Sun believe team play can bring them a WNBA Championship

Jasmine Thomas drives on Natasha Cloud. Chris Poss photo.
Jasmine Thomas drives on Natasha Cloud. Chris Poss photo.

The Connecticut Sun charged into the WNBA Finals, which begin tomorrow, in uncharacteristic fashion.

While most teams have a superstar or two, including their opponents the Washington Mystics, Connecticut has a roster of solid contributors who play team basketball. An ESPN commentator who referred to the team as “role players” two weeks ago fueled the Sun’s “disrespect” campaign, and drove them past the Los Angeles Sparks in three games and into the Finals.

But in truth, having a star doesn’t fit Connecticut. And they’re fine with that.

“I think when [the media] look at the league and they look at what everybody else is doing, they see one person scoring a bunch of points, and they say that’s the star of the team,” center Jonquel Jones said.

“Our team is looked at kind of differently because we play team basketball. . . . I don’t think it’s appreciated enough in our league that we play the kind of basketball where the ball moves around and everybody touches it.”

Jones said this style of play is the best method, though some may not understand that.

“Because we play team basketball I think that just makes us harder to guard,” she said. “But it seems that people don’t respect it, and that’s why it’s been the way it is with people not expecting us to win.”

Connecticut swept the Sparks by playing outstanding team defense and allowing whoever was “in the zone,” or poorly-defended, to take over the offense. Point guard Jasmine Thomas said that has been her team’s approach for a long time.

“It’s a huge part of our success here – being able to play through anyone,” she said. “We find who has the hot hand and we just let them take over. It feels good. We get to play free, and just enjoy the game.”

The Sun’s offensive strength as a team is that they don’t have one player who is the focus of every game. Instead, they share the load.

During three semifinal games guard Courtney Williams was consistently excellent, scoring 15, 25, and 17 points, respectively. Everyone else took turns grabbing the scoring burden.

Alyssa Thomas rises above the Washington defense to score. Chris Poss photo.
Alyssa Thomas rises above the Washington defense to score. Chris Poss photo.

Alyssa Thomas, so dominant in game one, had 22, and then 12 and two points in the last two match ups. Jones scored 16, 27 and four points, respectively. Jones said she did other things in the deciding game.

“That game was more about me being locked in defensively,” she said. “I may have taken just five shots, but it didn’t feel that way.”

“The game was really fun because we were just taking it to them. We concentrate on who has the hot hand, and that’s what has gotten us here, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”

Jasmine Thomas scored 19, seven, and 29 points in the three games, and said it didn’t feel that way to her.

“Really? Me?” she said, laughing. “I guess that might be right. I guess I just didn’t pay attention to that.”

Connecticut’s unselfishness that has brought them success this season. And though their offense is potent, that’s not what has set them apart this season. Against Los Angeles, and other teams, it was their defense, dominating the boards and resilience that made the difference.

“The story of the (semifinal) series was our defense,” oach Curt Miller said. “A lot of side stories here and there, but ultimately if you drilled it down, I’m really proud of the maturation of a young team’s defense, and you can see what happens when a core group plays together for four years.”

The Sun have no player over 30 years old, but the core group of starters have played together for four years. No other team in the WNBA comes close. Connecticut is also the only team to start the same five players in every game this season, for a league record 37 straight games dating back to 2018.

The team has a particularly strong chemistry built from that longevity. And their defense, good all year, has gelled at just the right time.

“This group has been together for a few years now,” Jasmine Thomas said. “So we are definitely more familiar with how we play at both ends of the floor as individuals. And I think just now in the playoffs there is of course just a heightened sense of urgency on the defensive end. Everyone is extremely locked in and playing on the same page, and I think that’s why.”

Miller said such a system was part of his plan.

“This was our vision when we took over in ‘16,” Miller said. “To build with a core group, and allow them the highs and lows. We circled this year on the calendar back in 2016 and it’s just amazing that that group has allowed the vision that we had all come together.”

The Sun led the league in rebounds per game and in offensive boards this season, but their rebounding dominance of the Sparks was especially stark. They averaged five offensive boards, and 11 total rebounds per game more than Los Angeles. They grabbed an astonishing 16 offensive boards in game two.

Courtney Williams elevates to shoot. Chris Poss photo.
Courtney Williams elevates to shoot. Chris Poss photo.

To complete the picture, Connecticut showed an unexpected on-court toughness during the series that reflected a new confidence. It also may have stemmed from a collective feeling that they get no respect.

“They have that little bit of chip on their shoulder,” Miller said after the sweep. “This group has truly taken that chip that we may call ‘a team without mega superstars.’”

“We just have swagger in this series. As physical and as intense as it got from LA in stretches, I thought we were the more aggressive team. I thought we were more consistently the team that played physical. Ultimately, we continued to keep moving them. We looked like the energy team, and I thought energy was a big part of this series.”

Jasmine Thomas acknowledged toughness as an area of growth.

“I think it’s absolutely been improved,” she said. “I think through the course of the regular season we had challenges and adversity that caused us to grow and it helped build our confidence.”

“And now in the playoffs, it’s a completely different team and we’re actually playing for a championship now, I feel like we want it so bad, that actually that toughness is coming out every night.”

Team basketball. Rebounding. Defense. Toughness. These are qualities that make championship teams. Are the Sun ready to be that team? They certainly look like it.

Top-seeded Washington will have a lot to say about that outcome, however. The Mystics can match Connecticut in the team-basketball category, at least on the offensive end. With seven players averaging more than nine points per game and a 46.9 team scoring percentage, they have been the dominant offensive power in the WNBA. Nine times they have scored over 100 points, including a crushing 102-59 win over the Sun on June 29.

The Mystics do have a mega-superstar in regular-season MVP Elena Delle Donne, the consummate versatile forward. She shoots over 50 percent from the field, 46 percent from three, and grabs 8.3 rebounds a game (fifth in the league). Washington has big, active, scoring guards. The team averages eight and a half points per game more than Connecticut.

But they are not an outstanding defensive team (the Las Vegas Aces scored over 90 points twice in the semifinals). The Sun believe they can make the Mystic’s scorers work harder than usual, and defend their way to a championship.

“Against LA, I think we just understood [defense] was the area where we could make the most effect in,” Jones said. “And I think we know that our defense can help us win a championship much more than our offense can. Most definitely.”

As for toughness? It will be interesting to see. But it is unlikely that Connecticut will back down in that area. Washington has no one who can match the physicality of Alyssa Thomas.

Game 1 of the WNBA Finals is 3 p.m. ET Sunday at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C.

Curt Miller. Chris Poss photo.
Curt Miller. Chris Poss photo.
Mike Thibault. Chris Poss photo.
Mike Thibault. Chris Poss photo.