Outcoached and Outplayed, Las Vegas is on the Brink of Elimination

Curt Miller is in peak playoff form, Bill Laimbeer appears stuck in the regular season, and the once 0-5 Connecticut Sun are suddenly one win from the WNBA Finals. 

How did we get here? 

It’s only proper to begin by highlighting the stellar play of Alyssa Thomas. Undoubtedly the best performer in the 2020 WNBA Playoffs to date, Thomas dislocated her shoulder on Tuesday, then dominated the Aces 48 hours later. Following Thursday’s 77-68 win, which gave Connecticut a 2-1 series lead, Thomas attended her postgame media availability looking like she’d just tossed a complete game. Ice covered every inch of her right shoulder and upper arm. This was toughness personified. 

One would assume a recently dislocated shoulder might render some moves off-limits. The spin-move, for instance, comes to mind as a hazardous selection. Twice on Thursday, Thomas hurled herself at Dearica Hamby and spun into a short shot attempt. The first one resulted in an and-one, striking fear into the hearts of Aces fans across the planet. How do you stop such a determined player? 

Spin-moves are flashy and fun, and Thomas provides immense offensive value despite her lack of a jump shot, but this series is being decided on the defensive end. Connecticut has allowed 90.7 points per 100 possessions in its five playoff games, a better mark than any posted during the regular season. Stingy is an understatement. The Sun have turned the second best offensive team in the league into a plodding, indecisive bunch. A’ja Wilson has done everything in her power to keep Las Vegas afloat. Still, the Aces are on the verge of sinking. 

Connecticut has laid bare the difficulty of winning in the playoffs without consistent outside shooting. The only true #disrespeCT to be found in this series? Connecticut’s treatment of the Aces guards and wings. Las Vegas has hit 6 three-pointers on 32 attempts against the Sun. This isn’t the 1990s. To win on two triples per game requires unrelenting dominance in the paint. Yet the Aces are struggling to score inside as well as outside. 

Las Vegas is spending far too much energy attempting to enter the ball into the post, where Wilson can go to work. By sagging off players like Danielle Robinson and Jackie Young, Connecticut is in essence able to front the post without having to worry about getting beat over the top. The Sun are swarming Wilson at every opportunity, clogging the paint and greatly limiting the room in which she has to operate – dribbles, pivots, and spins. On many occasions, Wilson has scored through two or even three defenders, but the long-term toll this takes is notable. After scoring 48 points on 21-of-34 from the field in Games 1 and 2, Wilson’s efficiency dipped considerably in Game 3, tallying 20 points on 6-of-15 shooting. 

Not only does packing the paint make scoring a laborious task for Wilson, but it mucks up the Aces other sources of offense. Young loves to run pick-and-rolls with Wilson, swerving into mid-range jumpers in the 6-to-12 foot range. But when there are three or four bodies in and around the lane at all times, it becomes incredibly difficult for a smaller player like Young to create good looks. If you’re spending most of an offensive possession simply getting into a fundamental action, that leaves little wiggle room should said action not immediately yeild a high percentage shot. 

Angel McCoughtry, arguably one of the best 15 players in the league this season on a per-minute basis, has also struggled to find her offensive groove due to the congested lane. She’s averaging just over 10 points per game in this series on 30 percent shooting. 

There are so many perplexing elements in the possession shown above. Firstly, why is Carolyn Swords setting a ball-screen for McCoughtry as Wilson hangs back under the hoop and not vice-versa? Connecticut completely ignores Swords as the roller and smothers McCoughtry. Secondly, why is Lindsay Allen lingering inside the three-point line, seemingly signaling for someone to use her as a screener to no avail. The spacing here is atrocious. Young is the only Aces player standing behind the three-point line, and Briann January completely ignores her, crashing down to further stymie McCoughtry.

Look at this paint party – a raucous affair for Connecticut; an aggravating affair for Las Vegas. 

Connecticut has many defenders that excel in straight up, player-to-player defense. Alyssa and Jasmine Thomas are long and disruptive. DeWanna Bonner, too. January plays with a quickness that is hard to counter. Kaila Charles is an extremely advanced rookie on the defensive end. But in the semifinals, the Sun are reaping the rewards of both straight up defense and suffocating help. That’s how you post a Defensive Rating in the low nineties. 

Out of bounds plays are another area in which the coaching chasm has been quite evident. In the fourth quarter of Game 2, the Aces incurred a five-second violation as the initial set they ran failed to create an opening. Plays like this one, below, have South Carolina Gamecocks Nation incensed. Wilson must be seeing flailing, prodding arms in her sleep. 

Curt Miller isn’t reinventing the wheel with this gameplan. He’s simply formed a clear-cut and sensible plan of attack where Laimbeer has failed to do the same. Connecticut’s strategy isn’t rocket science, but it’s been executed flawlessly by the Sun players, with precision and poise. 

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Las Vegas’s supporting cast must step up to avoid an early departure from the Wubble. Sharp cuts into the middle of the lane like this one from Kayla McBride, who senses January get distracted for a split second, are necessary to take some of the burden off of Wilson. 

Though the Aces defense has been decent, largely due to the elite play of Wilson and Hamby, Las Vegas is getting exposed when Connecticut has the ball, too. The Sun have attacked Swords relentlessly in the pick-and-roll. No matter who is playing center, Connecticut has run the same action directly at Swords on a stunning number of possessions. Through no fault of her own, Swords is getting sliced and diced. The finger must be pointed at Laimbeer. 

What is Swords doing hedging this far out on Jasmine Thomas? At this point in her career, Swords struggles defending in space and doesn’t possess the lateral quickness to survive near the three-point line tracking guards. Possessions like these have inflicted all kinds of damage on Las Vegas’s chances. 

Wilson is so exceptional as a helper that she’s bailed out Swords on numerous occasions. Some of Wilson’s most impressive blocks this postseason have come after Swords was unable to recover. 

Vegas’s best lineup features a frontcourt of McCoughtry, Hamby, and Wilson. During Game 3, ESPN’s Holly Rowe reported that Hamby has been battling a leg injury during this series. Perhaps that explains why she’s averaging just 25 minutes per game. Still, Hamby has been her quietly effective self after a rough offensive Game 1. I greatly respect Laimbeer’s regular season philosophy of keeping his players fresh. But if Hamby can handle it, she must take some of Swords’s minutes. Las Vegas is a way better team with Hamby on the floor, and yet Laimbeer chooses to leave her on the bench for at least the first five minutes of each half as Miller plays his best lineup. 

McCoughtry is averaging less than 21 minutes per game. She recently turned 34, but this is when you cut your best players loose. The Aces are hemorrhaging points when Connecticut gets Swords involved as a primary defender, and Swords isn’t providing nearly enough offense to make up for it on the other end. Las Vegas doesn’t have great depth at the 4 and the 5, but why not try and play smaller? Why not extend the minutes of Sugar Rodgers to see if she can’t catch fire and help space the floor? 

Connecticut is right where it wants to be. The Aces are doing exactly what the Sun prepared for them to do. Laimbeer needs to employ the element of surprise, whatever form that might take, if he wants to flip the script on Miller’s squad. Otherwise Miller, his phenomenal bird shirt, and his spirited group of players will be booking their second straight trip to the WNBA Finals. 

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