Alyssa Thomas persisted through pain, progress, and disappointment for nine months, hoping that she could recover from an Achilles tear in time to help the Connecticut Sun in the playoffs this fall.
Then miraculously Thursday, in just her fourth game back, Thomas dominated both ends of the floor in the second half of game two of the semifinals, willing her team to victory.
The 6-2 “facilitating forward” scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the second half, energizing a Sun team that had just relinquished a six-point halftime lead by allowing a 9-2 Sky run.
“You know, this [rehab] is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through,” Thomas said. “I mean, there’s a lot of hard days. You know, I kind of think I’m a perfectionist and I’m just so used to bouncing back from things.”
“So days that weren’t good and I couldn’t get after it or push myself were frustrating for me. You really start from ground zero just to learn how to walk again. So it was a slow process, a hard process but you know, you’ve just got to celebrate the little things. Each and every day I just worked hard and watched [my teammates] get after each and every game and then practicing. That only pushed me even harder to be back for this this moment.”
And back for the moment she was. In Connecticut’s dominant 21-9 fourth quarter, Thomas either scored or assisted on 15 of the team’s points.
“I mean, you’ve seen her over her career, the toughest player to play this game,” said Alyssa’s longtime teammate Jasmine Thomas (no relation). “And to see her come back at a time where that’s exactly what we were missing. That’s what we talked about in that first game is not being tough enough, not being physical enough, and she just brought that for every minute that she played.”
“We were walking in here and I was like ‘your efficiency was plus 30 in 24 minutes!’ But in a game that wasn’t a blowout, like, that is incredible.”
Efficiency rating is, at its simplest, the point differential when a player is actually on the court. A really good game is one with a rating of about 15. Thomas’ 30 is astonishingly high.
Two days after Courtney Vandersloot’s triple-double and the Chicago Sky’s nearly 50 percent shooting night stole home field advantage from the Sun, Connecticut sorely needed a victory to tie the series.
In game one, the Sky had neutralized the Sun’s greatest strengths – defense and rebounding –for most of the contest, and scoring 84 points in regulation, 101 by the end of the second overtime.
Chicago shot 50 percent or better from the field in that one, and matched Connecticut in rebounds. The Sun had held opponents to 40 percent shooting and outrebounded them by nearly 10 throughout the year. They yielded more than 80 points just three times before, all losses.
Yet, Connecticut had much to hope for in game two, given their less-than-sterling performance offensively in game one.
They missed nine free throws in that game, any one of which would have left them with a victory. More telling, the teams had identical points in the paint (56), but with much different efficiency.
“In a 50 minute game, we ended up the game with the same exact number of points in the paint,” coach Curt Miller said. “We took 16 more shots in the paint than they did. We just weren’t efficient.”
Even so, Miller said his squad had chances.
“We know that we took 13 more shots on the game, we took 10 more foul shots,” he said. “We just weren’t efficient enough (that night), offensively, to overcome the offensive juggernaut that they can be and how much Slooty (Vandersloot) can really, really influence the game.”
With all those deficits, the Sun still forced two overtimes, and lost by six.
That optimism was crushed as game two began looking just like the first game. Connecticut started with a missed 10-footer, then allowed an open bucket off two Chicago passes at the other end. Jonquel Jones was fouled, and missed both free throws. The Sky scored on the other end, the Sun missed another jump shot, and Azura Stevens ran the floor and made an uncontested layup for Chicago.
Candace Parker hit a three on the next Sky possession, off three passes. The score was 11-0 in just three minutes, and the visitors looked dominant. They had missed just one shot, and their defense forced their hosts to take low-percentage shots, which they missed.
Miller pulled three starters (Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and Briann January). The bench (Including A. Thomas) began to claw back into the game, first trading buckets, then inching back to tie the game at 21 just before the quarter ended with a Kahleah Cooper bucket and a Chicago lead, 23-21.
The second quarter looked like much of game one, with the teams trading baskets (both over 60 percent shooting), and trading the lead three times.
In the final five minutes of the first half, the Connecticut defense began to look more like itself. The team closed the quarter with a 10-4 run that included two steals and a forced shot clock violation. In the midst of it was A. Thomas, who Miller has called “the best defender in the world.” In just her fourth game of the season, Thomas was aggressive and quick on defense, thoroughly stymying Parker and Stevens inside.
Behind their improved defense, the Sun entered the locker room with a six-point lead, their largest of the series, at 45-39. They had shot 52 percent in and half and held their opponents to just nine assists.
The Sky was not going away, however, opening the half on a 9-2 run to retake the lead. Little has been said about their defense, but it has been physical and coordinated in this series. In this game, they held league regular-season MVP Jonquel Jones to just four points on 2-9 shooting. Stevens consistently plugged the middle, and with outstanding help defense from Parker, made it very difficult for the Connecticut posts.
Chicago’s 20-13 third quarter, a bit sloppy on both sides, gave them a 59-58 lead going into the final period.
Then came the return of Alyssa Thomas to her pre-injury self. She was everywhere on defense, had six rebounds and 10 points in the quarter, and finished the game with 15 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in 24 minutes – all game highs.
Spurred on by Thomas’ toughness, Connecticut finally began to look like the best team in the WNBA, as they had been ending the regular season. A 21-9 fourth quarter gave them a definitive victory, 79-68.
The teams flew to Chicago on Friday to prepare for a Sunday game three. Miller was blunt in his criticism of how the WNBA made that travel onerous.
“I want you guys to hear this,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that Chicago has to take four separate flights to get home [actually three],” he said.
“We have tomorrow to travel on three separate flights in order just to keep these pro women out of middle seats. In the middle of the semifinals. These two teams are taking seven flights to get home from multiple different airports. That’s what these amazing women – the best in the world at what they do – go through.”
Game three in the Sun-Sky series tips off tomorrow at 12 p.m. CT.