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How The Sun Took Game 1 From The Sky Despite A Candace Parker Masterclass

Sunday’s opening games of the 2022 WNBA semifinals could not have been more entertaining. There were two close games and the box scores don’t tell the whole story. Let’s focus on one: The Connecticut Sun shot 37.3 percent from the field against the Chicago Sky, while the Sky connected on 35.3 percent of their attempts. You could draw an array of negative or indifferent conclusions, but you just don’t get the full picture without watching Connecticut pick up a 68-63 win.

The Sky want to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002. The Sun, meanwhile, keep finding themselves in the same spot — they’ve won 20-plus games in five of the last six seasons, they’ve made the Finals before, and were a quarter away from winning the 2019 title. The team has spoken in postgame pressers and interviews routinely over the past month or so that this is their last run together.

Brionna Jones and Courtney Williams are unrestricted free agents in the coming offseason, while Natisha Hiedeman is a restricted free agent. I can’t remember the last time I saw a title contender this open about their lack of time remaining and this transparent about how important this current run is for them. Coming into this series, I questioned whether or not that was a good thing. Connecticut made me feel awfully foolish for that, although I still feel like that’s an immense amount of pressure to put on yourselves.

Let’s dive into Game 1. While the Sun won, I’d be remiss to not start off with Candace Parker, who proved yet again that she’s built to thrive in any environment. In spite of a Chicago loss, Parker played one of the best postseason games in WNBA history, nearly racking up a 5×5 with 19 points, 18 rebounds, six blocks, five assists, and four steals.

Once again, the box score doesn’t fully justify how dominant she was. In a game with seven All-Stars, she clearly stood above the rest. Her defense was unreal, one of the best solo defensive performances I’ve ever seen in a game. She played primarily as a rover at the four spot, helping off of Alyssa Thomas and congesting the lane. She eradicated drives with peel-switches, blew up dribble penetration simply by being a half step into the paint, and dominated the rim. Parker more than held her own in the post as well, one of the few weak spots in her defensive arsenal.

While 7-for-16 from the field doesn’t read “dominant,” you had to watch that game and recognize the defensive attention to fully grasp the gravity of Parker’s play. Connecticut denied her any slips to the rim, tagged her quickly on rolls, and sold out to stop anything even remotely close to the paint. She was the only consistent offensive option and bright spot throughout the game. While the Sky undoubtedly have better punches to throw during the rest of the series, it’s incredibly tough to get a game like that from Parker and still fall short.

The refs essentially let any and all contact fly throughout the game, which heavily benefitted Connecticut, a team that is built to thrive in the trenches. Across the board, the Sun are bigger and even went to lineups with four frontcourt players sharing the court. They used a +12 rebounding advantage to win the margins on the possession battle, battering the offensive glass to bolster their halfcourt offense and dominating Chicago’s misses to get out into early offense.

The Sky played a fairly switch-heavy defensive scheme much of the season and that’s carried over into the post-season. The Sun took full advantage of that, sinking their teeth into every available mismatch and trying to exploit it, particularly later in the game. If the Sky trapped or doubled a drive, often with Parker helping off of Thomas, Thomas would duck in onto a guard or wing and either seek a quick attempt or kick the ball out.

While 6-for-16 from the floor (one of those misses came on a halfcourt heave) isn’t exactly the paragon of efficiency, Thomas was still felt by gauging into the lane. She took only four shots in the second half, becoming much more of a connector in the offense as they found a relative flow — again, this game was in the mud, so any traction was immense.

Thomas is such an intriguing player to dive into. The way her skillset is viewed across the league varies greatly. By definition, Thomas is not a floor-spacer because she’s not a shooter, but she does really high-level things to space the floor that most can’t. She has a good handle at her size and can get to wherever she wants, for the most part. Her quick passing and awareness set her apart. Watch this high-low.

Thomas is one of the best passers in the league. Her interior and post-entry passing are the stuff that I imagine Pat Riley would write a thesis on. She’s constantly moving, probing, creating new angles, and taking advantage of them with her quick decision-making via a pass or a look in the paint. It’s not perfect, and it’s definitely not the same as being a 40 percent shooter from deep off of a variety of actions. However, I would posit that doesn’t make her a non-spacer or a poor floor-spacer. The Sun don’t exploit the interior looks they found in the second half without Thomas and what she brings.

It certainly makes lineup construction funky, and you can’t just “space” Thomas to the corner regularly, although she’s an adept cutter and will find gaps to insert herself into. Even when the Dallas Wings tried to guard Thomas with Teaira McCowan so she could help into the lane, Thomas is too quick for most 5’s to truly leave her alone. She’ll dust a center that sags off of her off the catch or run circles around them until an adjustment is made.

Again, it’s imperfect, but I think my hang-up is that we consider imperfect “bad,” because it’s not the typical way of thought. The bucket that gave the Sun their final hold on the lead late in the game was indicative of the strategy they worked towards to take advantage of switches — I loved this set from Curt Miller.

