The Connecticut Sun left the first game of their best-of-five semifinals series against the Los Angeles Sparks Tuesday night not only with a 84-75 win, but also with a narratively sweet one. For a season, the No. 2 Sun have felt like the WNBA’s most underrated team, beloved by their women’s basketball-crazy state but by few else. “It’s an interesting dynamic when you talk about Connecticut, because there isn’t really that main attraction star,” John Brickley said on ESPN’s WNBA playoff broadcast Sunday, noting that the team did have some “crafty” role players.
Before long, the Sun had adopted “role players” as a rallying cry. After their high seeding allowed them byes through the first two single-elimination rounds, it’s a little perfect that they begin the playoffs in a series with shades of the ‘04 Lakers-Pistons Finals: the Sun the team-oriented, blue-collar machine, the Sparks the glamorous, star-powered juggernaut.
In the end, it was a crafty role player who led the team to its first franchise playoff win since 2012. Forward Alyssa Thomas played all 40 minutes and did a little bit of everything on both ends; she finished the game with 22 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals. When the rest of her team (rusty, maybe, from over a week of rest) got off to a slow start in the first quarter, she outscored the Sparks with Connecticut’s first nine points and practically willed the offense into gear. It’s fitting Thomas’s nickname is “The Engine.”
By the second half, things were gelling for the Sun. Guard Courtney Williams and unicorn center Jonquel Jones, both absent in the first quarter, came alive down the stretch and made huge buckets in the fourth quarter.
Here’s Thomas’s smart intensity on full display late in the second quarter: a quick inbounds, the sprint, a neat little pass to Jonquel Jones under the basket and a shrewd spin move to avoid the charge Candace Parker was trying to draw.
She made it look bracingly easy, muscling through the paint and finishing with a few very elegant right-handed floaters. “For a long, long time, Candace Parker has been by far the best facilitating power forward in the league,” Sun coach Curt Miller told the Hartford Courant postgame. “The emergence of Alyssa over the last couple years gives argument that she’s the new wave of power-forward facilitators.” (Candace Parker, to her credit, had a not half-bad game herself, with 24 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 6 blocks.)
Thomas’s performance was already plenty impressive when Holly Rowe mentioned casually, in the middle of Tuesday night’s broadcast, that Thomas is playing with two torn labrums and effectively can’t lift her arms above her head. Rowe said Thomas chose not to get surgery to repair her shoulders due to the procedure’s recovery time of seven months, one Thomas can’t afford because it would preclude her from offseason play overseas, where most WNBA players earn the bulk of their income. Heartwarming.
The Sun and Sparks play their second game Thursday night in Connecticut.