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Aces and Sun bring toughness to the semifinals

Brionna Jones fights for positioning under the basket. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.
Brionna Jones fights for positioning under the basket. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.
Brionna Jones fights for positioning under the basket. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.

Nobody expected the Connecticut Sun to be in the WNBA playoff semifinals.

Neither the Las Vegas Aces, who finished with the league’s best record, nor the Sun, who lost their first five games, were picked to be playoff contenders before the season started.

Yet here they are, beginning a best-of-five series on Sunday. In the regular season, the Aces dominated Connecticut by 21 and 15 points, respectively, in their two match ups.

Led by WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson’s 23 points, seven rebounds, and outstanding interior defense, Las Vegas has a veteran squad with five players averaging double-figure scoring. Those five also average an astonishing 49 percent field goal percentage.

Angel McCoughtry, a veteran all-star in her first year with the Aces, is second in scoring at 14.4 ppg. Although that is below the averages of her years as the go-to player in Atlanta, her efficiency is greatly improved with Wilson carrying that weight. McCoughtry is shooting 51.8 percent from the floor, and 47.1 from three-point range. At 34, she may be a step slower, but she remains adept at creating her own shot when needed.

Las Vegas also sports the best bench in the WNBA, a choice coach Bill Laimbeer made to bring key players into the game like a sneak attack, then keeping them in the mix for significant minutes.

Leading the bench group is Dearica Hamby, the 2019 Sixth Player of the Year, and even better this season. She chips in 13 points and seven boards a game, and can step out and hit the three at a 47.4 percent clip. Also off the bench is the much-improved Jackie Young, who can shake up a game with her athleticism and energy.

Add the sharp-shooting potential of Kayla McBride, and a supporting group that includes Danielle Robinson at guard and Carolyn Swords in the paint, and the result is a team that leads the league in points, rebounds, and total free throws.

But Connecticut coach Curt Miller highlights another aspect of this Las Vegas team.

A’ja Wilson blocks a shot. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.

“The big thing with Vegas is they out-tough everyone, right?” he said. “You have the reigning MVP.”

“You have a lot of great pieces around that, and the record-setting bench. And so they just keep coming at you with waves of people. So we won these first two rounds a lot because of toughness but the benchmark right now in the bubble season for toughness is Vegas, so we’re gonna have to raise our toughness even to another level. It’s going to be a really physical game.”

The Aces will be well-rested after a stretch in which they seized the No. 1 seed with a league best 9-1 finish to the season.

Facing them is a Sun team – seeded seventh – without a chance on paper. They finished the regular season 10-12, and after a mid-season surge, were just 5-5 in their last ten games. In reality, however, they were designed to be a playoff team, according to their coach.

“When we went into free agency….we set out with the goal in mind to bring in some championship pedigree, and more veterans,” Miller said.

Those veterans included DeWanna Bonner and Briann January, both eleventh-year players who have won championships, to add to the established game of Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas, who helped lead the team to last year’s Finals.

The playoff pressure is “what we’re built for,” Miller said. “We’re built for this time. They’ve won. They’ve been here. It’s not too big for them.”

Connecticut has done everything to validate that claim in the playoffs, with decisive wins over Chicago and Los Angeles. They have dominated the boards, with 22 offensive rebounds and 18 more total rebounds than their opponents. They have gotten to the line 39 times in those games, and made 37 of them. They have controlled their turnovers, with twelve against the Sky and just eight against a very good defensive team in the Sparks. The Sun are 10-1 on the season when they turn it over fewer than 13 times.

A coordinated and smothering defense has been central to those wins. Alyssa Thomas, Bonner, and Brionna Jones have ruled the paint, grabbing 61 rebounds in the two games.

DeWanna Bonner goes up and under for a basket. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.

At the same time, Alyssa Thomas, Briann January, and Jasmine Thomas (playing through the pain of plantar fasciitis) have harassed and shut down some of the best shooting guards in the league.

Through the 0-5 start, Miller said his “team stuck together, built relationships, built chemistry off the court through that losing streak through our early times, as we got better.”

“Chemistry off the court, [and] our chemistry started to improve on the court. And we hung our hat on the defensive end,” he said. “While we want our offense to be better, we hung our hat on the defensive end and they bought into it.”

The offense does seem to be getting better at just the right time. All five starters scored in double figures against Los Angeles, and the team hit 9 of 20 threes – well above their average. (Only Las Vegas shot fewer threes for the season.)

The offensive improvement in part comes from moving the ball to get better, higher percentage shots.

I just think we have multiple weapons out on the floor,” January said after the Sparks win. “We are at our best when the ball’s moving.”

“And we knew, coming into this game . . . the way they play defense they load up the floor so we needed to get the ball moving to get good shots. We executed great. We saw the weak side, we got the ball moving. You know, we still had some stagnant moments, but we were able to get our self out of it we talked through it and we, we were able to see the right, the next, option, which was usually there and swing the ball.”

Alyssa Thomas has been the driving force for the team on both sides of the ball, just as she was in their Finals run. She has averaged 23.5 points, 10 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 1.5 steals in the playoffs, while playing nearly 40 minutes a game. Miller calls her the best defender in the league. Eleven of her 20 boards are on the offensive glass. Her focus is second to none this time of year, perhaps best shown by a career 62 percent free throw shooter hitting 13 of 14 in the playoffs.

Bonner has also been outstanding in these two games, as she has all year. She has averaged a double-double, and her length and quickness allows her, like Alyssa Thomas, to defend guards on the perimeter.

The Sun are a team peeking at the right time, but they still enter the semifinals as serious underdogs. It is a position they like.

“No one is going to pick us to win,” Miller said. “We’re going to use that disrespect.”

Kayla McBride gets past the defense. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

“We’re going to use that chip. Our players felt like no one thought out there that we could beat LA. And we’re gonna we’re gonna use it – even if it’s not happening. We’re definitely going to use the disrespect card and believe we are truly the underdogs going into this series.”

There is no question that Connecticut should lose in three. But then again, no one wins a game on paper. Both teams will play through the paint. Both teams will defend physically. The Sun have surprised the league with their playoff success. The Aces have exceeded every pre-season expectation all year. It could well be a great series.

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