There was faint applause as Natisha Hiedeman drove for the easy layup as time ran out. It was apparent the basket, one of the too few easy ones the Connecticut Sun made on Sunday, would change the final score only cosmetically.
The end really came a few moments earlier when championship-hardened Candace Parker pointed every which way and seemed to be indicating that she and the Chicago Sky can play any kind of game.
The Sun lost Game 3 of the WNBA semifinals 76-72 and sent a hopeful, enthusiastic crowd of 9,142 home disappointed. Connecticut had dictated the style of the game, “messy” instead of the Sky’s preferred brand, “Beautiful Basketball,” but it wasn’t enough to win.
And the Sun are now in a position where winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing left to do. Time is running out on the season, and an era.
“There is honest, real talk in that locker room,” coach Curt Miller said, “that you’re only in championship windows so often. We built this team to be in the window currently, and we may have been knocking. We had a fourth-quarter lead in Game 5 of the championship game in 2019, in ‘20 we had a star opt out, in ‘21 we had a starter injured, in ‘22 we had a starter injured, and we know eventually that window is going to close. And so there has been honest talk.”
Miller was referring to Jonquel Jones opting out of the COVID-bubble season, Alyssa Thomas’ injury in 2021 and Jasmine Thomas going down with a torn ACL early this season. Last season, the Sun were eliminated by the Sky and now, down 2-1 in this best-of-five series, stare at elimination again as Game 4 looms Tuesday night at Mohegan Sun Arena. To advance to the Finals, the Sun will have to win that one and Game 5 back in Chicago.
“We’ve had to pivot, and we still put ourselves each and every year in position to make a run at a championship,” Miller said. “But our window is only going to be open so long. We can’t squander an opportunity. We can’t get distracted from what our goal is, despite the pivots over the last three years.”
Squander is a tricky word. There is always another team on the floor looking to not to squander its opportunity. The Sky are an experienced team, with an all-time great in Parker, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and the addition of Emma Meesseman had made a smart team even smarter.
So while the Sun’s shooting, 16-for-41 on shots within five feet of the rim, according to ESPN Stats, suggest they did squander an opportunity, it also speaks to the Sky’s willingness to play as physical and scrappy as they needed to win a playoff game.
That’s what championship teams do, seize their chances and make opponents squander theirs, and it’s what the Sun will have to do the next two games to keep their championship window from shutting, latch and all.
This all comes down to age and money, always the two thumbs that push such windows shut. The Sun have two soon-to-be unrestricted free agents in Brionna Jones and Courtney Williams, with Hiedeman a restricted free agent. Trying to keep this core together under the salary cap, as players entering their prime are due raises in salary, will be problematic. So a team that has had great chemistry over the last few years, has been popular and a lot of fun to watch, is coming to the end of an era, an era that has always seemed destined to have a happy ending.
“We don’t dwell on it,” Miller said. “But it’s certainly a conversation we had in the regular season. We talked about it in the first round. We have to keep preparing with the understanding that we have a great opportunity in front of us.”
For an agonizing few minutes, opportunity dangled in front of the Sun on Sunday, and then disappeared. In a back-and-forth game, Chicago took the lead on Kahleah Cooper’s 3-pointer with 6:14 left. For nearly four minutes, neither team scored, the Sun stacking empty possessions with missed shots and turnovers, until the Meeseman’s jump shot made it a four-point game with 2:26 left.
It was the kind of game the Sun wanted, a rock fight, like Game 1, rather than the prettier basketball at which Parker and the Sky schooled them in Game 2. It was there for the taking, but the Sun didn’t take it, and now they are running out of opportunities.
The window conversation helped in the first round, when the Sun responded to a home loss with a road win at Dallas to advance. The Sun believe they can win the series if they keep playing their style. They’ll need to go to the window one more time, peer out at the uncertain future, then step back into the moment.
“Once you start stressing it, they’ve already got you beat,” said DeWanna Bonner, who scored 18 points. “We’ve got to adjust. We have another chance to step out on the court and beat them again. We’ve got to make our shots, though.”
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.