The Sun must regroup after 2022 WNBA Finals exit

The Sun must regroup after 2022 WNBA Finals exit
, The Sun must regroup


All but one Sun player had left the court as the Aces’ WNBA title celebration broke down around the free throw line nearest to Las Vegas’ bench. 2021 League MVP Jonquel Jones remained, however, wanting to deliver a final on-court message to the player she had spent four games battling. The jubilance was so strong that the Connecticut star walked across the court to find Aces star A’ja Wilson and shared a hug. Wilson said, “It was just congratulations.” “It was just a congratulations,” Wilson said.

After Wilson had rejoined her team, Jones marched toward the tunnels that lead to the Mohegan Sun Arena’s underbelly and gave the crowd one final round of applause. Jones attempted to bring her franchise the title she won with Wilson. She scored a team-high 20 points in Connecticut’s blowout Game 3 win and notched five of her 13 points in a crucial third-quarter stretch in Game 4, while adding two blocks–both on Wilson and both of which jolted the sellout home crowd of 9,652 people. But to the 28-year-old forward, such successes, at least in the present, are marred by the emotions of another difficult defeat. Jones said that she was still trying to process the situation. “All I know is it hurts me, and that’s all I’m feeling.”

Minus Game 3, which saw the Sun erupt for 105 points, Jones and her Connecticut teammates struggled to crack Las Vegas’s defense. While the Sun held the Aces to a season-low 67 points in the series opener, they scored just 64 points themselves. In Game 2, their offense showed signs of improvement–finishing the loss with 71 points–but they were uncharacteristically outscored in the paint, and their usually stout defense was overwhelmed by the Aces’ individual shot creators. On Sunday, they again totaled 71 points, and they failed to score in the final 1: 50 of the game.

Connecticut Sun’s Brionna Jones shrugs

Sixth Player of the Year Brionna Jones played a huge role in the Sun’s trip to the Finals.

Throughout the season, with their vaunted frontcourt of Jonquel Jones, All-Star forward Alyssa Thomas and Sixth Player of the Year center Brionna Jones anchoring them, the Sun learned to find gratification in their grinding style of play. Curt Miller, their coach and general manager, often spoke of wanting to make games “messy.” They had the No. 2 defensive rating in an era where basketball revolves around speed and space. The Sun averaged 6.4 three-pointers per contest in the regular season, which was second in the league. Instead, they took pride in banging on boards with elbows. Courtney Williams, a guard, says that not everyone is made for this.

She adds that her backcourt mate Natisha Hiedman has taught her how to not play perfect. The game’s not gonna be perfect, and we don’t want it to be perfect.”

In recent years, experience has been a great teacher for the Connecticut franchise, which had six of the same players on the 2019 team that lost to the Mystics in the Finals. They were optimistic about their chances of winning the franchise’s first title, even though they had to wait for double zeros on Sunday. Their fifth elimination game in this postseason was Game 4. Several players spoke out ahead of Sunday’s loss saying that they didn’t feel pressure, but rather played with urgency.

But the Sun are back, with the final buzzer ringing on a season, and forced to think about what’s next. They are aware that their title window will not be open forever and they must make key free-agency decisions.

” We know that your team is different every year and it rarely looks the same,” Miller stated earlier in the series. “Our team is different than last year, was different from the year before, and we know it will be different again.”

Perhaps no player on the Sun recognizes the rarity of a deep playoff run like guard DeWanna Bonner. At 35, she is the lone member of the team to have won a championship, doing so most recently in 2014 with the Mercury. She was tired of sulking the night before her team lost to Chicago in the semifinal series. Thomas, her partner, told her that “We ain’t going out like this.” “We ain’t just going to lay down and quit The two discussed how to extend their season. Bonner realized that the first step was to have a players-only meeting. She asked Thomas when it would be best to hold it.

The next morning, just minutes before the team’s scheduled film sessions, Bonner approached Miller and stated that she would rather watch tape than gather the group. Miller said that he listens to his players at this level and that he has “probably coaching less” this season because he has a more experienced group.

With everyone seated at their lockers, Bonner first had an equipment manager bring out Starbucks–“you gotta make everybody feel good,” she says–then proceeded to lead the 20-minute conversation. She spoke about the difficulty of having title-winning teams and said that they “gotta want it for each other, for themselves,” in the words reserve wing DiJonai Carrrington. Bonner stated that the Sun felt tense so far in the playoffs, and that she wanted her team to have fun again.

” I think it just relaxed everyone,” Jonquel Jones said.

Adds Bonner said: “That was a chance for me to pull in a bit. The opportunity I couldn’t let pass up.”

In 2021, the top-seeded Sun entered their series with the Sky riding a 14-game winning streak. But they lost the semis in four games, a defeat Jones still says “was a very bitter moment.” She says it was disappointing to be “that team that was good in the regular season but couldn’t get over that hump.” This year, Connecticut, which was 25-11 on the season and No. The Sun was determined to advance to the next round.

In Game 4 of the semis, the Sun cruised to a 24-point victory. Back on the road in Game 5, they trailed by 10 entering the fourth quarter and by nine with 4: 46 left in the game. During a timeout 22 seconds later, assistant coach Chris Koclanes entered a huddle in which “the togetherness in there was insane.”

