Weekly Roundup: The Battle of the Casino Towns and Sue Bird’s Farewell
How Connecticut did almost everything right in Game 1 and still lost
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When Her Hoop Stats’ Alford Corriette recently pitched a story idea comparing A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart to the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry, I thought it was compelling but wasn’t 100 percent sold it was an apt comparison. That changed after the Aces-Storm series. No, Stewart and Wilson haven’t launched the WNBA’s popularity to NBA heights, but Las Vegas vs. Seattle had all the intrigue, drama, and superstars matching each other shot for shot of a Lakers-Celtics clash in the ‘80s. There was Sue Bird’s apparent game-winner in Game 3 (until Jackie Young sent the game into overtime on the ensuing possession), Chelsea Gray breaking every offensive efficiency playoff record conceivable, Stewart’s 40-piece in Game 4, and Wilson’s four-straight 20-point double-doubles. Need I say more? If this series is a harbinger of what’s to come from the Stewart-Wilson rivalry, count me in as a believer in its ability to launch the WNBA to new heights.
And although it’s been five days since it happened, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the conclusion of the Chicago-Connecticut series. Holding what felt like the biggest nine-point lead in WNBA playoff history, the Sky seemed destined to punch their Finals tickets for a second consecutive year. After all, Chicago had plenty of experience in close games all season and boasted the league’s best fourth-quarter net rating during the regular season. Then, a DeWanna Bonner and-1 coupled with an altercation between Bonner and Kahleah Copper (that inexplicably resulted in no technical fouls) flipped the script. The Sun rattled off 18 straight points to close the game, ending Chicago’s season in front of a stunned Wintrust Arena crowd.
So, following two wild semifinal series that were entertaining as hell, it’s now time for the Finals! Let’s take a look at what transpired in Game 1.
Wilson and Gray propel Las Vegas to Game 1 victory
The Connecticut Sun almost got everything it wanted in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals Sunday afternoon. Holding Las Vegas to a season-low 67 points? Check. Limiting Kelsey Plum to just 1-for-9 shooting? Check. Winning the turnover battle, controlling the offensive glass, and attempting 16 more field goals than the Aces? Check, check, and check. Unfortunately for Sun fans, almost is the operative word above - the one thing Connecticut failed to get was a Game 1 victory. A’ja Wilson’s contributions on both ends of the floor (24 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks, and two steals) and Chelsea Gray’s continued otherworldly postseason shotmaking (21 points on 9-for-17 shooting) helped Las Vegas absorb a prototypical Connecticut playoff performance and escape with a 67-64 win in front of a capacity crowd at Michelob Ultra Arena.
In the early going, fans were treated to the smooth, free-flowing Aces offense that finished the regular season with the second-best offensive rating in league history. Wilson and Gray led Las Vegas to a 21-9 in the game’s opening 5:55. Wilson asserted her dominance inside and Gray couldn’t miss, as the Aces’ dynamic duo combined for 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting during the run.
Just when it seemed like Las Vegas had landed a knockout blow in the first quarter, Connecticut responded by doing what it does best: playing a hard-nosed, physical brand of defense and crashing the offensive glass. After grabbing just one offensive board in the first quarter, the Sun turned seven offensive rebounds in the second quarter into eight second-chance points. Defensively, Connecticut limited Las Vegas to just nine second-quarter points, only the third time all season the Aces failed to reach double digits in a quarter. A key component of that defensive success was four-time WNBA All-Defensive Team member Alyssa Thomas, who helped hold Wilson scoreless in the second quarter. It all added up to a 38-34 Connecticut lead at halftime.
Connecticut coach Curt Miller was impressed with his team’s poise following Las Vegas’ initial blitz: “But you know, credit to our composure with that shotgun start,” he explained. “I always talk about the cannon effect. They came, shot out of a cannon and were dynamic early. Our defense settled in and got to our pillars, got to the game plan and started to get the type of game that we feel we need in order to be successful.”
While Connecticut was surely happy with how it closed the first half, the mood in the Aces locker room was a bit different.
“Oh, I was lit,” Aces coach Becky Hammon recalled. “I was lit. Because everything we had talked about, we didn't do any of it… But they had beat us in every hustle category, and that
can't happen. You can't lose a championship or a game or a quarter on hustle. That can never be the case.”
