CHICAGO — The No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun made a statement with Sunday’s 68-63 Game 1 win over the No. 2 Chicago Sky at Wintrust Arena. It didn’t matter that the Sky are the defending champs and had won seven of their previous eight matchups against Connecticut, including last season’s semifinals. The Sun set the tone in Chicago from the get-go, thriving in a physical, sluggish game that worked largely in their favor.
But the Sky aren’t panicking. Chicago bounced back from a Game 1 home loss to the New York Liberty in the first round to handily take the next two matchups and advance to the semifinals. And as a team that survived two single-elimination games last season on its way to winning a WNBA title, James Wade’s squad knows how to play its best basketball when its back is against the wall.
At stake: Chicago could become the first WNBA team to repeat as champions since the 2001-2002 Los Angeles Sparks, all with Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, Emma Meesseman, Allie Quigley and Azurá Stevens on the verge of becoming unrestricted free agents.
Either way, Wednesday’s Game 2 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) is shaping up to be yet another intriguing battle in a tightly contested series — the regular-season games were decided by an average margin of 4.5 points — that will move to Connecticut for Games 3 and, if necessary, 4.
Here are five questions that’ll determine the outcome Wednesday — and of the rest of the series.
How do the Sun get Jonquel Jones more involved offensively?
It’s somewhat remarkable the Sun won Game 1 with Jones taking only eight shots from the field (5-for-8, 12 points). In truth, Connecticut hasn’t consistently used the reigning WNBA MVP as its offensive focal point: Jones’ 10.4 field goal attempts per game are tied for third on the team, behind Courtney Williams (11.4), DeWanna Bonner (10.8) and alongside Alyssa Thomas. But there’s little doubt the Sun need Jones to be offensively impactful if they’re to hoist their first championship trophy.
Chicago’s interior defense — particularly the work of Meesseman, WNBA All-Defensive Team snub Parker and other defenders helping congest the paint — made it really difficult for Jones to get the ball inside in Game 1. And even when Jones was on the perimeter, she wasn’t always involved in the action. In coach Curt Miller’s eyes, the Sun’s lack of movement at times off the ball only made things more difficult.
If the Sky continue to double the Joneses — Jonquel and teammate Brionna Jones — Miller wants to see more action away from the ball to create better looks for his guards, which could in turn impact the effectiveness of Chicago’s double teams on the Sun bigs.
“I think we’ve made simple adjustments to our offense that don’t allow Chicago to just sit and help,” Jonquel Jones said Tuesday. “Their offense doesn’t stop moving. We’ve kind of implemented that same kind of style for the series and understand that when you play against a good defensive team, you’ve got to keep them moving.”
So does this series hinge on Connecticut’s guard play, too?
Connecticut’s backcourt fared well in terms of limiting turnovers in Game 1 (11), but the Sun need more from that corps offensively, especially given how many opportunities the guards had to score with so much of Chicago’s defensive attention dedicated to the Joneses.
Miller admitted that Chicago’s plan “almost worked because we didn’t have great efficiency across the board” — Williams finished 3-for-12, Bonner 4-for-16 and Natisha Hiedeman 2-for-6. The Sun aren’t a team that lives or dies by the 3, but making just 3-for-13 from the arc didn’t do them any favors, either.
Bonner and Hiedeman had clutch moments in the Dallas series, while Williams (5.8 PPG on 28.9% shooting in the playoffs) has struggled. Miller went big with a lineup of the Joneses, Thomas, Bonner and Hiedeman to close Game 1, but he didn’t shy from noting that his guards need to step up nonetheless.
“We know we have to get guard efficiency to be able to win big games, and when we’re not, we’ve got to win some things on the glass,” Miller said. “But I’m confident that our guards can make plays. We need to to win this series.”
Who else must step up for the Sky besides Candace Parker?
