WNBA Semifinals Game 3 Reaction: The Sun will be shining in the Finals

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Games 1 and 2 of the WNBA semifinals went largely according to plan. Washington and Connecticut won their home games against the lower-seeded teams. Washington dazzled with its offense while Connecticut’s toughness was on full display. Game 3 did not according to any plan known to the WNBA community. The Aces trounced the Mystics, who shockingly looked completely inept on offense in Las Vegas. The Sparks, who had won 14 straight home games, got pile-driven by the Sun (while playing in Long Beach rather than LA).

When Role Players become Superstars

THE CONNECTICUT SUN WERE TIRED OF IT. They were tired of playing single-elimination games. They were tired of players wanting to leave Connecticut. Most importantly, they were tired of the disrespect (or disrespeCT, as the Sun say) tossed at their roster. The Sun came into the playoffs with a freaking boulder on their shoulder and ripped through the LA Sparks in 3 games to make it to the WNBA Finals. Jasmine Thomas led the team offensively with 29 (!!!) points and defensively by locking down Chelsea Gray in all three games.

We’ll focus on their finals match-up once it’s set. But let’s take a minute to appreciate what this group just did. The LA Sparks came into this series with two MVPs, a former DPOY, a bunch of all-stars, a head coach with NBA championships, a legendary GM, and two recent WNBA titles. The Sun came in with a bunch of role players, if you believe ESPN. But they played tough, gritty basketball and they did it together.

“They have that chip on their shoulder. This group has really taken that chip of being called a team without superstars,” said Sun Head Coach Curt Miller. “We are team that fits together. We can win in different ways.”

Also, let’s just put to bed the idea that anyone actually believes this is a team of role players. At the very least, Jonquel Jones is clearly a perennial MVP candidate going forward so the thought falls apart there. But, the roster is closer to having five stars rather than none much like the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons. I could explain why each one of these players is special. But Courtney Williams did that way better than I ever could in her post-game interview.

The Sun play whoever wins the Aces-Mystics series starting on Sunday, September 29th.

Further Reading: Eric Nemchock of Swish Appeal on the Sun advancing.

Fisher’s foibles

While the Sun’s victory is uplifting and joyful, the Sparks’ loss was stunning and disheartening. LA came into the year with much fanfare after acquiring another all-star in Chiney Ogwumike. Chiney, Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, Alana Beard, and Riquna Williams is an absolutely loaded roster. They had experience, depth, a history of winning, and more than enough talent.

Yet, LA got their doors blown off by the Sun in this series. They lost by an average margin of 19. They got out rebounded by 33 boards over three games. Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams never got close to having a good game. It was stunning to watch this team get beat this bad, but sometimes you run into a great, motivated team and lose.

However, what Sparks Head Coach Derek Fisher did in Game 3 is completely confounding. He played Candace Parker just 11 minutes in an elimination game. He took out his starters with 6 minutes left WITH THE SEASON ON THE LINE. That is absolutely ridiculous, especially when Fisher rationalized benching Parker by saying he was trying to find a spark of energy. WHAT?!?!?!?!

The Sparks hired the former Lakers point guard and Knicks coach this offseason. Before the year began, I and many other questioned the hire as Fisher because of his unsuccessful New York tenure and questions arising from his time as NBAPA. But, he had done a laudable job this season.

Until Sunday night. The Sparks probably don’t win that game with anyone on the floor because the Sun just played that well. But I could not imagine something (other than an injury) more damaging to this team’s future under Fisher than what he did. He didn’t communicate with his superstar and seemed to give up on the game. Fisher will be questioned for what he did all offseason. Hopefully, he comes up with some better answers.

Further reading: Matt Ellentuck of SBNation on Fisher benching Candace.

Lizzy brings the bully

You really didn’t think the Aces would get swept, right? With their backs against the wall, Las Vegas dominated the Washington Mystics for a 92-75 win in Game 3. They got the huge win on the back of tremendous post play. Liz Cambage finished with 28 points on 12-15 shooting and A’ja Wilson added 18 points and 8 rebounds. As both players and Head Coach Bill Laimbeer said post-game, this is what they envisioned when Vegas traded for Cambage.

Laimbeer gave credit to his team for getting Liz the ball in the right spots at the right times. While that’s true, a lot of the Aces’ post-success and energy came from Liz just being a bully. She knew that she had size in her match ups with Elena Delle Donne or Latoya Sanders and took full advantage of that. She got DEEP in the post and made life easier for her, while making life painful for the Mystics.

“Cambage got post position on a lot of people with bruises on their necks and throats,” said Washington Head Coach Mike Thibault.

Offensively, Liz did get away with plenty of fouls. But that’s part of being a star in professional basketball and part of the reason why she gets on the refs so often. Defensively, the Aces didn’t need the refs help (although I’m sure the Mystics would say they got it anyways). Vegas started switching pick-and-rolls much more. The strategy worked to limit Emma Meesseman’s open jumpers, which killed Vegas in Games 1 and 2. The Mystics did not adjust to Vegas’s defense quickly, got in a hole, and never found their normal flow in this game.

Credit the Aces for stifling the best offense in league history. They played like a desperate team because they were a desperate team. If they keep bringing that energy, the Aces will take this series back to Washington for a Game 5.

Further reading: Michelle Voepel of ESPN on the Aces’s Bigs.

What happened to Washington?

Although the Aces deserve a lot of credit for winning, Washington definitely didn’t help themselves. They shot just 38.6% from the field and 33% from three. Many of their misses came on good, open looks. Most shockingly, the Mystics coughed up 13 turnovers. They had nine in the first half! That’s something no one saw coming from, statically, the most careful team in league history. Coach T summed it up very well post-game.

“[That was our] first real stinker game we have had in a long time,” said Thibault in a matter-of-fact tone.

That is pretty much all the analysis you need for the Mystics’s offense. Nothing worked, it was all bad, and it probably won’t happen again. Defensively, Washington’s bigs need to get BIG and get help. In Games 1 and 2, Sanders, Meesseman, and EDD got the Aces off their spots and limited their production. DC’s guards helped those three as Vegas’s guards struggled. With Kayla McBride playing well, Liz and A’ja roasted DC’s frontcourt one-on-one. Liz had some advice for them post-game.

I love that from Liz, as a fan. But I doubt the Mystics love it and I doubt they will forget it. Washington knows that they didn’t match the physicality or desperation of the Aces in Game 3. Bet on DC playing that quote over and over and over again, until it makes them sick. It’ll be ringing in their ears as they try to close out the series in Game 4 on Tuesday.

Further reading: Ava Wallace from the Washington Post on how Washington looked like a different team in game 3.

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