Google searches must be spiking for the question: “Can the Connecticut Sun actually beat the Chicago Sky?”
Wednesday night in Dallas, the Sun defeated the Wings, 73-58, in Game 3 of their first-round series. In doing so, Connecticut advanced to the semifinals for a fourth-straight season.
In 2019, the Sun progressed all the way to the WNBA Finals, falling in a hard-fought five-game series to the Washington Mystics. In the 2020 WNBA bubble, a shorthanded Sun team surprised, making it to the semifinals as a seventh seed and stealing two games from the also-depleted Las Vegas Aces.
Then, last season, top-seeded Connecticut met Chicago in the semifinals, with the Sky upsetting the Sun in a series that raised questions about the Sun’s ability to get it done in the postseason. Their ability to get it done against the Sky is particularly questionable.
As previously emphasized, the Sky have proven to be the Sun’s kryptonite over the past two seasons. Connecticut has lost nine of the last 11 matchups with Chicago. Even as personnel and availabilities have shifted, the Sun have struggled to overcome the Sky.
Head coach Curt Miller recognizes that, until they prove otherwise, skepticism will surround his squad, saying, “This group wants to take another step, and there’s not one person that’s going to pick us to beat Chicago. So we’re going to go with the underdog mentality and give it our best shot.”
What might the Sun’s “best shot” look like?
Can Sims, Carrington change the equation?
In the first round against the Wings, both Odyssey Sims and DiJonai Carrington played more minutes per game than they did during the regular season. With Miller, who is known for shrinking his rotation, calling the shots, this development is worth noting.
Sims saw just about as many minutes as Courtney Williams, while Carrington played 25 minutes in the do-or-die Game 3, the fifth-most minutes she played all season.
Against the Sky in the regular season, Carrington averaged less than 13 minutes of action. Sims only played in the final game against Chicago, which was her second overall game with Connecticut. Although single-game plus-minus is not a definitive assessment of a player’s impact on a game, Sims did register a team-high plus-12 in that game.
So far in the playoffs, Sims and Carrington are tied for the team’s best plus-minus marks, with the Sun outscoring the Wings by an average of 8.3 points when both were on the court. Considering Williams and Natisha Hiedeman struggled against the Sky during the regular season, allocating more minutes to Sims and Carrington could boost Connecticut’s chances.
On offense, the ball has not gone in for Hiedeman against Chicago. The Sun’s best 3-point shooter, she’s been frigid from deep against the Sky (1-of-9 from deep in four games). Williams, in contrast, has shot well from 3 against Chicago, yet she too often opted for taking contested midrangers, resulting in inefficient scoring (14-of-52 on twos).
Although Sims is not the most efficient offensive operator, she is a more willing driver, bullying toward the basket and drawing fouls in ways that the Hiedeman and Williams, both slight and shifty, do not. Carrington also puts more pressure on the rim as a driver and cutter.
Sims and Carrington can be even more impactful on the other end of the floor. Chicago has multiple perimeter weapons who can cause problems. Courtney Vandersloot is an expert offensive conductor, Kahleah Copper brings electric athleticism, Allie Quigley races around screens before draining 3s and Rebekah Gardner is a ball of incessant activity. Sims and Carrington offer more size and physicality as defenders and, in turn, could better disrupt the Sky’s guards and wings.
The pressure ultimately is on JJ, AT
However, if Connecticut is to defeat Chicago three times — or even once! — and advance to the WNBA Finals, it will be because their top two players, Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas, establish themselves as the best players in the series.
Last playoffs, Thomas only recently had returned from an Achilles injury, coming off the bench in Connecticut’s four games against Chicago. Her presence was both a boost and a burden. Based on plus-minus, she was one of the Sun’s best playoff performers. She averaged 18.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.3 steals per-36 minutes. In short, the kind of all-encompassing stat-stuffing effort for which she is known.
Yet, Thomas’ return seemed to have disrupted Jones. After averaging a double-double of almost 20 points and more than 11 rebounds per game as she captured 2021 WNBA MVP honors, her numbers dropped across the board in the playoffs, with two particularly underwhelming and unassertive performances sinking her averages and staining her postseason resume.
The inability to establish an offensive equilibrium between Thomas and Jones during the 2021 playoffs has persisted into the 2022 regular season. Despite the Sun’s overall offensive success, Jones too often has been marginalized, with Connecticut failing to take advantage of her prodigious abilities.
It is far from ideal that, on the precipice of the semifinals, the combination of Jones and Thomas has not been optimized. Although the Sun are talented enough, and often play hard enough, to make it work against the majority of opponents, the Sky, a championship squad captained by Candace Parker and her unparalleled IQ, has not proven to be one of those opponents.
Can Thomas and Jones both find a way to be their best selves, with Thomas driving a relentless transition attack as Jones asserts herself as a three-level scorer in half court? If so, the Sun can make fans forget their recent stumbles against the Sky with a Finals berth. If not, legitimate questions about the viability of this core will get louder, leading to an interesting offseason.