One of those hustle categories was offensive rebounding. Despite Connecticut’s size advantage, the Aces responded to Hammon’s halftime speech by keeping pace with the Sun on the offensive glass throughout the remainder of the game (the Sun had five offensive boards to the Aces’ four). Las Vegas even outscored Connecticut 8-2 in second-chance points over the game’s final 20 minutes.
“Rebounding is not about size,” Hammon said. “Size certainly helps but that's not the final story. They are relentless on the glass. We feel if we can just keep it close, we'll be doing well, because that's what they do best.”
The Aces took back control of the game in the third quarter, grabbing a 55-53 lead at the end of the period. Wilson dropped 10 points in the quarter, answering Connecticut’s physicality with some of her own by drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line for eight attempts (all makes). Gray knocked down a trio of mid-range jumpers in the period. And then Dearica Hamby, who had played only 7:34 in the entire postseason as she recovered from a right knee bone contusion, provided the Aces with a critical spark off the bench midway through the third. The two-time Sixth Player of the Year recipient contributed two points, two offensive rebounds, one steal, and one assist during a crucial one-minute and 15-second sequence in the third quarter.
“She was huge for us,” Gray said of Hamby’s performance. “Came in, energy plays. It's not going to show in the stat sheet. I was just like, yeah, D! She was making all the right plays, when it was a rebound, getting deflections, getting a 24 violation when she was out there. Just the little things, she sparked it for us and that is where it was a turning point and we really took control of the game. It was all energy, heart, effort.”
Las Vegas never relinquished its lead in the fourth quarter, but that’s not to say the period was devoid of drama. The Aces appeared to have the game in hand with a 67-60 lead and 1:52 remaining. However, a pair of Alyssa Thomas steals and layups turned a relatively comfortable Aces advantage into a one-possession contest, 67-64, with 34.2 seconds left. Thomas rejected a Gray triple on the ensuing Aces possession, giving Connecticut the ball with 13.4 seconds on the clock and a chance to send the game into overtime. The Sun’s final possession took too long to develop, and the result was a DeWanna Bonner off-balance three that missed short, giving Las Vegas a 1-0 series lead.
Sunday was a microcosm of Wilson’s 2022 MVP campaign, specifically her unmatched ability to impact both ends of the floor. Her game-high 24 points against a stingy Sun defense will no doubt grab fans’ attention, but her four blocks, two steals, and nine defensive rebounds were equally important. Only Candace Parker in 2017 has put up a better combination of blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds in Finals history. Wilson’s three rejections and five defensive rebounds in the fourth quarter alone loomed large in the Aces holding on to their slim lead.
For Connecticut, Alyssa Thomas stuffed the stat sheet with 19 points, 11 boards, five assists, three blocks, and three steals. It was her third career Finals game with at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists; the rest of the league has combined for five such games. Jonquel Jones dropped 15 points to go along with nine rebounds, and Brionna Jones chipped in with 12 points off the bench. Bonner and Courtney Williams, so crucial to closing out the series against Chicago, shot a combined 3-for-18 (16.7%) from the field.
Both teams took away positives from Game 1. Las Vegas showed it can win without its high-powered offense operating at maximum efficiency. On the flip side, Connecticut demonstrated that its game plan of mucking it up defensively, so successful in the Chicago series, can work equally as well against Las Vegas. Who will prevail in Game 2? We’ll find out tonight when Las Vegas and Connecticut run it back at 9 p.m. Eastern at Michelob Ultra Arena.
Sue Bird’s last dance
It wasn’t quite the storybook ending Sue Bird had hoped for; the legendary point guard surely wanted to cap off her career with a championship ring for the thumb, her fifth overall. Unfortunately, her Seattle Storm fell just short of that goal, losing to Las Vegas in four games in one of the most entertaining series in recent memory. But my goodness did she leave it all on the court in her final act as a WNBA player. The 41-year-old finished the postseason with an age-defying 7.7 assist-to-turnover ratio, the best in playoff history among players with at least 20 assists.
Of course, that barely scratches the surface of Bird’s legendary career defined by longevity, consistency, and yes, winning. She led her teams to success at every conceivable level - college (two-time champion), the WNBA (four-time champion), and on the international stage (winning Olympic gold, the Russian National League, and the EuroLeague five times apiece). The league’s all-time leader in assists and games played, Bird also finishes second in three-pointers made, and third in steals.
