WNBA Dissected: Is there still hope for Connecticut? Plus more from 2022 Playoffs Week 4
With Las Vegas leading the Finals 2-0 and the FIBA Women's World Cup less than a week away, we take our regular look around the world of women's basketball
Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also buy Her Hoop Stats gear, such as laptop stickers, mugs, and shirts!
Haven’t subscribed to the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter yet?
Sun season setting?
After Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, I suggested on Twitter that you were left with a choice: Did you view that tight contest as a positive for Connecticut because they'd shown they could drag Las Vegas into their kind of game, or a negative for the Sun because they'd lost and that might be their best chance? Unfortunately for Connecticut, the latter is now looking more likely. Tuesday night's comfortable win for the Aces put them up 2-0 and thoroughly in charge of the series. It's never over until the bitter end, but teams that take a 2-0 lead in best-of-fives are 15-0 in WNBA history, losing only four games combined in those 15 series. The seven teams that went up 2-0 in the Finals have all won in sweeps. So it's fair to say that things aren't looking good for the Sun.
After some genuine success in Game 1, Connecticut simply couldn't slow down Las Vegas's high-powered offense in Game 2. A'ja Wilson got essentially whatever she wanted, using her quickness and shot-making ability to score as efficiently as ever. Chelsea Gray continues to be molten hot, as has been the case for essentially the entire postseason. Gray's taking several shots that might be 'bad' in a pure analytic sense, but when you're hitting most of those shots they're no longer bad. After a poor Game 1 and being below her 2022 standards for most of the Seattle series, Kelsey Plum also joined the party on Tuesday night, repeatedly roasting Courtney Williams off the dribble so that it didn't matter that Plum's outside shot still wasn't falling.
In fact, that's a worrying element for Connecticut heading back home. Las Vegas didn't even shoot well from outside in Game 2, finishing 6-for-26 from three-point range. The Aces did shoot 27-for-38 from inside the arc, the second best two-point percentage in a playoff game in WNBA history, leading to a 46-28 advantage in points in the paint that will end Connecticut’s season if it’s repeated on Thursday night. If any of the Aces perimeter players can find their range from outside, the Sun will have a huge additional problem to worry about in the rest of the series. Even the one area Connecticut have been able to rely on whatever else is going on - their rebounding - didn't help much on Tuesday. After dominating Chicago on the glass throughout their semifinal series, then winning the rebounding battle 38-33 in Game 1 (with a 13-6 advantage on the offensive boards), the Sun were held to a 34-34 tie on the boards in Game 2. To give themselves a chance, they have to win there.
Areas like that will be what Connecticut look at to offer themselves hope heading home for Game 3 (and hopefully Game 4, from their perspective). Attack the glass like they usually do, regain their edge there, and you turn a few key possessions. With a home crowd behind them rather than a sold out Michelob Ultra Arena, maybe they also get a few calls in their favor that haven't been going their way. Maybe, just maybe, Chelsea Gray cools off to edge-of-the-Sun hot rather than the center. It has to happen eventually, right?
Because in terms of making big changes to try to swing the series, it's difficult to see what Curt Miller can turn to. He's tried his big lineups, and had some success in Game 2, but that waned as the game wore on. Playing DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas, Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones all together dragged them closer in a stretch towards the end of the first half. But when Miller tried it again in the second half the Aces stood up to it. He went big midway through the third quarter when Gray turned an ankle and went back to the locker room for treatment, hoping to take advantage of the Aces being without their biggest guard. The Sun ended up with several clean looks from outside against Vegas's zone but couldn't knock them down. By the time Gray returned, the Aces were even further ahead than when she left.
I'm a little surprised we haven't seen more shifts from the Sun, especially defensively. Bonner used to get votes for WNBA All-Defensive teams - admittedly a few years ago now - but she's essentially been tasked with guarding Jackie Young for the entire series. Even while Gray's been continuing to cook, and while Plum was lighting up Williams in Game 2, they didn't even try Bonner's length on Las Vegas's key guards for a few possessions to see if it could change anything. Young's very good, but she's the least scary of the Aces' perimeter starters, and often isn't particularly involved offensively. She's even bringing the ball up under minimal pressure to take the load off Gray at times. They have to ask Bonner to do more. She's offered nothing offensively, so it's not like you're losing much if she's too tired to produce on that end.
The Sun could even try some zone, and give the Aces a taste of their own medicine. You risk leaving space for Vegas's shooters to get hot, but that's why you practice rotating and closing out within the zone. That big lineup puts so much size and length on the floor, you have the chance for tips and deflections, or just to disrupt Las Vegas's offensive flow. There were only 17 total turnovers in Game 2, tied for the cleanest Finals game in league history. Curt Miller has repeatedly talked about needing to make games 'messy' for his team to have success, which means creating turnovers and general chaos. Game 2 was too easy, in too many ways for the Aces. The Sun have to shake things up and make them uncomfortable.
The Aces won't feel the need to change much. They've done a good job of minimising the impact of Kiah Stokes being on the floor and an offensive non-factor (although Connecticut have also done a poor job of ignoring her to play virtual 5-vs-4 defense against the rest of the Aces). The Sun had clearly put some work in between Games 1 and 2 on how to attack Las Vegas's zone, but it held up well enough that Becky Hammon will still use it in spots in upcoming games. They also now have Dearica Hamby making meaningful contributions, after Hammon resisted using her at all until the second half of Game 1. That means the Aces have an option that removes Stokes from the equation, without having to go to reserves like Iliana Rupert or to their four-guard lineup. Hamby's offered energy when she's come into these games, making all the little plays we expect from her with opportunistic steals and rebounds. She also defends up for her size, handling players like Brionna Jones without being dominated inside. Hammon will continue to use her sparingly, just in case, but don't expect to see any more of Rupert unless someone gets hurt or one team is up by 20 in the fourth quarter.