It’s easy for Parker’s historic heroics — 19 points, 18 rebounds, five assists, four steals and six blocks — to mask such little work from other Sky players offensively. Rarely do the VanderQuigs (married couple and backcourt pair Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley) have such a subdued impact as they did Sunday, combining for 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting (1-for-9 from 3) and three assists. Reigning Finals MVP Kahleah Copper got off to a hot start with nine first-quarter points, but was contained the rest of the way, scoring four across the final three quarters. Meesseman has struggled offensively most of the postseason, averaging 8.5 PPG, and though she hit double figures with 10 points Sunday, she did so fairly inefficiently (11 field goal attempts).
Even the Sun bench — which, outside of Brionna Jones, isn’t exactly known for its depth — outscored the typically impactful Sky reserves.
The Sky are known as an offensively balanced team capable of hurting you in various ways, but Copper was the key last year to propel them to a championship and can be this year, too. Copper had a stellar first round, averaging 18.7 points against the Liberty, and Connecticut doesn’t forget her standout play in the semifinals last year, when she scored 26 and 18 in Games 3 and 4, respectively. One way to get her more involved can be to push and find her in transition, which the Sky weren’t as successful in doing in Game 1 as they would have liked.
How do the Sky counter the Sun’s aggressive defense?
In the regular season, Chicago had some big first quarters against Connecticut, putting up 27, 31 and 32 in earlier matchups. But in Game 1, the Sun came with defensive energy and aggression from the get-go, and the Sky were slow to respond, held to a season-low 63 points on 35.3% shooting. Defense is the Sun’s calling card, but the Sky identified areas where they could have made things easier on themselves, too: missing makeable shots, or even not looking at the basket when they should have, something that’s important to keep the defense honest.
The on-court connection between @Candace_Parker and @kahleahcopper is special (video below.) It will be on display in the semifinals as the @chicagosky take on the @ConnecticutSun .
(Telestrator magic by @MikeKataja .) pic.twitter.com/v3DYnDRgfH
— Rebecca Lobo (@RebeccaLobo) August 28, 2022
But the larger issue at hand? The Sky — who have boasted a smooth-running offense most of this summer and rank first in the league in assists and field goal percentage — felt they needed to have better ball and player movement to shift the Sun defense.
“I think we were a little surprised by the hedging. We really weren’t, I don’t think, prepared for that,” Stevens said. “I think we dribbled a little too much, and that sort of played in their favor because they were tapping a lot, they were getting their hands on a lot of balls, and the best way to combat that is just to move it.”
The Sun readily admitted they wanted to make the game “messy,” a slow and physical slog — or as Quigley framed it, a “boring game.” How can the Sky counter?
“The ways we’ve been successful against them before is cutting, moving. We just were stagnant,” Stevens said. “So I think we just have to use our quickness, we have to move the ball more, our posts have to cut more, and we saw that sometimes with the guards, we got some beautiful backdoor plays. That’s the way we’re going to beat them. We can’t bang with them. That’s just not the build of our team.”
How else does Chicago even the series?
The Sky were generally pleased with their defense in Game 1 — the Sun’s 68 points were a season low in their series against Chicago and their second-lowest offensive output of the summer, including the regular season. Replicating if not building upon that effort is critical for the Sky to overcome this 1-0 deficit. Upping their defensive pressure would help get their own offense going, too, as the Sun edged the Sky 18-6 in transition scoring in Game 1. Not only does Chicago want to get out and run more, but keeping the Sun from being so efficient in that same category would only help their chances.
Both teams were uncharacteristically inefficient in the paint, shooting around 43% on attempts in the lane. Chicago is hoping those numbers creep back up toward normal, as their 42 points in the paint on average led the league all season.
The Sun are expecting Chicago to come bursting out of a cannon to start Game 2, similar to how it raced ahead 31-10 in the first quarter over the Liberty in the last round. What might be most important is which team imposes its style of play first and most effectively. And after Game 1, the Sky want to dictate that from the jump.
“You just have to enforce your will and you have to make the game be played the way you want it to be played,” Quigley said. “That’s not the game we like to play. I think for them to win, they have to play that kind of game. So we just have to enforce our will and enforce our style on them through defense and just being us on offense.”