The Connecticut Sun upset the Chicago Sky 68-63 in Game 1 of the 2022 WNBA Semifinals, taking an early lead in the best-of-five series. It’s almost the opposite of how things began in the 2021 semifinals, when the Sky defeated the top-seeded Sun in that series opener, and there’s been plenty of great basketball between the two teams since then, which makes this series rematch so enticing one year later.
The defending champion Sky aren’t facing the exact amount of pressure they were when they lost the first game of their previous series against the New York Liberty, which was best-of-three, but they’ll have to follow up an underwhelming Game 1 performance nonetheless against a Sun team that knows its championship window may be closing.
Such is the beauty of a longer playoff series between two great teams: Players can bounce back from poor performances or make names for themselves with extended runs of greatness, while coaches make adjustments and counter-adjustments in a game of on-court chess that doesn’t end until one of the teams advances. While Game 1 of the series between the Sun and Sky was decided by a slim margin, there’s plenty that stood out; here’s how it might impact Wednesday’s Game 2.
Pace of play
“Pace” in basketball can take on many different meanings, so let’s first look at how it’s defined by the WNBA’s official stats page: estimated possessions per 40 minutes. Game 1 was, relatively speaking, a slow one; the Sun and Sky recorded about 76.5 possessions apiece, which is far fewer than how many possessions either team averaged per 40 minutes during the regular season (Sun 80.37; Sky 80.67).
Pace varied greatly during the regular-season meetings between the Sun and Sky, however, with the slowest game recording 77.5 possessions per 40 minutes and the fastest game recording 84. Chicago won all four of those games, so it’s hard to say a faster pace favors either team in only this context.
Looking at how each team wants to play, however, it’s safe to say the slower pace of Game 1 favored Connecticut. The Sun held the Sky to just six fast break points and drew the praise of Chicago head coach James Wade, who called their style of play “slow and methodical.” That’s not to say the Sun can’t get out and run, either — they ranked fourth in the WNBA in percentage of total possessions coming in transition during the regular season at 16 percent (Synergy Sports) — but in the halfcourt, they prefer to play slower and more physical. Connecticut’s defense largely forced the Sky to play similarly in Game 1, and it’s a huge reason why the Sun came out on top.
How the game is officiated
Consistency in officiating is always an interesting wrinkle to follow over the course of a five-game series as different officiating crews make adjustments, just as coaches and players do. Things were called extremely leniently in Game 1; Chicago committed 14 fouls and Connecticut just seven, the latter tying a single-game record for fouls committed in a playoff game (Across the Timeline). The 21 total fouls also tied a single-game playoff record (incidentally set just days prior by Chicago and New York in their opening-round series).
There are, of course, arguments for both sides as to which team this kind of officiating favors more, though it will probably more advantageous for Connecticut if the Sun are able to impose themselves physically without racking up fouls. Regardless, it would be a surprise if things aren’t called even just a little tighter in Game 2.
Connecticut’s frontcourt minutes
How the Sun distribute their minutes among their top three frontcourt players (Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones) has been a point of contention for years now, with each player bringing their own individual set of strengths, but the Sun have trouble keeping them all on the floor at the same time. During the 2022 regular season, J. Jones, Thomas and B. Jones played together for 218 total minutes, which ranked eighth among possible three-player Connecticut lineups.
While the trio shared a handful of minutes in Game 1, it’s interesting to note that B. Jones played slightly more off the bench (28 minutes) than J. Jones did in the starting lineup (26 minutes). Given that, in terms of skillsets, Thomas is the least replaceable of the three, it seems unlikely that she’ll have her minutes cut at any point in the series to accommodate either Jones; if the Sun do make a change going forward, it will probably between those two.
Points in the paint and at the rim
During the 2022 regular season, both Connecticut and Chicago were among the most frequent paint-scoring teams in the WNBA. They ranked third (46.2 percent) and second (48.8 percent), respectively, in percentage of points scored in the paint, trailing only Los Angeles (49.6 percent).
The battle in the paint in Game 1, however, was one-sided. The Sun scored 36 of their 68 points in the paint (52.9 percent) while the Sky scored just 24 of their 63 points in the paint (38.1 percent). It was, including the regular season, the fourth-lowest proportion of paint points scored by the Sky in a game this year; they scored 37.4 percent of their points in the paint against Connecticut back on June 29, but they had little trouble scoring the basketball elsewhere in that one (91 total points and 59.3 percent shooting from the field).
To the Sun’s credit, they did a much better job of taking away what Chicago wants to do on offense in Game 1, which is move without the basketball. The Sky attempted just 19 shots in the restricted area (23.8 per game during the regular season) and made 10 of them (52.6 percent; 66.9 percent on attempts at the rim during the regular season). While the Sun weren’t as efficient from the restricted area, they did get up a whopping 30 shots from there.
Another way to look at it: By scheming heavily against Chicago’s basket cuts, the Sun turned the Sky into a jumpshooting team in Game 1, and the Sky weren’t able to capitalize.
Needless to say, jumpshooting can be very volatile (though if Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley combine to go 1-for-9 from 3-point land again, Chicago is going to be in trouble no matter what it does) so the Sky will need to find a way to get their paint scoring going in Game 2 in order to even the series. Unlike Connecticut, Chicago doesn’t have many players to dump the ball to on post-ups; while its cutting game can be mesmerizing, the whole team needs to be on the same page for it to be effective, and the Sun have rendered that moot thus far.