The single elimination part of the WNBA Playoffs are over and it’s time to get some series! We’ve got a pair of best-of-five series coming up, as the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics meet in a battle between the first and fourth seeds, while the third-seed Los Angeles Sparks take on the two-seed Connecticut Sun.
Let’s focus on that second matchup and on Connecticut in particular. What’s the deal with this team? How do they match up with the Sparks? Who will be the key players if the Sun want to pull off the win and head to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2005?
The Key Players To Watch
Well, duh. Jones should be in the discussion for top-five players in the WNBA, but it often seems like she gets excluded from those discussions. Maybe it’s because her role before this season wasn’t super clear, but the Sun didn’t just trade Chiney Ogwumike to Los Angeles for fun; they did it because they trusted Jones to be one of the league’s best bigs the moment she stepped into an expanded role. They’ve been proven correct.
Jones finished second to Elena Delle Donne in Player Impact Plus/Minus (PIPM) this season, and her 2.36 defensive-PIPM was the league’s highest mark. While Natasha Howard had a great case for winning Defensive Player of the Year, Jones had just as good a case, and it’s a near certainty that she’ll one day retire with multiple DPOY awards.
But Jones is more than just a defensive big. Jones was 12th in the league in points per game and contributed both inside and outside. Her 30.9% shooting from three isn’t great, but having a big who takes 4.1 of them per game goes a long way towards creating strong offensive spacing.
While we’re talking about bigs, let’s talk about Alyssa Thomas. She was second on the team in PIPM and in the top-10 in the league in D-PIPM. Thomas helps make this an imposing front court and is the team’s more traditional post big on the offensive end, with her shooting 66.7% on 4.9 attempts in the restricted area per game. Thomas took just 11 shots from outside of the paint this season, so the Sparks know exactly what they’re getting from her. We’ll see if they’re able to use the Ogwumike sisters to slow Thomas down inside and force the ball into the hands of Connecticut’s guards.
This year, in the 800+ minutes where Jones and Thomas were on the floor together, the Sun had a net rating 10.5. In all their other minutes, that net rating plummeted to -6.4. So, uhh…obviously having their two best defenders on the court together is very important for the success of this team.
What Does Connecticut Need To Do To Win?
I don’t think looking back at regular season contests is super helpful in talking about the single elimination games, but it can be more useful when we’re looking at these actual series.
Connecticut was 1-2 against Los Angeles this year. The one win came on June 6th, with the Sparks missing Candace Parker, Alana Beard, and Riquna Williams. Connecticut won 89-77.
In the most recent meeting, the Sparks won 84-72. That was a meeting with both teams at 100%, and the Sun just didn’t have an answer the interior combination of Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker and the outside shooting of Riquna Williams.
That skilled front court is where issues develop for the Sun. I talked about how good the Jones/Thomas front court duo has been, but the Sparks have one of the front courts that’s talented enough to negate the Sun’s advantage there. Parker and the Ogwumike sisters — plus Maria Vadeeva, though I doubt we see much of her this season — were being discussed as the league’s best front court before the season, but injuries limited a lot of that talk. Everyone is healthy now, and both Parker and Nneka are viable inside-out players offensively, while Chiney did a good job in the paint in the regular season.
Aside from maybe the Aces — with their Liz Cambage, A’ja Wilson, Dearica Hamby rotation — this is the most difficult matchup for Jones and Thomas. That puts added pressure on the Sun backcourt, which isn’t quite as impressive as the Sparks backcourt.
First, Connecticut needs Shekinna Stricklen to be firing away from deep at her usual rate. She’s one of four players on this team to attempt two or more shots from behind the arc per game, but only Stricklen and Jasmine Thomas hit those shots at a rate that can be called good. The Sparks have a lot of firepower, so if Connecticut isn’t able to get a huge edge inside, they’ll have to keep up on the perimeter.
Speaking of Jasmine Thomas, Connecticut needs her to keep hold of the ball. Thomas was sixth in the WNBA in turnovers per game; Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray was second. Make good passes. Don’t turn the ball over. Pressure Gray on the other end and hope she’s the ball-handler who makes mistakes.
(Also, Courtney Williams. I didn’t even mention Courtney Williams. She needs to provide the team with solid production on both ends of the court, a thing that she should be able to do.)
I’ve got to do this, right? I can’t write about this series without making my choice for who wins, yeah?
Look. I think Connecticut has the coaching edge and they’ll have the best player on the floor in Jonquel Jones, but the Sparks are so deep, which is going to present issues for the Sun. If the last meeting between these teams is to be believed, the Sparks should be able to use the versatility of their bigs to negate the defensive edge Connecticut has, and that should allow the Sparks to use that depth and perimeter play to their advantage.
But, I mean…it’s the playoffs. Coaching matters. Having the best player matters. Connecticut has those two things.
I’ve given it some thought and while the Sparks were my preseason title pick, I’m going Connecticut in five. Jonquel Jones establishes herself as next year’s MVP front runner. It’s (maybe) happening.