The Sun Survived By Shoving The Aces Out Of The Paint
2:55 PM EDT on September 16, 2022
Bill Laimbeer was sitting courtside at Thursday night's Finals game between the Aces and the Sun, and I couldn't help but wonder where his heart belonged: to the Las Vegas team he put together and coached for four years—finally thriving now that they'd forgotten half the stuff he taught them—or to the physical, kinda-pain-in-the-ass team owning the paint and bullying Vegas badly. From the start, these Finals have promised a clash of styles, between the Aces' pace-and-space offense and the Sun's "no rest, congest" (their words ... they came up with that ... don't blame me) defense. But it's not all congestion and muck. Last night, the Sun supplemented their doggedness with discipline and efficiency, scoring a team postseason-high 105 points to the Aces' 76. Down 2-0 in the series, their season on the line, the Sun would not go quietly. Do they ever?
If there's a single avatar for the transformation the Sun made between Games 2 and 3, from going through the motions to total control, it might be Jonquel Jones. The 2021 MVP hasn't dazzled much in the postseason; truthfully she didn't last year, either. But matched up against A'ja Wilson inside, Jones looked the part.
"Jonquel played like Jonquel. She's an MVP. She played exactly like she's supposed to play," Wilson said afterward. "I don't know why people forget, but she's an MVP. Like, she's that." One explanation for the forgetfulness might be that Jones disappears and reappears a little too easily. In Game 3, her best playoff performance of the last two seasons, she instead demanded her teammates involve her more in the offense, sealing defenders off perfectly and muscling herself through anyone who would get in her way.
In Jones's postgame interview, she repeated a kernel of wisdom she'd once heard from Lisa Leslie: that to win the championship, you need to win the paint. The Sun outscored the Aces 64-26 in the paint last night, and neither coach has made it a secret that the series can be swung there. In Game 2, a broadcast mic caught Aces head coach Becky Hammon shouting a stat to her huddled players: "It's 12 to 24 in the paint, and that makes me so happy! Us!" No one will soon forget Sun head coach Curt Miller's own mic'd-up moment in the series Connecticut played against Chicago, when he told the team he was "going to get fired because we can't make a layup."
Miller is no doubt pleased with the sort of complete team win that featured double-digit scoring from every starter. DeWanna Bonner, hilariously and egregiously cooked at the beginning of the Finals, made the shots her team needs her to make. She scored more in the first half of Game 3 than she had in the first two games combined. Maybe Jones deserves the credit there too; the broadcast showed a clip of her egging Bonner on before the game started. Alyssa Thomas, both consistent and so intense she seems liable to combust at any moment, remained excellent and celebrated the first triple-double in WNBA Finals history with her 16 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists. "She's a beast," said Hammon. "I went to a UFC fight the other night. I would not want to get in the cage with her."
Crucially, the Sun made the most groundbreaking scientific discovery of the century: Chelsea Gray can be stopped. Averaging 24 points in the playoffs, she finished with just 11 on Thursday, and never looked comfortable. The Sun covered her with the spindly Bonner, whose terrifying, mile-long arms led Gray to turn the ball over four times. If the Sun pull this off, consider that the adjustment that changed everything.
I'll confess I expected a sweep, just on the basis of the Aces being more skilled and having more Chelsea Gray. Now, I'm not sure what the hell I was thinking. It's the Connecticut Sun we're talking about. They're the peskiest, most pissed-off bunch of basketball players on Earth. Even if they don't win it all, never would they let someone else celebrate a Finals sweep on their home court.