WNBA Dissected: Four minutes of madness, a look forward to Finals matchups, and more from 2022 Playoffs Week 3
With the climax of the season about to begin, we take a look at the wild finish to the semis, and what could be to come in the Aces-Sun Finals
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Just to maintain a theme from the last couple of weeks of articles - that was fun, huh? On one hand, an outstanding series between Las Vegas and Seattle, with the two best players in the world going back and forth while Chelsea Gray set the world on fire. On the other, an absolute war between Chicago and Connecticut that finished with one of the more extraordinary turnarounds in recent memory. If the Finals offer at least half as much entertainment as the semis we'll be doing pretty well.
Four minutes to swing a series
Let's start at the end, so to speak, with Thursday night's wild second half. I rewatched it to try to decipher what the hell happened, and while it didn't explain everything, you do end up with a little more clarity when watching without the intensity of live action.
From a 40-40 tie at halftime, Chicago dominated the third quarter. However, they did it mostly with defense, energy, and winning all the 50/50 battles. There was a sequence midway through the period where, in the space of a minute, Courtney Vandersloot had a recovery block, a steal that led to a transition three-point play for Kahleah Copper, and then successfully sold tripping over Brionna Jones's leg as an illegal screen. All through the third Chicago were hanging tough on the boards, keeping possessions alive with a couple of offensive rebounds, and they were even the team running down the ball off jump-balls, regardless of who tipped it. Plays like that, along with a procession of Connecticut turnovers - some forced by Chicago defense, some not - were what led to the Sky taking nine more shots than the Sun in the third quarter. The Sky didn't actually shoot well - 7-for-21 in the period - which is why the gap only ever rose to around 10 points. Their ball movement created plenty of clean looks, but nothing much was going in. Otherwise they could've easily been up by 15 or 20.
The Sun finished off that miserable third quarter with an awful sequence. After another Brionna Jones turnover in traffic - she had a dreadful game with the Sky constantly collapsing on her and giving her no room to work - the Sun got lucky when Emma Meesseman missed a turnaround. Connecticut could've held for the final shot of the period, but DiJonai Carrington dribbled directly into traffic and turned the ball over again, leading to a transition layup the other way. The Sun still had over nine seconds to do something, but Natisha Hiedeman barely got the ball over halfcourt before the buzzer sounded. It felt like the stuffing had been knocked out of them.
Nothing much changed for much of the fourth quarter. Watching live, it felt to me like the Sun were dispirited, and on the brink of accepting their demise. On rewatch, to be fair to them, they kept fighting. The defense and energy were there, they just couldn't find a way to generate meaningful offense. An occasional mid-range shot kept them hanging around, the gap continuing to float in the 7-10 points range where they weren't doomed, but it was going to take something special to change the situation. Chicago were still missing a lot of shots. Some of them very clean looks you would expect them to knock down. Allie Quigley in particular had a brutal 1-for-12 shooting game to round off a 12-for-50 series. But while the Sun couldn't score, the Sky were in control regardless.
The pivotal moment came with 3:46 left. With Connecticut down by nine, DeWanna Bonner's miss was kept alive by Jonquel Jones, who controlled the ball while surrounded by three Sky players. Connecticut dominated the glass throughout the series, but Chicago had kept things pretty much even through three quarters of Game 5 - the Sun eventually won 14-3 on the boards in the fourth. Jones tipped the ball to Courtney Williams, who found Bonner, who finished at the rim and let out her usual primal scream. The scream finished pretty close to Copper's face, who wasn't too happy about it and pushed Bonner away. It wasn't much as minor scuffles go, but could've had major consequences. Copper picked up a technical for a flailing arm earlier in the game, so would've been ejected if the officials had called a double-tech on her and Bonner. It also would've been Copper's fourth technical foul of the playoffs, which would've resulted in a suspension for Game 1 of the Finals. The officials went to the video, and as we would say in my country, 'bottled it'. Clearly aware of what the standard double-technical call would result in, they decided to go with nothing more than the common foul originally called on Copper.
Momentum is a funny thing in sports. There are plenty of people who'll tell you that it doesn't really exist, but virtually every basketball game features timeouts called multiple times to try to break it. After that Bonner and-one, and the following pause while the referees made up their minds on how to avoid making a call, everything went Connecticut's way. Williams made an outstanding play to get a finger on Quigley's attempted three, which led to a glorious touchdown pass from Alyssa Thomas to find Williams for a layup the other way. Thomas got a call under the rim and hit a pair at the line. Copper blew a layup. Hiedeman ran down the ball to gain possession off a jump-ball - exactly the kind of plays Chicago were making back in the third quarter - which led to a Jonquel Jones finish through contact to give the Sun the lead.
All through this, Chicago couldn't hit a shot, or grab a rebound. There were some mental errors as well, including a couple of ugly Vandersloot turnovers, but there were also several good looks that they just couldn't knock down. Even after Williams hit one of her trademark long-two pullups with 47 seconds left to put the Sun up five, Vandersloot had a great look at a three to make it a two-point game immediately afterwards. She missed, Bonner rebounded, and the ballgame was essentially over.
It was a series that quite obviously could've gone either way. At times, Chicago's ball movement and creation looked like too much for Connecticut. The Sun dominating on the glass didn't seem to matter for much of the series, just leading to more misses. Eventually, maybe composure mattered. Connecticut hung around within range in Game 5, even while they couldn't find any way to score and kept turning the ball over. They didn't quit. Chicago, rather than gaining energy from another infamous moment of Copper passion, allowed the Sun to drive forwards out of that sequence. But then, ultimately, to borrow a phrase, maybe it's just a 'make-or-miss league'. If players like Quigley, Vandersloot and Candace Parker make a few of the shots they're fully capable of making, we're probably discussing a Las Vegas-Chicago Finals right now. Simple as that.
