Boxing analogies have been prevalent in this Finals series. Both teams have spoken about throwing the first punch, sustaining jabs, and bringing the fight to the opponent. Then it was appropriate that Game 4 was a heavyweight bout. The teams threw haymakers at each other before a final, delirious standoff to decide the game. With 10 seconds left, the Connecticut Sun landed the knockout blow at the free throw line to win the game 90-86. The victory ties the series at 2 games apiece and gives us one more basketball game to decide the WNBA Championship on Thursday in Washington D.C. It was an incredible basketball game, let’s dive into it.
The Classic we were waiting for
The first three games of this Finals series were well-played, got close at times and had great moments. But, they lacked the moments that only a tightly contested playoff game can produce as the teams traded double-digit wins. Game 4 produced those moments.
The game started like the rest of the games in this series. One team (the Sun, this time) hopped out to an early lead and finished the first half with a commanding lead. The Mystics played better in the second quarter but still trailed by 16 points at half. In the other games of this series, the team leading at half did not relinquish the lead at any point and won going away.
Not this game. Washington came out firing in the 3rd quarter. Elena Delle Donne shrugged off her back injury to start a run for DC with two buckets. Then, Washington just played their beautiful brand of basketball and hit their shots. Connecticut, facing a more rugged DC defensive effort, finished the quarter 4 of 17 from the field. The Mystics won the quarter 28 to 12 and started the 4th tied.
With about 6 minutes left, the Mystics extended their lead to 5 with (what else?) an Emma Meesseman three pointer. At this point, the Mystics could taste their championship. They could see the trophy ceremony. But Connecticut was not about to let that happen on their home court. Led by Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas, the Sun did just enough down the stretch to win and extend the series.
This game is a classic because both teams showed why they are here. The Mystics showed why they were the championship favorites in the 3rd quarter while the Sun again proved everyone wrong by pulling out the win. It also had the moment we always want a Finals series. Both teams felt the championship in the balance and fought like hell for it.
It was beautiful and brutal. It was one of the best basketball games that you’ll ever get to watch.
Like my mirror staring back at me
In the third quarter, I had a stray thought as the Mystics whipped the ball around and the Sun couldn’t stop them: These teams are the mirror image of one another.
From the roster perspective, the teams are very similar. The Sun are built around two dominant bigs (Jones and Alyssa Thomas) with two fantastic guards (Jasmine Thomas and Williams) and a sharpshooter (Stricklen). The Mystics are built around two dominant bigs (Delle Donne and Meesseman) with two fantastic guards (Cloud and Toliver) and a bunch of sharpshooters.
But more so, the teams play the same brand of basketball. Just on different ends. The fluidity and togetherness that defines Washington’s offense also defines Connecticut’s defense. Their systems are built more on feel and trust than strict strategic choices. The Mystics send the ball flying around the court while the Sun fly around the court with the ball.
The first quarter for CT and the third quarter for DC perfectly showed this phenomenon. It also showed that when either team gets into a rhythm, the other will struggle to keep up.
Alyssa Thomas, MVP
Here’s Alyssa Thomas’s stat line from Game 4: 14 points, 8 assists, 3 rebounds and a steal. What a monstrous performance.
Oh wait, THAT WAS JUST THE FIRST HALF. Thomas set the record for most assists in a WNBA Finals half. Only Courtney Vandersloot has more assists in a half all season.
Thomas was everywhere both offensively and defensively in that first half. The Mystics worried so much about her getting to the rim that passing lanes opened up where help came from. And she got to the rim anyways. Thomas finished with 17 points, 11 assists, and 8 boards while coming up big on some late defensive possessions.
Alyssa Thomas is playing some of the best basketball of her (or anyone’s) career. She is averaging 15.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 6.7 assists in Finals. Her playoff assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.36 would have led the league in the regular season (Natasha Cloud is at 5.30, wild). Importantly, her best games led to Connecticut wins as she put up 21/12/6 in Game 2.
Thomas has anchored this team both offensively and defensively. She has played every minute of this series with two torn labrum and a bunch of bruises from taking so much contact. Alyssa Thomas’s constant presence and toughness have kept the Sun in this series. If Connecticut wins the Finals, she should be getting the MVP trophy.
Coach T, still one win away
Washington Head Coach Mike Thibault remains one, elusive win from a WNBA Championship. The league’s winningest coach seemed like he would finally get the trophy. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Unfortunately, some of Thibault’s late game decisions will be questioned. In the fourth quarter, Natasha Cloud, Aerial Powers, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough each had more shots than Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver combined. After putting up 14 points in the first three quarters, Ariel Atkins played zero minutes of the fourth.
Coach T ran the same play three straight possessions to end the game. The only egregious error, in my opinion, was going for a “quick two” when his team (the best three-point shooting team in WNBA history) by 3 with 18 seconds left.
Coach T did not lose this game for his team or “choke,” whatever that means. But it seems that Coach T just got zoned in on what was working and tightened up his play calling. He was trying to take what the defense gave him and expected his team to play with the flow they normally do. But this was not a normal situation.
If he had the chance to do it again, he would surely change things because they lost. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that. But let’s be real: if Aerial Powers makes a pretty open three pointer with 30 seconds left, Washington and Coach T probably have their trophy.
The criticism of Thibault are fair, but don’t go overboard by saying “he can’t win the big one!” …yet. Game 5 is on Thursday at 8 pm on ESPN 2.