The positive angle for Connecticut is that all the Aces have done is hold serve. They won two games on their floor, so you go home, win two on your own court, then head back for your third and final try to steal one in Las Vegas. A lot of those seven previous Finals series that started 2-0 came when there was one dominant team all year long, or when the old East/West split meant the champions had already faced their closest challenger in the previous round. That's not the case in 2022. The Sun may have finished a game behind the Aces in the standings, but all the numbers said they were at least as good as Las Vegas, or in many cases better. If they're ever going to prove it, now is the time.
World Cup Notes
As you read this, we're less than seven days away from the start of the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup in Australia. That imminent start is why you may have heard the cheers from Belgium and Australia when Chicago and Seattle were eliminated in the WNBA semifinals, and why the USA, France and Bosnia coaching staffs are likely all hoping the Aces finish off a Finals sweep. It's a little ridiculous that the WNBA schedule was set quite so tight to the start of the tournament, but it's where we are. As long as everyone makes it on time, the near-clash will be quickly forgotten. Although, if the Finals went to five games and any of the relevant players said "Actually, I care more about representing my country than this day job," and left before the decider, the uproar would be remembered for decades.
The squad selections are starting to trickle in (the deadline for naming the final 12s is 48 hours before the games begin). Team USA flew 12 players out to Australia, but still have six players involved in the Finals named in their remaining pool. Given Sabrina Ionescu is the only point guard in the current group (and even she spent most of this season starting at the two), you have to imagine they're hoping to add Chelsea Gray at a minimum, and probably Kelsey Plum as well. A'ja Wilson and Alyssa Thomas will likely be wanted too, purely for their talent. So if the Finals are extended, don't be surprised if the USA are playing shorthanded for the first game or two - having the squad they want for the later games is likely to be prioritized over naming 12 people who'll all be there for the start. It'd be weird to be cut from the squad after being flown out to Australia in order to be replaced by someone who's still on the other side of the planet, but everyone will have known the situation they were signing up for.
Elsewhere, there were some surprises in the Japanese squad, as Washington's Rui Machida was omitted, along with regular starter Saki Hayashi. The return of Ramu Tokashiki, seen several years ago in the WNBA with Seattle, will be interesting to see after her struggles with injury. Talking of returns, the highlight amongst the Australian squad was Lauren Jackson, back in top-level basketball at the age of 41. It remains to be seen how much she's capable of against real competition - the NBL1 in Australia where she made her comeback is far from the highest level - but regardless, it's a remarkable return for a legend whose career was cut far too short by injuries.
The other WNBA-related players from this year are on the squads you'd expect, although many countries are yet to name their final 12. Kia Nurse may well make her return from injury with Canada after spending all year on Phoenix's bench, which could help her prove her fitness to earn her next WNBA contract. 2022 first-round pick Mya Hollingshed is now officially Puerto Rican so will have the chance to suggest that Las Vegas shouldn't have cut her so quickly. Sika Koné remains the star attraction for Mali, so New York Liberty fans will have an opportunity to see what she might be able to offer in future as well.
My colleague Robert Mummery will have much more on the tournament and the players involved in upcoming days here at Her Hoop Stats, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
The end-of-season awards have been handed out as the postseason has gone on, with only the All-WNBA teams left to be announced later on today. Largely speaking, the trophies have gone where we all expected them to go. That's the central part of using a panel to do the voting, rather than letting one person choose - you remove the effect of someone picking someone strange, or not doing their job properly, because one vote doesn't make much difference. But we still see the weirdness.
We see that both A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart were only on 55 of the 56 Most Valuable Player ballots. That means both of them were left out of the top-five by somebody (not necessarily the same somebody). We see Alyssa Thomas finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting but dropping to the All-Defensive second team (and it's the same panel of voters this year). We see Myisha Hines-Allen getting a vote for Sixth Woman of the Year.
On some level, leagues like this weirdness. If everything goes exactly as expected you minimise discussion and debate, therefore diminishing the amount of people talking about the league. There'd still be people discussing 'snubs' or supporting their favourites, but the volume of the debate is always at its highest when something bizarre crops up (like Sam Thomas being on the AP's All-Rookie team this year). But when you're a growing league still trying to establish yourselves within the sporting landscape, you need to avoid looking silly. You can't afford to hand out ballots to people who aren't really paying attention to the league, or who vote with a ridiculous level of bias. This is why I keep asking for the votes to be made public. The NBA has been doing this for several years now - every vote, attributed to every voter, all listed for anyone to find if they want to. So if you do something like leave Breanna Stewart out of your top five players in the 2022 season, people get to come to you and ask why. Or we can see what strange positioning decisions led to Thomas falling to the defensive second-team, despite Wilson playing center virtually all season.
As in many areas, I'd just love the WNBA to be more transparent. Tell us what you're doing. If you really want to make me happy, tell us why. Stop shrouding everything in mystery, because then we're just going to think you either don't know what you're doing, or you’re doing something sneaky you don't want us to know about. This stuff isn't hard to avoid.