Too big to fail or too quick to catch? Finals matchups to watch
You're going to see this billed, at times, as big vs small. Despite having a 'big' who was just named WNBA MVP, Las Vegas's strength beyond A'ja Wilson is in their shot-making guards. Without rediscovering their small lineup, which essentially sees them playing with four guards, the Aces probably wouldn't have made it past Seattle. Connecticut, on the other hand, have Alyssa Thomas and both Joneses inside, plus the length of Bonner at the three. The series may well depend on which team manages to handle the other's strength the better.
I would expect the same starting lineups we saw in the semifinals, at least to begin the Finals. Maybe it was partly that she would've been asking Dearica Hamby to chase either Breanna Stewart or Tina Charles, but Becky Hammon didn't look like she was comfortable putting Hamby and her recently-injured knee back in her regular rotation just yet. So Kiah Stokes gets to keep her starting spot. I'd expect Stokes on Jonquel Jones initially, and definitely on Brionna Jones whenever she comes into the game, which is likely going to leave Wilson on Thomas on a regular basis. It'll be a physical, punishing matchup for Wilson, but she also guarded Breanna Stewart for much of the Seattle series and continued to produce. The weight on Wilson's shoulders will continue to be considerable.
As we saw from Seattle, Connecticut will largely ignore Stokes when Vegas have the ball. Exactly who this will leave to play free safety is somewhat up in the air. The Sun switched their post matchups midway through the series against Chicago, because Candace Parker was producing too effectively against Thomas. Jonquel Jones had more success covering Parker (with the assistance of the second half of the series being played every other day). So either could be tasked with the initial Wilson assignment, and we'll see plenty of switching anyway. But expect Connecticut to be even more aggressive defensively than usual when Stokes is on the floor, knowing they can help away from her with impunity, and are more likely to be able to rotate and recover successfully when there are only four real offensive threats on the floor for the other team.
On the outside, Bonner typically takes the most natural opposing 'wing', as the Sun's only perimeter player with real length. That would put her on Jackie Young, but this may be the time for something a little different. Chelsea Gray is not a normal point guard, nor has she been playing at any kind of normal level in the 2022 playoffs. Natisha Hiedeman and Courtney Williams are both decent defenders, with relatively quick hands, but neither is particularly big. The Sun might be worried about Gray punishing either with her physicality, and her ability to see and pass around a smaller defender. So Bonner on Gray at the point of attack is certainly a possibility, leaving the other two to chase Young and Kelsey Plum.
Vegas aren't usually too bothered by which way round the matchups end up playing out on the perimeter. They may want Young to chase Williams, but as we've seen many times, allowing Williams to step into a barrage of mid-range jumpers can often hurt her own team rather than her opponent. Expect copious switching from the Aces around the perimeter, whenever it's easier than fighting around.
Whether Las Vegas feel comfortable going to their small lineup even for short stretches is going to be fascinating. During the semifinals it became pretty clear that we're down to six players that Hammon actually wants to play, seven if Hamby's healthy enough to be used for meaningful minutes. If Hamby's still severely limited, they'd have to go small to get Wilson or Stokes any rest at all, unless Iliana Rupert or Theresa Plaisance are going to be pulled out of mothballs. The positive for the small lineups against Connecticut is that Alyssa Thomas poses no outside threat, so someone like Gray or Young can drop into the paint to try to cover her where help can arrive. But there's obviously the danger that Thomas can overpower a smaller defender. I would imagine the Aces will try it, but Hammon will have a quick trigger on subbing right back out of it. Even if Hamby's at a similar physical level to where she was for the semis, she may be required to play more regardless. Using her at the 4 is a relatively 'small' lineup in and of itself, but at least she knows the position.
Going small would also have the potential to hurt Vegas on the glass, where Connecticut just illustrated again that they can dominate. After a regular season where they put up the second-best rebounding percentage of all time (behind only last season's Sun), Connecticut just beat Chicago by a staggering 63 rebounds across a five-game series (itself a record). Stokes is a good rebounder, another reason Las Vegas will want her on the floor despite how she cramps their offense. Connecticut will likely win the battle on the boards - the Aces were a mediocre rebounding team this year - but the Aces will hope to be close enough. Similar to how Chicago were for the first three games of the semifinal.
Of course, there are plenty of areas where the Aces will have an edge as well. They weren't the best offensive team in the league this year by accident. Chelsea Gray is in the process of setting all kinds of efficiency records for a playoff run, stepping into more of a scorer's role in the postseason while continuing to direct the offense where it needs to go. Lean too far towards trying to control her and Plum, Young and Riquna Williams will happily light you up from the perimeter instead. Expect yet more shots of Jasmine Thomas on the Sun bench whenever the Aces get hot, and comments about how Connecticut's perimeter defense misses her. We'll also see Curt Miller look to Odyssey Sims and DiJonai Carrington whenever his starting guards aren't working out, but they may not have much more success.
Wilson will, of course, get hers. The Sun may well hope to wear her down with their physical style, especially as she gets very little rest. In the 165 minutes of the semifinal series against Seattle, Wilson was on the bench for a grand total of four minutes and six seconds. That said, she still put up 90 points and 37 rebounds on 34-for-53 from the field in the final three games. Even the Sun's big, talented interior players can only expect to limit her so much.
I'd make Las Vegas the favourites, especially with home-court advantage, but not by much. It should be yet another entertaining battle of a series. As a neutral, let's hope it goes five.