Jonquel Jones caught a glimpse of her basketball ancestry on Tuesday night and the glimpse was, honestly, a little mean. With a minute left in the fourth quarter of a tied first WNBA semifinal game between the Sun and the Sky, the ancestor in question, Candace Parker, yanked the basketball right out of Jones’s hands for her second steal of the game. Right out of her hands! Call it MVP-on-MVP violence. A pioneer of positionless basketball in the women’s game staring down the movement’s current, most exciting incarnation. I could only laugh. A series doesn’t get much better than this.
To no one’s surprise, the 27-year-old Jones was named the league’s MVP on Tuesday. The race was nowhere near close; she won all but one of 49 first-place votes, and even a late-season outside shooting slump didn’t remotely create a window for some sleeper candidate to make things interesting. I’ve written a little before about what makes Jones special: a total lack of the tradeoffs you might associate with certain traits in a basketball player. On offense, Jones gives Connecticut a big’s size plus a guard’s passing vision and driving speed; elegant fadeaways co-exist in her toolkit with down-low muscling. (All the while, she’s earned a place on the first All-Defensive team this year as one of the league’s best rim protectors and rebounders.) Her actual shot draws her frequent comparisons to Kevin Durant, one Durant himself made in July, when he was asked about WNBA players he follows. “She reminds me of myself with her length and how she shoots the ball. I’m a huge fan of her,” he said. A slick, pretty convincing compilation video produced by the Sun soon followed.
One frustrating thing about watching players like the two of them is how noticeable, how deflating, it is when they do not have the ball in their hands in crunch time, which happened for Jones late in the double-OT Sky-Sun game. She had few good looks in the fourth quarter and took just one shot in the second overtime. Problem and solution probably shouldn’t be so obvious to the blogger’s eye. If Connecticut’s one real weakness—backcourt playmaking—didn’t hold the team back from a wildly successful season and the one-seed, it did stand out in the game against Chicago, for whom that very thing is a great strength. Everyone on the Sky was blessed with the sublime dishing of point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who recorded 18 assists and the second playoff triple-double in WNBA history, almost single-handedly earning Chicago its 101–95 win on the road and ending Connecticut’s win streak at 14 games. (She was oblivious to her triple-double accomplishment until Holly Rowe asked her how it felt in the postgame interview. Her reaction to finding out is quite sweet!)
What’s the use in having the best player in the league if you can’t feed her or draw up plays for her when the game’s on the line? It may be a waste of time to read much into Connecticut’s night, an unusual departure from what typically works from them on offense, but it is a series now, even if everything did seem to go right for Chicago. And everything could very well go right for them again in Game 2 on Thursday night. When it comes to the Sky, the most bipolar team in the WNBA, you can never be sure who will show up. Parker held her own against Jones defensively with her quick, disruptive hands—she deserves some credit for limiting Jones down the stretch—but it’s a matchup Jones has won before in the regular season and in playoff series past.
A Parker-Jones duel interests me in the basketball sense, but also in its narrative contrasts. Parker’s path to WNBA stardom was foretold from her teenage years. Jones’s, on the other hand, has been plodding and unglamorous, a tale in increments. The gist can be gathered from her résumé: She’s the first WNBA player to win Most Improved Player, Sixth Woman of the Year, and MVP in her career. Jones has described herself as a late bloomer, and as someone who narrows in on her own flaws, sometimes too much, in her efforts to repair them. Her project this year, she told the Hartford Courant, is working on her own confidence, something her teammate Brionna Jones said has led to “a different swagger” in Jonquel. It’s something of a reversal—perfecting the skills and then summoning the killer instinct to deploy them. If the Sun want to win a still very winnable series, it’s what she’ll do next.