The games played record may seem unimpressive to some, but it’s a reflection of the high level of play Bird maintained to keep her spot on one of the WNBA’s best franchises in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. She arguably got better with age. Bird had five seasons where she recorded at least 100 assists and an assist-to-turnover ratio of at least 3; four of those occurred after her 36th birthday. No player in league history has more than two such seasons across their entire career. One of the best three-point shooters of all time, Bird has had seven seasons in which she shot at least 40% from beyond the arc and attempted at least 100 three-pointers; three of those came after her 35th birthday (and a fourth likely would have in 2020 if not for the pandemic and an injury shortening her season). No player in WNBA history has more than four such seasons.
Look, I could go on all day about Bird’s accomplishments on the court, but two components of her story really resonate with me. First, there’s the team-first mentality with which she approached her craft. In the all-too-prevalent me-first attitude in professional sports, Bird was always invested in helping those around her realize their full potential. Jennifer Rizzotti, an assistant coach on Bird’s 2021 Olympic team and current Connecticut Sun president, recently summed this up:
“When you play with her and are in her presence as a teammate, you have an appreciation of so much for what she brings,” Rizzotti explained. “She is so well respected, the players in the league talk so highly about her and look up to her… She treated people the right way and led the right way,” Rizzotti went on to say. Bird “has been so unselfish in a way that made other players look really good, it’s hard for anyone to dislike her.”
Whether it was coming out as gay in 2017 or using her platform to advocate for social justice issues, Bird’s commitment to being her authentic self has served as an inspiration not just to the city of Seattle, but to anyone who has feared being accepted for who they are.
The words above are but a cursory summary of Bird’s career. For an in-depth look at Sue Bird’s impact on and off the court, I highly recommend the following stories:
For The Washington Post, Jerry Brewer described Bird’s journey toward being her authentic self.
For WNBA.com, Mark Schindler broke down film of the various parts of Sue Bird’s game that make her the best point guard in league history.
From Hong Kong to Brazil and several locales in between, fans from all over the world have flocked to the United States to watch Sue Bird in her final WNBA season. The Athletic’s Chantel Jennings told several of these fans’ stories - how they became fans of Bird and the impact she’s had on their lives.
What will the next 25 years hold for Sue Bird? Will she join the coaching ranks? Perhaps she’ll spend more time advocating for women’s sports. ESPN’s M.A. Voepel explored the different avenues Bird might pursue post retirement.
Doug Feinberg of the Associated Press encapsulated Bird’s career: how she’s a reflection of the league she helped grow, her unparalleled professional success, and her lasting impact on both fans and teammates.
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton divided Bird’s career into four stages, revisiting the highlights from one of the greatest careers in professional basketball history.
For Yahoo! Sports, Cassandra Negley chronicled Bird’s accomplishments on and off the court as well as the legacy of empowerment she leaves behind.
Congratulations to Swin Cash, Lindsay Whalen, Marianne Stanley, and Theresa Shank Grentz on their inductions into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday night! Check out their induction speeches using the embedded links in the preceding paragraph.
Her Hoop Stats content in case you missed it
On a special crossover event between Dice it Up and Courtside, Gabe Ibrahim, Dano Mataya, and Ice Young broke down all the highlights from Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
In the latest episode of Courtside, Gabe Ibrahim and Christy Winters-Scott recapped the shocking conclusion to the Sky-Sun series and previewed the WNBA Finals.
Who will win the Breanna Stewart sweepstakes? Alford Corriette explores the most likely landing spots for the two-time champion and 2018 MVP.
In WNBA Dissected, Richard Cohen broke down what happened in the final four minutes of the Sky-Sun series and what lies ahead in the Finals.
In the final part of her Pac-12 preview, Kim Doss explored what we can expect from USC, Utah, Washington, and Washington State during the 2022-23 season.
With the NCAA season kicking off in less than two months, Megan Gauer provided insight into the top non-conference matchups to watch.
Other recommended content
For FiveThirtyEight, Howard Megdal analyzed the different paths Connecticut and Las Vegas took to reach the WNBA Finals.
For The Next, Jenn Hatfield chronicled Columbia’s eight-day trip to Spain and Morocco last month and the Lions could parlay their overseas success into the program’s first-ever Ivy League title.
For BasketballNews.com, Nekias Duncan broke down what the battle in the half court will look like in this year’s Finals.
Trivia question of the week
First, here’s the answer to last week’s trivia question:
Who is the only player in WNBA history under six feet to win regular-season MVP?
Answer: Cynthia Cooper (5-foot-11)
And now, here’s this week’s question:
Who has played in the most WNBA Finals games in league history?