It doesn’t quite work perfectly, but for this game, it did exactly what it needed to do. Jonquel Jones sets the pin-down for DeWanna Bonner, who then sets the screen for Jones. Then we get another quick pick from Bonner as Jones attacks an inverted pick-and-roll, and due to the odd angling after the initial actions, Emma Meesseman can’t comfortably stay in front, so Allie Quigley switches on to Jones’ drive. Jones has awesome touch and a huge size mismatch, waits a half beat for Quigley to be out of the picture, and it’s an easy layup. The weak-side action with Brionna Jones setting a pin-in for Hiedeman in the slot briefly occupies Parker, and that’s all the Sun need.

The Sun struggled to get Jonquel Jones the ball all game, something that has been an issue all season, but this was much more about how Chicago played her rather than a lack of effort from Connecticut. Even though Meesseman struggled from the field, her defense on Jones one-on-one was excellent throughout the game. The work she did early to deny deep seals, push Jones off the block and out of her spots, and all together deny her the ball paid off.

Jones getting downhill towards the rim is one of the most efficient and impactful things the Sun can do offensively. The Sky sold out to take that option away, sticking every screen that Jones set. No opportunities to slip were afforded. Meesseman didn’t show or hedge off of Jones as chasers went under the screen to keep everything in front. Even when Connecticut tried to establish Jones off of cross-screens, Chicago battered them and forced Jones into difficult looks. She hit many of because she’s the reigning MVP.

I do think the Sun can and should do more to involve Jones, but credit needs to be given for how successful Chicago was at forcing her to be an outlet rather than a primary emphasis. I cannot wait to see how this plays out in Game 2 and the series at large.

Much like Jones, Courtney Vandersloot was the focal point of opposing defense’s attention. This was a major reason why she scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. I’d bet on Vandersloot having a better game in the next, as she missed quite a few easy looks that she normally makes, but the Sun were smothering. They sold out to stop drives and dribble penetration with hard hedges, timely traps, and stellar rotations behind.

With their defense set, Connecticut had few weak spots. Just watch this possession.

Yes, Parker hits the contested three, because that’s the kind of night she had, but the amount of actions stifled is jarring. The Sun don’t get rattled by Quigley’s screen for Parker, or her second screen for Meesseman. Hiedeman and Thomas halt the ball with their first trap on Vandersloot. Parker pauses after catching the ball on the slip and Thomas returns in front.

Another screen, another hard hedge — Hiedeman’s hand activity to slow the pass is awesome and allows Jones an extra half second to meet Parker prior to the paint. Bonner sinks down to split the difference between Meesseman and Kahleah Copper, Thomas sinks to take away the Copper 45 cut. There’s a ton of length in the paint from the Sun causing a near turnover, but the ball coughs back out to Parker and she nails a late clock three. Still, it’s consistently impressive defense.

Another possession, this time with a forced shot clock violation.

Bonner, who had a really high level defensive game (and game in general), is a menace on this hedge. Bordering on a foul and over aggression, she forces Vandersloot to backtrack. Bonner recovers, Thomas takes Parker — Bonner’s original assignment — and then Parker dribbles into an empty corner handoff with Copper. Note how Bonner almost hugs the screen, making it extremely difficult for Parker to separate from the action. Thomas does the same before switching onto Copper and nearly forcing a turnover. Jones is lurking in the lane, making it that much easier for Thomas to be ok with overplaying and being that aggressive. Meesseman gets the grenade pass and it’s a violation before she can even get the ball off.

One more fun one: Watch how the Sun handle a Spain pick-and-roll.

Odyssey Sims chases Julie Allemand over the initial screen — notice how Bri Jones sinks into the Quigley screen before it’s set with Williams tight on Quigley as well; they’re not letting her get loose and dictate the screen. Part of what makes a screen effective in Spain is some of the surprise factor of a back screen as the big. It’s meant to cause some confusion, but the Sun have this sniffed out from the start.

Williams steps up to switch onto Allemand and deny the dribble drive. Jones hands off Quigley as she flares out and calls out the switch to Sims, who veers back to make contact with Quigley and hands off Meesseman to Jones. Sims forces a difficult catch and turnover, before a turnover back (it was that kind of game) and then a pretty well-contested shot from Bonner on a broken play. The level of locked in you have to be as a team to shut down something with moving parts like that is remarkable.

One adjustment I look for the Sky to make for Vandersloot actually sounds counterintuitive: less pick-and-roll. Why would you run less pick-and-roll with arguably the best ball screen playmaker in basketball?

The Sun are selling out to take away her ability to manipulate space. By meeting her at the level of the screen, they’re keeping her from generating paint touches, navigating East and West, and hitting cutters or crafting open angles to shooters or her own looks.
By not actually running the pick-and-roll but mimicking the action in an empty set utilizing her agility and quick movements, you can generate some more unnatural paint touches.

It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s at least some form of an equation to try and open up more flow and momentum in the offense. Parker and Meesseman are two of the best post playmakers in the league. Taking advantage of that and trying to throw in different looks akin to this is something I felt the Sky could’ve gone to more. With how the Sun are guarding Meesseman to the arc (they are completely sagging off), putting the ball in her and Parker’s hands forces the defense to play up while also not being able to show quite the same aggression as they’d been willing to on traps.

This series is off to a riveting start, in spite of what the box score might indicate. The defensive showcase and chess match for controlling the paint was won by the Sun, but the adjustments each team makes headed into the upcoming games has me pining for Wednesday already.