Despite WNBA Finals Loss, The Connecticut Sun Are Just Getting Started

2019 WNBA Finals - Game Two
Getty Images

Sitting off to the corner of Talking Stick Resort Arena in August as his team warmed up to take on their most fearsome foe, Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller spoke in the measured tone of a coach who believed in his players but had lived the frustration of failure.

The Phoenix Mercury were hosting Connecticut that night. Miller and the Sun had a lopsided history with Phoenix until this year, as the Mercury were the Sun slayers in each of the past two postseasons, preventing Connecticut from making it even to the conference finals despite their impressive regular-season performances. Miller told me how proud he was of the strides his young team made defensively despite a worse shot profile and not one player in their 30s.

The Sun would go onto cement a top-two finish in the standings and a bye until the conference finals, giving them a smoother path as they fought for a championship. 

“We’ve come up short,” Miller acknowledged to me, but said, “We’re not afraid to be back in that situation and we’ll relish the opportunity to be back in that position.”

Sure enough, Miller and his players got their chance this postseason and earned the right to compete for a WNBA title. After dismantling the Los Angeles Sparks to the point of organizational turmoil and the firing of a general manager, Connecticut moved onto the historically great Washington Mystics and their all-time coach-player duo. The Sun more than kept up. 

“People think we're just going to give up easily,” guard Jasmine Thomas proclaimed before Game Five. “We're not, because we deserve to win a championship as well.”

Thomas was making a point about the crowning of the Mystics ahead of time. She perceived it as disrespect to Connecticut. She has a fair point. The reason Washington was the target of so much admiration was because they are led by a two-time MVP and the WNBA’s all-time winningest head coach. At the same time, many likely believe Connecticut will be here again.

At 30, Thomas is Connecticut’s oldest core player by a wide margin. Stars Courtney Williams and Jonquel Jones are each just 25. They could get Layshia Clarendon — the veteran two-way playmaker who missed the majority of the year with an ankle injury — back next season. Youngsters Bria Holmes and Brionna Jones showed they belonged in the playoffs. 

After years of tinkering with her role, Miller let Jonquel Jones be free this year to great success. The center was named to the All-WNBA Second Team and was near the top of the ballot in both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting. 

“It’s that chess match of people have to guard JJ’s versatility while we’ve gotta guard some of these really dominant low-post people in the league,” Miller told me of the joys of coaching Jones.

Another year comfortable as a defensive anchor and inside-out scoring threat should only mean good things for Jones, who has graduated to the best European team, UMMC Ekaterinburg after playing in China previously. She will spend another offseason learning from All-WNBA First Team center Brittney Griner.

“I think any time you play in a championship, you learn something about yourself,” Jones said after Game Five. 

Any player who grows as much from season to season as Jones has since entering the WNBA is bound to grow from an experience like these Finals. Jones shot 52 percent from the field in the playoffs, scoring 18 points per game and playing excellent defense inside. In the finale, she scored 25 points and grabbed nine boards.

As always, though, losing teaches. Jones’ primary matchup Emma Meesseman, won the Finals MVP, and foul trouble kept Jones off the floor at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter of Game Five as Washington made a run. Balancing physical rim protection with over-aggressiveness is a fine line for great defensive players, and Jones crossed it in Game Five. She can use it as a learning lesson.

Defensively, though their growth guarding opponents was the difference this season, the Sun got stretched to death by the Mystics. Washington shot 38 percent from deep in the Finals and were able to create advantageous isolations in the post because of the respect Connecticut had to pay to their shooters. It’s how Meesseman and Elena Delle Donne were able to get easy one-on-one buckets to close out Game Five in the fourth quarter. If the Sun can add length or adjust their scheme to send help more aggressively, or if their players merely learn from the Mystics’ hot shooting, they will get better.

One couldn’t possibly count all the ways losing can make Connecticut stronger. They are the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder, arriving ahead of schedule. Collective Bargaining Agreement nuances and offseason planning will dictate who remains in place, but the Sun trust their core players and they have a clear identity. You don’t get this far without both. Washington outplayed them this time, but Connecticut will surely have another shot. 

That won’t take the sting away right now – understandably. Sitting at the podium on Thursday night, Miller this time was crestfallen yet still proud. 

“This is going to sting for a long time for our players, but it will also motivate that core group that's back, that they know they can play championship-level basketball,” he said. “I'll go to war with that core group, with that team any day because I know they lay it on the line and they love each other, they care for each other. They want it for each other.”

It can be difficult to remember as they battle for a championship that two teams are at different spots on the timeline, but this Sun team’s rays are undoubtedly pointing upward.

This was the Mystics’ crowning moment. It was the Sun’s first dance.

