It’s been 290 days since Connecticut lost in a heartbreaking game five against Washington in the WNBA Finals. The Sun spent the last nine months re-working their roster while navigating a global pandemic along with the rest of the world.
The Sun, who are missing three members of their 2019 starting line-up due to offseason trades and opt-outs, opened the new season on Sunday versus the Minnesota Lynx.
Season Opener Recap
The combination of Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner shined bright during the season opener. Bonner, who was traded to the Sun this offseason from the Mercury, is a two-time WNBA champion and three-time All-Star. AT and Bonner combined for 39 points (20/19), 16 rebounds (8/8), and seven steals (4/3) in the contest.
“We have two of the most talented players in the league. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are going to carry us,” Sun head coach Curt Miller stated in the postgame press conference. “The shining light is that you have seen just how talented AT and Bonner are.”
Miller’s 2019 Finals team was focused on creating one of the league’s top defenses. Last season, the Sun allowed just 77.9 points per game and recorded a league-best 30.8 opponent three-point percentage. Connecticut showed flashes of this on Sunday.
In the first half, the Sun held the Lynx to 32.1 percent shooting from the floor, including 0-8 on three-pointers, and forced 10 turnovers. Connecticut shutdown 2019 Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier, holding her to zero points, one rebound, zero assists, zero steals, and three fouls in 11.5 minutes.
With a score of 37-28 heading into the locker room, the Sun held the Lynx to their fewest points in the first half since 2016.
Minnesota showed some signs of life in the third quarter, but Connecticut stayed sharp. The Lynx barely took the scoring edge in the third over the Sun, 22-20.
Adding to the excitement of opening weekend, the league mic’d up one of its most vocal coaches, Coach Miller. Throughout the game, fans at home could hear Miller on the broadcast reminding his team to “create your own energy”. Connecticut was able to do so until the fourth quarter, where they found themselves completely gassed.
In the final 10 minutes of the match-up, the Lynx showed the importance of conditioning. Minnesota started the quarter on an 11-2 run to take the lead, 60-59. The teams traded shots throughout the final minutes of the contest, but the Sun’s fatigue became too much to win the game back. Minnesota took the season opener by eight, 77-69.
All teams will need to focus on conditioning with the little practice time they have in this shortened, 22-game season. This is especially true for Connecticut, who has the most one-day preparations out of any other team in the league.
“We’re just not used to playing with each other and our tendencies. The depth is such a big concern and issue,” Miller said. “This is what happens. We are going to play the first of 18 times with one-day prep.”
With just 10 Sun players available to play in Florida, Connecticut will need to get creative with their substitutions. Briann January is still quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19 and Theresa Plaisance was out for the opener with a back injury.
Second-year veteran Natisha Hiedeman had a delayed start to the season, joining the bubble late after testing positive for the coronavirus. Her lingering symptoms from the illness were shown on Sunday.
“Natisha is a little bit gassed. You could tell today for the first time that her COVID positive process does not have her game ready,” Miller said.
Hiedeman missed fired often, shooting 2-6 on the day. She had a big three-pointer to open the second, but didn’t make much noise the rest of the game. Hiedeman will benefit from more time in the bubble and practicing with the team.
Despite his team’s obvious fatigue in the final quarter, Coach Miller did not play one-year veteran Jacki Gemelos. Though they probably could have used her in the third quarter when the Sun started to slow down, Miller did not want to put Gemelos in for limited minutes with such a short turn around for the next game.
Sunday’s game amplified preseason worries: the Sun are not the same 2019 Finals team. Their late-game performance showed how much the Sun are missing 2019 starters Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen, who were traded in the offseason, and Jonquel Jones, who chose to opt-out of the bubble.
The trio made up about 45 percent (1253/2748) of the Sun’s scoring during Connecticut’s Finals run last year. Jones is a 38.5 percent career three-point shooter. Williams ranked second on the team in scoring during the 2019 regular season. Stricklen ranked third in the league in 3-pointers made with 76.
A single player will be unable to make up for Jones’ production. Last year, Jones led Connecticut and ranked 12th in the WNBA in scoring, led the league in rebounding, and tied for the league lead in blocked shots.
Without these three key players, the Sun are going to have a tough time living up to the standard they set in 2019 when they made the WNBA Finals.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The Sun showed promise with AT and Bonner, but they will feel the growing pains through the season without Jones, Williams, and Stricklen. However, there is an opportunity for other players to step up and fill those gaps.
In addition to AT and Bonner, veterans Brionna Jones and Jasmine Thomas showed promise in the first game of the season. In her first career WNBA start, Jones scored 10 points and added five rebounds. Thomas tallied six points and four assists.
Rookies Kaila Charles and Beatrice Mompremier made their WNBA debut on Sunday and each chipped in two points. Charles also added two rebounds and two blocks while Mompremier tallied three rebounds and one assist.
Charles, drafted out of Maryland, showed improvements to her head coach on Sunday.
“Kaila is a physical defender. I think that her debut, defensively, she stayed in a lot of plays,” Miller said. “She’s physical, she’s competing. She has a future in this league as a defender and her offensive game will come around.”
The Sun are still waiting on January to enter the bubble and re-join the team. The veteran, who appeared in three WNBA Finals with the Fever, winning one in 2012, will be a key piece of the team’s development. January is a six-time WNBA All-Defensive Team honoree and an All-Star. Last season in Phoenix, January averaged 6.5 ppg off of 39 percent shooting from the field and 37.8 percent from behind the arc.
With the unique schedule this season, Miller is ready to let the bad, and the good, go, and focus his attention on the next game.
“It is going to be brutal on these 12 teams on how many games are in a short period,” Miller said. “The beauty of it is that you have to let good games go, got to let bad games go, good segments, bad segments go because you have a game right around the corner.”
If we learned anything from last year’s Finals run, the Sun love to play with a chip on their shoulder. Connecticut is down, but not out. There is still a whole lot of basketball to be played this season.