Last Thursday, the Connecticut Sun made history, finishing Game 5 of the semifinals against the Chicago Sky on an 18-0 run to advance to the WNBA Finals. The last time they reached the Finals was in 2019. It was a battle of two heavyweights: the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun.
The Sun lost the series in five games, but what went wrong? Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Looking back at this game, it is easy to understand why the 2019 Mystics are widely considered to be the best offense in WNBA history and arguably in basketball history. This team literally broke analytics that year; however, looking strictly at the numbers won’t do them justice. It’s hard to really fault Connecticut for losing this game. The Mystics were just too potent.
Reflecting on this game, Kristi Toliver’s impact on and off the ball is what stands out the most. Toliver is an incredible three-point shooter, and her ability to read the Connecticut defense helped create countless open shots for teammates. She finished 2nd in the WNBA in box creation that season, which estimates the number of open shots created for teammates per 100 possessions (min. 700 minutes).
The spacing the Mystics guards created allowed for Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman to play almost the entire first half without seeing a double team. Washington led by as much as 17 points before Connecticut rallied to trim the deficit to four late in the game. It was crucial offensive rebounds that doomed the Sun in the fourth, as Washington would go on to win Game 1 95-86.
Early in the first quarter, Delle Donne suffered a back injury, which kept her out for the remainder of the game. Her absence put the Mystics in a serious bind as Toliver and Meesseman had to carry a much bigger load offensively. Delle Donne’s injury proved too much to handle for Washington as the Mystics were absolutely dominated on the offensive glass. Second chance points were 29-10 in favor of the Sun.
Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones put on an absolute clinic in the low post. Washington had no answer for her on the glass, as she finished with nine offensive rebounds, a WNBA Finals record. Her defense proved too much for Washington’s guards as well. The Sun made a conscious effort to push the pace after every Mystics miss, and although they didn’t pick up too many fastbreak points, Washington routinely broke down in transition this game, which led to open transition threes for Connecticut.
The Sun’s guards were also noticeably more aggressive in this game, fighting around ball screens and putting more pressure on the Mystics guards. It was something they didn’t really do in Game 1. Alyssa Thomas led the charge on the defensive end, playing the entire game. Thomas played all but 11 minutes the entire 2019 playoffs for Connecticut. Washington did keep the game as competitive as possible through three quarters. At one point in the fourth quarter, the Mystics tied the game at 76. Ultimately, it was the dominance on the offensive glass and the injury to Delle Donne that helped the Sun prevail 99-87, tying the series at 1-1.
Natasha Cloud went 5-for-10 from three in Game 3. Connecticut dared her to make threes, going under the screen in the pick-and-roll and leaving her open in the corner. Cloud made them pay. Delle Donne also returned in Game 3 and made a huge difference. The Sun only tallied nine second-chance points in this game and her presence down low resulted in a complete flip in the rebounding department.
This Washington team was so dynamic offensively, so struggling from downtown against them is a recipe for disaster. The Mystics made 16 threes (a WNBA Finals record), compared to Connecticut’s five. The Thomas twins (unrelated) Alyssa and Jasmine were stout defensively, bringing the same aggressive energy that prompted the win in Game 2. Sometimes the scheme was too aggressive. They liked to gamble on passes, jumping passing lanes for steals and easy transition points. The strategy was very hit-or-miss. A lot of missed steals resulted in open threes for Washington, which they often converted.
For the second time in this series, Meesseman came to life in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 points in the period on 4-of-7 shooting. Almost all of the shots came from the pick-and-roll with Toliver. Connecticut was so concerned with taking away Toliver that they conceded the Meesseman shots. In 2018, the Mystics advanced to the WNBA Finals; however, they were without Meesseman, who was away with her national team in Belgium. The Mystics missed her dearly in that series, but her presence in this series and in this game, in particular, showed how much of a difference-maker she was.
Washington would ride the generational shooting performance to a 94-81 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
Facing elimination, the Connecticut Sun came out ready for war, holding the league’s best offense to 17 first-quarter points. In every game in this series, the team that won the first quarter won the game. Many will look at the free-throw discrepancy in Game 4 as the difference maker. Connecticut attempted twice as many free throws as Washington. However, rewatching the game, it was abundantly clear that Connecticut was the more physical and aggressive team.
Connecticut led by 16 points at the half; however, Washington would once again lead a furious comeback and even take the lead in the 4th quarter. With three minutes to play and the game tied at 81, Connecticut would be the team that caught fire from three. They would get the crucial stops they needed and would prevail 90-86 to force a decisive Game 5 in the nation’s capital.
This was the game that cemented Meesseman’s Finals MVP status. The first quarter was a fast-paced affair. After both teams started off hot from the field, they both cooled off as most teams typically do in these scenarios. Surprisingly, Washington only shot 4-of-19 from three in this game.
The Connecticut starting five, who played the most regular season minutes together of any starting lineup in WNBA history, got into some early foul trouble. Shekinna Stricklen and Alyssa Thomas both picked up two first-quarter fouls, which meant Connecticut had to rely more on their bench than Curt Miller probably felt comfortable.
Jonquel Jones was unguardable the entire series, and it continued in this game. Miller made a concerted effort to run the offense through Jones. At one point between quarters, she boldly exclaimed that Delle Donne could not keep up with her. Jones finished with 25 points and nine rebounds.
With Washington trailing 70-67 with just over six minutes remaining, five consecutive points by Natasha Cloud would give the Mystics the lead, a lead that they would not lose for the remainder of the game. In the final stretch, it was the big three of Delle Donne, Meesseman, and Toliver taking turns delivering the final blow to Connecticut. Meesseman’s timely and-one and block with just over a minute remaining helped seal the 89-78 victory and the first championship for the Washington Mystics franchise.
It’s hard to truly pinpoint what went wrong for Connecticut in this series. In all honesty, they simply lost to a better team, arguably the greatest offense in professional basketball. This Vegas team they are facing in the finals this year is not as potent but certainly has the ability to score points. Given how close Game 1 was, if the Sun want to win this next game, the starters will likely have to play huge minutes like in 2019 and stay out of foul trouble.