Connecticut Sun are set to face a familiar foe in the 2022 WNBA semifinals. Three keys to series vs Chicago Sky

·5 min read

The Connecticut Sun are back in the WNBA semifinals for the fourth consecutive season.

Since the start of training camp in April, Sun players and coaches have talked often about the group’s collective goal of capturing the first championship in franchise history. In order to keep those aspirations alive Connecticut will have to get past the one team that’s had its number all season: the Chicago Sky.

Make that dating back to last postseason. The Sun have lost six consecutive games to the Sky, tracing back to when the 2021 WNBA semifinals ended with the latter advancing to the finals and an eventual championship.

The third-seeded Sun and second-seeded Sky are set to face off in another best-of-five semifinal series starting on Sunday night at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. Game 1 tips off at 8 p.m. and will air on ESPN2.

The winner of the series — which starts with two games in Chicago and then comes to Connecticut — will advance to face either the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces or fourth-seeded Seattle Storm in the WNBA finals.

“This group wants to take another step,” Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller said after his team’s Game 3 victory over the Dallas Wings in the first round on Wednesday. “There is not one person that’s going to pick us to beat Chicago. So we’re gonna go with the underdog mentality and give it our best shot.”

Here are three keys to the series.

Closing in crunch time

Though all of the four regular-season matchups this year ended with Chicago in the win column, they were decided by an average margin of 4.5 points. All but one decided by four points or less with the game tied or Connecticut leading in the fourth quarter or overtime of each of the three.

The same was true in two of the semifinal losses in 2021. The Sun led by two points with the shot clock off in the fourth quarter of Game 1, but went on to lose. They then missed a layup in the final seconds of Game 3. That series was brought up often by Sun players and coaches this year. They know how much the small details cost them last time around and have repeatedly talked about not making those same mistakes this postseason. Part of that means finding a way to get past the Sky in late game situations.

“We were in a different place last year than we are this year,” Alyssa Thomas said. “I think we’re a lot more locked in, focused, peaking at the right point. Last year definitely has a bitter taste in our mouth, of course, but yeah, we can’t dwell on last season. We have to focus on the four games that we have with them this year. And now we’re coming in that place for the first two games, and all you need is one and then you go home.”

Doing so won’t be easy. Chicago is one of the best teams in the league in late-game situations. The Sky led the WNBA with a 15-8 record in games where the score was within five points during the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. Connecticut finished 9-7 in such contests.

The first quarter is crucial

Such frantic late-game situations might not be needed if the Sun could find a way to get off to a better start in the first quarter.

The Sky had the advantage in the opening quarter of each of the four games the teams played this season, and only the first contest on June 10 was close. Chicago led 17-16 at the end of one in that game, but went on to outscore Connecticut 90-47 across the first quarters of the final three. The Sun haven’t been able to score more than 17 points in the first quarter against the Sky this year.

“We know that if we have a better start to the game, the outcome could be completely different,” Thomas said. “That takes a lot of energy just trying to fight back in the game each and every time.”

The Sun managed to go on huge runs to come back in each game to make things close late, but that isn’t a recipe for success in the playoffs. They will need to come out hot if they want a chance to win this series.

“I think a lot of is just being locked in and ready to play,” Thomas said. “They are a team that moves the ball a lot, they move a lot. And we can’t relax, we always gotta be moving around out there. And if we’re able to do that, we know we can score the ball for sure, but definitely have to come out better.”

Defense leads the way

The Sun are at their best when they set the tone on the defensive end by forcing stops and creating turnovers that lead to scoring out in transition.

Though Connecticut managed to score an average 21 points off turnovers across its for games against Chicago this season, it allowed its opponent to shoot the ball at a pretty high clip. The Sky shot 55.5% from the field and 41.9% from deep in those matchups.

“They’re the best passing team in the league,” Miller said. “They have great movement and that movement has created slippage, it’s created separation. It’s slippage in our defensive plans, it’s created separation from our defensive players. And this team is not going to miss very many open shots.”

The Sun allowed a different player to lead the Sky in scoring in each of those games, but they were particularly burned by Candace Parker and Courtney Vandersloot. Parker only played in three of the four, but averaged 20.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.7 blocks per game. She also shot 55.9% from the field and 61.5% from deep. Vandersloot averaged 13.3 points, 7.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game in the series. Playing with high intensity on the defensive end to slow down that duo and the rest of the Sky will be key for the Sun.

“We can’t hope that they miss shots,” Miller said. “We can’t hope, we’ve got to go earn stops. We’ve got to go earn everything in this series.”