumper. Lately she has been on fire, which is a good sign for Connecticut.

The fifth starter, Shekinna Stricklen, is a three-point specialist who won the three-point contest at July’s All-Star game. She ranks third in the league in that category. Stricklen is a bit streaky, but when she hits three threes in a game, the Sun invariably win. Her .376 success rate ranks 15th in the WNBA. Stricklen is often criticized, even by herself, as a poor defender, but she has improved yearly, and her anticipation can make up for limited foot speed.

Alyssa Thomas has been a pillar of consistency for Connecticut. Chris Poss photo.
Alyssa Thomas has been a pillar of consistency for Connecticut. Chris Poss photo.

Defense and running Connecticut has the second-highest league defensive rating (Aces are first), and lead the league in both fast break points and second-chance points. When the team maintains defensive focus, good things always happen.

Clutch wins are defined as a team’s ability to close out games which are within five points under five minutes. The Sun lead the league in this advanced statistic, with 12 wins in 17 games. Significantly, Washington is just 4-4 in clutch games -partly because they don’t allow them to happen.

Weaknesses

Concentration This season has been a catalog of ways to let big leads slip away. In nearly every game the starters are put under tremendous pressure on to rescue leads lost by the bench, or sometimes, by themselves. [See, however, Clutch wins, above.] Miller has repeatedly mentioned his team’s failure to concentrate for 40 minutes. Connecticut averages only three points more than its opponents on the season, whereas the Mystics have an 11.3 point margin of victory. The upside is that the Sun have frequently been able to salvage those games.

Bench The bench more often than not, loses leads. The closest to a reliable bench player is 6-1 wing Bria Holmes, whose length and quickness can be outstanding, but whose decision making and help defense are a work in progress. The rest of the bench really has done nothing impressive at all. When they enter the game, Connecticut fans hold their collective breath.

Jonquel Jones has become one of the WNBA's premiere rim protectors. Chris Poss photo.
Jonquel Jones has become one of the WNBA’s premiere rim protectors. Chris Poss photo.

Washington The relatively easy remaining schedule (New York on the road, Dallas and Chicago at home) makes it likely that the Mystics will retain first place, though their last loss was to Chicago on the road. Washington therefore would hold home court if they meet the Sun in the Finals. Although Connecticut won the season series, both victories were at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Mystics won the two teams’ last meeting, in D.C., 102-59, which was the Sun’s worst loss on the year.

For now, of course, Connecticut just wants to win at least one game to cement the two-round bye. If they win out, they can hope that Washington has an off day and drops another game, giving the Sun the league title. If that were to happen, don’t bet against Connecticut at home.

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