“Their commitment to each other and just the positive self-talk. He says that they were so into it and didn’t feel deflated or discouraged at all. It was amazing. I sat down and just felt it and didn’t even need to say anything.”

Says Hiedeman: “We all looked at each other in that moment and basically just went back to what we talked about” before Game 4. They closed the series on an 18-0 run to claim victory in the winner-take-all affair. It would be the year’s highest point.

Coming into this season, the Sun knew they had to figure out how their roster would fit together. Although their core has been there for many years, they have not been at their full strength in recent seasons. Miller said, “Our team is full stories of unintended consequences.” They’re used to reinventing their selves. Thomas missed almost the entirety of 2021 due to an Achilles tear, moving Brionna Jones into the starting lineup and making Jonquel Jones a centerpiece on both ends (and eventual league MVP). Jonquel was not able to play in the WNBA bubble last year, so Thomas and Jones could get reps together.

After Jasmine Thomas, starting point guard, tore her ACL in five games into the season, the team’s backcourt rotation was changed and Hiedeman took over the five spots. Another hiccup was Bria Hartley’s ACL tear at the end July. Alyssa Thomas said, “It’s been quite a bit of experimentation.” “A lot of ups and downs, and just trying to figure out what would make us successful.”

No example of the team’s trial and error was more evident than how Miller handled his star bigs. Before the All-Star break, Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas played together in 20 games, averaging 10.6 minutes per appearance. They played together in three regular-season games for six minutes each after the break. There were many conversations between the coaches and the players. Miller states, “We just felt we needed to play everybody at their natural position.”

This was a sacrifice. Jonquel Jones averaged her fewest minutes total since 2018, playing just 26.4 on average. She did so saying that the team’s success was more important than individual accolades: “I would give up my MVP to win a championship.” Brionna Jones changed roles entirely, going from starting and averaging more than 30 minutes per game last season to coming off the bench and playing fewer than 30 minutes in all but six contests in the ’22 campaign.

” “It may not feel perfect at times,” Koclanes admits. “It hasn’t been easy, but our players have been receptive and bought in because ultimately they want to succeed, and they want to win.”

Despite going away from the group for much of the year, in the fourth quarter of Game 4 as they tried to extend their season, Miller leaned on the trio. He said, “Some of it was certain the scheme, and then some it certainly is that it’s our core team.” “Those are the ones you run with. Those are who have put us in position year after year after year.”

The three helped erase a four-point fourth-quarter deficit and eventually gave the Sun a lead with 2: 22 to play in the game. Las Vegas, powered by a small and unbalanced lineup, won the series 8-0 to claim the title.

” We were just pulling straws over here,” Aces coach Becky Hammon stated afterward. “I just felt like, I don’t know if we’ll stop them but I don’t think they can stop us, either.”

Miller is the longest-tenured member of the Sun organization, having been hired after the 2015 season. But 15 years before he took the Connecticut job, he was an assistant coach at Colorado State, when the team’s star player was Hammon.

On the morning before Game 4, Miller was fumbling through his backpack and saw a challenge coin commemorating the 1998-99 CSU team, which went 33-3 and eventually lost in the Sweet 16. He laughed to himself. “It was a great reminder of being in the moment, be present and don’t take for granted that, Wow, this is a pretty great opportunity,” he says.

Miller is a long-standing advocate of making the most of situations, in practice or game play. Back then, with the team in need of practice players, Tom Collen, the Rams’ coach from 1997 to 2002, often enlisted Miller to suit up in sessions. On one occasion during the 1998-99 campaign, Hammon crossed Miller over to such a degree that he injured his ankle “badly enough that I was out for the next four to six weeks,” he remembers.

Says Collen. “Becky probably injured a lot of ankles because her ballhandling was uncanny and she was able to shift directions at any moment. Today, however, Hammon watches from the sidelines as Chelsea Gray, the Finals MVP, and Kelsey Plum give ballhandling lessons. Hammon’s tutelage has made Jackie Young a top slasher and she was an All-Star starter. And, oh by the way, there’s A’ja Wilson, the 2022 league MVP, who looked unstoppable at times as well. The Aces had a lot of talent. The Sun had a lot of energy. Miller stated after Game 3. “When you tell someone they can’t do something it’s going be going to make them even harder and compete like mad.” “There’s just so much pride in that locker room that we are who we are.”

But pride doesn’t necessarily translate into made baskets, and the Sun shot only 44.6% in the series, a number inflated by their 105-point Game 3 showing. With the offseason here, it will be a key question as to how they proceed. Brionna Jones is a non-restricted agent and is likely to be a focal point for attention from other centers-needy teams in the W. Hiedeman, Williams and others could also sign elsewhere.

Miller stated that he had not considered possible changes afterward. Instead, he thought back to the journey his franchise had taken in recent years.

” We were charged with rebuilding something and we have had an extraordinary sustained run,” he stated. “We’ve equaled the most playoff wins since 2016 of anyone in the league. We are one game behind those with the most regular-season wins. So the sustained success is really special.”

But, he added, “in pro sports, you want banners, and we are going to keep grinding and grinding until we can try to hang a banner.”

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