">

Sitting off to the corner of Talking Stick Resort Arena in August as his team warmed up to take on their most fearsome foe, Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller spoke in the measured tone of a coach who believed in his players but had lived the frustration of failure.

The Phoenix Mercury were hosting Connecticut that night. Miller and the Sun had a lopsided history with Phoenix until this year, as the Mercury were the Sun slayers in each of the past two postseasons, preventing Connecticut from making it even to the conference finals despite their impressive regular-season performances. Miller told me how proud he was of the strides his young team made defensively despite a worse shot profile and not one player in their 30s.

The Sun would go onto cement a top-two finish in the standings and a bye until the conference finals, giving them a smoother path as they fought for a championship. 

“We’ve come up short,” Miller acknowledged to me, but said, “We’re not afraid to be back in that situation and we’ll relish the opportunity to be back in that position.”

Sure enough, Miller and his players got their chance this postseason and earned the right to compete for a WNBA title. After dismantling the Los Angeles Sparks to the point of organizational turmoil and the firing of a general manager, Connecticut moved onto the historically great Washington Mystics and their all-time coach-player duo. The Sun more than kept up. 

“People think we're just going to give up easily,” guard Jasmine Thomas proclaimed before Game Five. “We're not, because we deserve to win a championship as well.”

Thomas was making a point about the crowning of the Mystics ahead of time. She perceived it as disrespect to Connecticut. She has a fair point. The reason Washington was the target of so much admiration was because they are led by a two-time MVP and the WNBA’s all-time winningest head coach. At the same time, many likely believe Connecticut will be here again.

At 30, Thomas is Connecticut’s oldest core player by a wide margin. Stars Courtney Williams and Jonquel Jones are each just 25. They could get Layshia Clarendon — the veteran two-way playmaker who missed the majority of the year with an ankle injury — back next season. Youngsters Bria Holmes and Brionna Jones showed they belonged in the playoffs. 

After years of tinkering with her role, Miller let Jonquel Jones be free this year to great success. The center was named to the All-WNBA Second Team and was near the top of the ballot in both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting. 

“It’s that chess match of people have to guard JJ’s versatility while we’ve gotta guard some of these really dominant low-post people in the league,” Miller told me of the joys of coaching Jones.

Another year comfortable as a defensive anchor and inside-out scoring threat should only mean good things for Jones, who has graduated to the best European team, UMMC Ekaterinburg after playing in China previously. She will spend another offseason learning from All-WNBA First Team center Brittney Griner.

“I think any time you play in a championship, you learn something about yourself,” Jones said after Game Five. 

Any player who grows as much from season to season as Jones has since entering the WNBA is bound to grow from an experience like these Finals. Jones shot 52 percent from the field in the playoffs, scoring 18 points per game and playing excellent defense inside. In the finale, she scored 25 points and grabbed nine boards.

As always, though, losing teaches. Jones’ primary matchup Emma Meesseman, won the Finals MVP, and foul trouble kept Jones off the floor at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter of Game Five as Washington made a run. Balancing physical rim protection with over-aggressiveness is a fine line for great defensive players, and Jones crossed it in Game Five. She can use it as a learning lesson.

Defensively, though their growth guarding opponents was the difference this season, the Sun got stretched to death by the Mystics. Washington shot 38 percent from deep in the Finals and were able to create advantageous isolations in the post because of the respect Connecticut had to pay to their shooters. It’s how Meesseman and Elena Delle Donne were able to get easy one-on-one buckets to close out Game Five in the fourth quarter. If the Sun can add length or adjust their scheme to send help more aggressively, or if their players merely learn from the Mystics’ hot shooting, they will get better.

One couldn’t possibly count all the ways losing can make Connecticut stronger. They are the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder, arriving ahead of schedule. Collective Bargaining Agreement nuances and offseason planning will dictate who remains in place, but the Sun trust their core players and they have a clear identity. You don’t get this far without both. Washington outplayed them this time, but Connecticut will surely have another shot. 

That won’t take the sting away right now – understandably. Sitting at the podium on Thursday night, Miller this time was crestfallen yet still proud. 

“This is going to sting for a long time for our players, but it will also motivate that core group that's back, that they know they can play championship-level basketball,” he said. “I'll go to war with that core group, with that team any day because I know they lay it on the line and they love each other, they care for each other. They want it for each other.”

It can be difficult to remember as they battle for a championship that two teams are at different spots on the timeline, but this Sun team’s rays are undoubtedly pointing upward.

This was the Mystics’ crowning moment. It was the Sun’s first dance.

Follow me on Twitter.

I am credentialed basketball media member with work at SB Nation, OZY Sports and FanSided. I am also the co-host of the daily Locked On Phoenix Suns podcast.