(Image credit: Connecticut Sun official twitter)
Who knows what happened to the Sun during the Commissioner’s Cup game? Against Seattle in the much-anticipated return to WNBA play and with a whopping $30,000-a-player bonus on the line, the Sun looked overmatched and underprepared. Maybe they decided that $10,000 was still a solid bonus to take home at the end of the night, that it was better to look lackluster and then take the WNBA by (ahem) storm when league-play resumed. I doubt that this is what happened, but honestly, there’s no good explanation for why the Sun played and lost so miserably in the Commissioner’s Cup Final (79-57) given how well they’ve been playing since.
The Sun went 3-0 this week, winning a blowout against a youthful and speedy Dallas Wings team, and then taking both games against the surging Minnesota Lynx, who had won their last eight games heading into the Olympic Break. Before the first game against the Lynx, the Sun and the Lynx were separated by a mere 1.5 games, and the Sun sat 3rd in the league, just ahead of Minnesota. These standings no longer hold true. With those two wins against Minnesota, the Sun are now tied with the Las Vegas Aces for first play in the W. The Lynx remain in 4th. And the Seattle Storm, who had dominated the top of the rankings for much of the first half lost two out of three after the Commissioner’s Cup (while Sue Bird was resting and Breanna Stewart took a brief maternity leave), and fell to 3rd.
In the first game against the Lynx, on Tuesday evening, the Sun started the game with their feet on the gas and didn’t relent throughout the game. They were able to keep the Lynx out of the paint so effectively that the Sun didn’t even commit a foul until there was under 2-minutes in the first quarter. Connecticut ended the first quarter shooting over 60% from the field and 4 of 6 from behind the arc. And Connecticut never looked back. They looked sharp the entire game, getting excellent performances from all five of their starters, including a 17 point, 13 rebound game from Jonquel Jones, 18 points from DeWanna Bonner, and a season-high 19 points, 5 assists, and three steals from Jasmine Thomas. Because Minnesota had a great come-from-behind victory when the teams had last played, the game on Tuesday never felt fully out of reach, but the truth was, Connecticut dominated the game. Although Minnesota was able to tighten their defense in the 4th quarter, it wasn’t enough to close the gap.
In Thursday night’s game, it was DeWanna Bonner who led the way, with 31 points and 10 rebounds with her 5th double-double of the season. Although Minnesota looked more competitive at times than they had on Tuesday, Thursday’s game was a reminder that the Sun, even when pressed, can perform like a well-oiled machine. Jonquel Jones added 20 points and 7 boards in the victory.
In both games, the most striking aspect of Connecticut’s play was their stifling defense. In the first game, they only allowed rebound-legend Sylvia Fowles to grab five boards. In the second game, only Fowles and PG Layshia Clarendon scored in double figures. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The on and off-ball defense of Jasmine Thomas and Briann January is what sets the Sun apart from other teams in the WNBA. It’s what makes me think they can be the best team in the league this season (despite that befuddling bad performance in the Commissioner’s Cup game).
The Sun keep getting better and better. Their chemistry on the court is undeniable (I’d have to imagine it helps that they have a set of sisters on the team, as well as two romantic couples) and it seems like all of the players have bought into the #bornforthis mentality and are ready to lay it down for each other. On Thursday, in the on court interview after the game between Robyn Brown and DeWanna Bonner, Bonner said, “I love Connecticut. From the moment that I came here — I love the city. I love the fans. I love my coaches. But most of all, I love everybody in that locker room — my teammates. I love my teammates.” This love comes through when Connecticut plays.
Looking forward, there are only a few areas the Sun should focus on to improve down the stretch. They still lack significant bench production (although they get good contributions from Natisha Heideman), and they can work on limiting their turnovers. Against the Lynx, the Sun had 14 turnovers in one game and 17 in another. Both figures are above the league average and against a different team (or against Minnesota on another night), they could end up giving up quite a few unnecessary points in transition.
But this week, the Sun definitely proved that they’re a team to beat. On Tuesday evening, they’ll face the Las Vegas Aces at home, where the Sun are 10 and 1 and will play for first place in the WNBA. The Sun have already beaten Vegas twice this season, but the game on Tuesday figures to be highly competitive as these two teams are potentially playing for a double-bye in the playoffs. Perhaps the game will also be a preview of this year’s WNBA final.