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The Connecticut Sun’s 3-1 WNBA semifinal series loss to the Chicago Sky left spectators wondering how a team, seemingly destined for greatness, could collapse in a four-game postseason run.
To address that and the major questions around what the team looks like in 2022, we brought in a panel of media members who covered the team this season, including ESPN analyst Monica McNutt, Sun play-by-play broadcaster Brandon Glasheen and Courant Sun beat writer Alexa Philippou.
What went wrong?
McNutt: The bye killed the Sun, and honestly, I don’t think the 14-game win streak helped either. They looked like a group that hadn’t dealt with much adversity and didn’t know how to respond when Chicago punched them in the mouth, particularly after Game 3. That applies from top to bottom in my opinion. [Coach] Curt Miller struggled with the right buttons to push, and the players looked frayed and disconnected on the court.
Glasheen: I think Connecticut simply ran into a buzz saw of an opponent. As impressive of a win streak it had heading into the postseason, the Sun didn’t seem challenged over the final week of the season. And let’s not forget Chicago got them in two of the three regular-season meetings. Both Sky wins were in Chicago, where Candace Parker wasn’t even spectacular. Now Parker and the rest of the Sky are just hitting their ceiling right. Connecticut may have maxed on its own ceiling in August.
Philippou: I know basketball is a game of X’s and O’s and chess matches, but something about this team seemed off the whole series, which might have been understandable in Game 1 when they were coming off an extended break. Though they won Game 2 (mostly thanks to Alyssa Thomas), they were still rocked back on their heels for the majority of the series, and it never really felt like they were able to punch back.
Was Chicago just too hot, or did the Sun underperform on the defensive end?
McNutt: I do think we saw the absolute best of Chicago, but I’m also not sure what the defensive strategy was from the Sun either. The 36% from the 3-point line was a huge key for Chicago. The Sky are 14-2 in games where they’ve shot at that number or better. I didn’t feel like the Sun made a concerted effort to take that away. Credit Chicago though because “flying around” defensively was signature to the Sun in the regular season, helping one another and recovering, but in this series it looked like they were confused more than deliberate.
Glasheen: It’s both. Chicago lost four of six games before its first-round matchup with Dallas. Defensively, the Sky turned it up, improving in just about every defensive category. But make no mistake, Connecticut did not impose its will in this series. Even in the lone victory, the Sun went down 11-0 in the opening minutes. Briann January’s absence in Game 4 due to an ankle injury certainly hurt Connecticut’s perimeter defense. And say what you want about matchup, but I’m pretty sure you’d take your chances with the MVP, MIP and coach of the year on your side.
Philippou: On one hand, I think Chicago’s style of play and length made for a tough matchup for the Sun. Connecticut’s offensive execution (or lack thereof) only further fueled Chicago’s offense. Still, that the Sun would allow 103.7 points per 100 possessions across the series, struggle to assert their dominance on the boards and give Chicago open layups, it definitely wasn’t the Sun defense we saw this summer.
How do you assess Alyssa Thomas’ return from her Achilles injury as well as her impact on the series?
McNutt: Alyssa is a great player — there are no qualms about that — and with Jonquel Jones not living up to her MVP title in Games 2 and 3, I think Curt was looking for someone to go to. I think the team woefully missed Brionna Jones. Overall, the Sun’s pace was significantly sped up in this series, which I think Curt felt better suited AT. I know this question is about her, but ultimately I’m looking at Jasmine Thomas and Briann January, whom I felt have been most responsible for controlling the pace this season. They couldn’t do that in this series, so everything goes all wacky from there.
Glasheen: The Sun had one of the least productive bench units in the WNBA, so as a sixth or seventh woman off the bench, there’s no doubt Alyssa Thomas only helps your team. The spark was evident in Game 2, and the Sun needed it. But what it highlighted was AT thrives when getting out and running. That was not the strength of the team in the regular season. Miller said on numerous occasions the Sun plays at a slower pace purposefully to control the flow of the game and have tremendous intent on the offensive end. It’s a tough ask of Thomas to try and get yourself back while simultaneously adapt to a different style. The players also shower each other with love and support — and that’s important — but they wanted it so bad for AT to come back and shine that it was a detriment to how they wanted to play.
Philippou: I’m a bit torn here because at times it felt like the Sun were overly relying on Alyssa Thomas, but I don’t think they would’ve won Game 2 without her. Brionna Jones’ struggles prevented her from settling into the game as the series wore on, making Alyssa Thomas’ contributions all the more crucial. I do have some questions about what AT’s return for 2022 means for Brionna Jones, though.
Did the Sun want to win so badly that they played out of character, or did the pressure get to them?
McNutt: I think both. Wanting to win so badly is a byproduct of feeling the pressure. This series really left me with the question: who is the A1 leader? The person that says “yo, get your ish together, let’s go,” and combines that with the example of high IQ basketball on both sides of the floor. I don’t know who that should’ve been based on the identity established during the regular season and, to be fair, on a 14-game win streak it’s not really a point of emphasis.
Glasheen: Two things jump out to me. No. 1, this basketball team is so unselfish. I mean the first two games tell you everything you need to know. Jonquel Jones deferred to her teammates in the clutch a handful of times. And in Game 2, Curt Miller had JJ on the bench in key spots. They didn’t care who was taking the most shots. They cared about the right shot. The right play, which leads to No. 2. The Sun were never really in spots during the regular season which they needed clutch shot-making and/or execution.
Philippou: I totally agree with Monica. There’s a lot to be said about how Jonquel Jones as the MVP didn’t play her best series, but truthfully, I’m also perplexed about how the likes of veterans Jasmine Thomas, DeWanna Bonner and January looked off-kilter in big moments and stretches.
What should be the biggest priority for the Sun in free agency?
McNutt: I think this team can win with this core, but these are the things I think need to be addressed with urgency, including a 3-point shooting guard. Natisha Hiedeman gives them that, but she’s got to commit defensively. If Jas can get back to her All-Star level 3-point shooting, that’s solved as well. I like the emergence of Kaila Charles as a defender, but she’s got to add consistent shooting to her game and improve decision-making. She’s young though, so I’ll give her some grace.
Glasheen: You can make the argument Alyssa Thomas returning (in theory) for an entire regular season is a big splash for Connecticut. I think the Sun would probably like to get younger at guard. The Sun has phenomenal leadership and tenacity at that position but could expand its depth there to become more dangerous offensively. And of course you do everything possible to retain Jonquel Jones.
Philippou: 1. Re-sign Jonquel Jones (who is an unrestricted free agent). 2. Re-sign Jonquel Jones. 3. Re-sign Jonquel Jones. Oh, and get an elite offensive guard who can shoot.
Alexa Philippou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org