THE WNBA FINALS START TOMORROW, WHAAAAAAATTTTTTT?! It was an absolutely crazy year in the WNBA and it should end with a bang as the Mystics and Sun battle it out for a championship. One of the wilder things to happen in 2019 was the last game of the season series between Washington and Connecticut in June. Fans, the media, and the league hyped up it as much as, if not more than, any other regular season game. The Sun had lit the league on fire in the first 10 games while Washington was a preseason favorite. The teams looked evenly matched so it would be a great, close game, right? Nope. The Mystics demolished the Sun 102-59. It was stunning at the time and colored how we saw both teams at the time. The question now, on the eve of the Finals, is whether this game remains relevant to this match-up or can be overlooked.
The Mystics out everything-ed the Sun in this game. They out-shot the Sun as Washington took 12 fewer shot attempts but made 9 more shots than Connecticut. The Mystics out-rebounded the Sun 40-33. DC won the assist battle Connecticut by more than double (23-11). They out-hustled, out-smarted, and out-worked the Sun.
Jonquel Jones came to play. She had 15 points on 6 of 12 shooting and 2 of 5 on threes in addition to 7 rebounds. But no other player on the Sun had more than 8 points. On the other side, Six (6!!!) Mystics finished with double-figure points. Elena Delle Donne put up 19 points and 10 rebounds in just 26 minutes of play.
It was one of the best efforts of the season for the Mystics up against one of the worst for the Sun. An epic ass-kicking was the result.
Does it still matter?
The game cemented Washington as the clear favorites to win the championship. They would not relinquish that title for the rest of the season. However, the game seemingly propelled the Sun to success as well. Connecticut lost two close games immediately after this one. But they got it together to finish the year 14-5 to get the two-seed. Considering that both teams are in the Finals, can we just write this game off as a weird outcome?
Well in some ways, yes and in some ways, no. The game could have some strategic ramifications (which I’ll talk about). But we shouldn’t take this game as dispositively proving that the Mystics will dominate.
First, the Mystics came into this game hot against a reeling Connecticut squad. Washington had just won four straight games by an average margin of 23.6 points. EDD had just hit her MVP-level after struggling with a knee injury. Connecticut, on the other hand, were in the midst of that 5-game losing streak as Jasmine Thomas struggled. Now, both teams are flying high and the Sun are playing their best basketball of the season.
Second, the Mystics were more motivated. DC lost the first two games of the season against Connecticut. They had blown a lead in their last home game against Seattle. And the Sun took the early season shine that the Mystics wanted. DC played with a lot more focus and intensity than Connecticut. That will not happen in the Finals.
Third, both teams shot either way above or way below their normal shooting percentages. DC shot 50% from the field and 43.3% from three. That’s absolutely absurd. The Sun shot 30.1% from the field and 25% from three. That’s putrid. We can safely expect these teams to shoot closer to their averages in this series.
What lessons can take from this game into the Finals?
This game still shows us a lot about the potential strategic decisions facing both teams in the Finals. The thing that stands out is the one-on-one match-ups employed. The match-ups between the starters were Jasmine Thomas on Kristi Toliver, Courtney Williams on Natasha Cloud, Shekinna Stricklen on Ariel Atkins, Alyssa Thomas on Elena Delle Donne, and Jonquel Jones on Latoya Sanders. When the Sun had the ball, EDD and Sanders switched assignments so EDD covered JJ and Sanders checked Alyssa Thomas.
I think the Sun will shake their defensive assignments a bit due, in part, to this loss. Toliver roasted Thomas for 9 points in the first quarter. Jasmine lives off ball pressure and Toliver took advantage of it with hesitations and step-backs. Jasmine played very poorly and that won’t happen again.
But she would likely do better on Natasha Cloud, where she could pressure a worse shooter and the lynchpin of the Mystics’ offense. Courtney Williams, not as good of a defender, may also struggle in the match-up with Kristi Toliver. But Toliver is not 100% and Cloud is the more important assignment to DC’s offense.
For Washington, it will be interesting to see who starts at the small forward assuming Cloud, Toliver, EDD, and Sanders (who has a sprained ankle) all start. Head Coach Mike Thibault’s choices include Emma Meesseman, Aerial Powers, and Ariel Atkins.
Meesseman has been straight cash flames, or whatever Kyle Kuzma said (he’s much cooler than me). But Powers and Atkins both provide better defense against a shooter like Stricklen as well as against switches. I expect Coach T to go with Atkins or Powers at first to ensure the defense is strong, like he did in this game. But he will use Emma if the offense stalls out because she can easily iso on Stricklen and keep getting buckets.
The last thing I found interesting from this game was how the Mystics played Alyssa Thomas. DC really keyed on her at all times, whether she had the ball or not. They successfully prevent AT from getting downhill with the ball, where she’s near-impossible to stop. It appears that the decision for Coach T was between letting Jonquel go off or let Alyssa do her thing. They decided to shut down Alyssa to great effect and I think they will employ that strategy again.
While you shouldn’t take this beat-down as definitive proof of anything, the game did show us the potential pressure points of this series. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out tomorrow at 3 pm on ESPN.