The level of frustration in Bill Laimbeer’s voice was palpable as he reckoned with a third game this season in which his Las Vegas Aces had been held below 70 points by the Connecticut Sun. “You give credit to Connecticut, they played a hard basketball game,” Laimbeer said after the Aug. 24 matchup. “They did what they had to do. We didn’t.”
Laimbeer’s Aces are among the league’s elite teams, but virtually every team has struggled to put points on the board against the Sun — the league leader in defensive efficiency and one of the best groups on the defensive end the WNBA has seen in years.
“We talked about that there’s going to be some teams that are more talented offensively than us,” Sun general manager and head coach Curt Miller said. “So we were going to have to hang our hat on defense. And if we wanted to surprise people and be special, we were going to have to be really good defensively.”
That focus has put Connecticut in position to contend for a WNBA title — at 21-6, with a 1.5-game lead over Las Vegas (along with the head-to-head tiebreaker), the road to a WNBA crown likely goes through Mohegan Sun Arena. But what’s striking is that it represents less of a single breakthrough and more of a collective recalibration from a Sun team that very nearly won it all in 2019.
That team reached a decisive Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, losing to the Washington Mystics, an offensive juggernaut. The Sun were solid — third in offensive efficiency, fifth in defensive efficiency — with few signs that they would become the standard for defending.
And that’s before counting the injury that sidelined the team’s rugged power forward Alyssa Thomas for the 2021 season.
“People rightfully wondered what our defense would look like when you lose who I believe is the best defender in the world in Alyssa Thomas,” Miller said. “But we have a group that loves defense, and I embraced it.”
It is truly a collective effort. No Sun player is in the top 10 in the league in blocks per game, nor the top nine in steals per game. But up and down the roster are players who have bought into the overall defensive concept. Perhaps there’s no more important player who has done so than Jonquel Jones, the team’s offensive leader at 6-foot-6 who has the second-best defensive rating of any Sun starter, at 90.5. Back in 2019, Miller identified the defensive end as Jones’s next step forward, but she has improved her performance even beyond that season, when her defensive rating was 92.9.
And while Thomas isn’t part of the 2021 team, the Sun have a pair of versatile bigs next to Jones who have helped stifle the opposition inside. Neither is your traditional center, though.
Brionna Jones, no relation to Jonquel, keeps on defending bigs far larger than she is. But the 6-foot-3 Maryland product keeps on getting better. This season, she’s tied for third in the league in win shares at 5.0, and 1.9 of them have come on the defensive end, where she and three of her teammates — Jonquel Jones, DeWanna Bonner and Jasmine Thomas — are among the top 12.
“Bri Jones is an elite defender that doesn’t play by the rim,” Miller said. “It’s physicality and smartness, it’s angles. And again, you don’t bend a great low post player with one person. It’s ball pressure, it’s help-side [defending], it’s different looks. It’s different schemes on different plays.”
An example of that came late in the game against Las Vegas, when Bonner, as a help defender, blocked A’ja Wilson’s shot twice. After the game, Bonner was her customary humble self. But there’s a reason the wiry 6-foot-4 veteran can play power forward at both ends, and why her teams have won a lot of games, including the Phoenix Mercury’s 2014 WNBA title.
“It was just part of the game plan,” Bonner said of her blocks. “I think we just wanted to make [Wilson] take tough shots — whatever she’s gonna take is gonna be tough.”
Wilson shot 1-for-15 that night, so it’s pretty fair to call that a success.
But the bigs are merely a part of the Connecticut defensive attack. In Miller’s eyes, the starting backcourt is the team’s defensive foundation.
“We knew we had the anchors at the guard, right?” Miller said. “We had Jasmine Thomas and Bri[ann] January, who, when you look at the history of this league, have been among the better guard defenders that have played for as long as they have.”
Thomas leads the Sun this season in defensive rating, at 89.4, while January is as healthy as she’s been in years, and she’s drawing on her history playing alongside the WNBA’s best-ever defender in Tamika Catchings. I asked January if this Sun team reminded her of those Fever teams — playoff perennials that won the 2012 title.
“Yeah,” January said. “I mean, playing on that team with Tamika Catchings, just having that relentless spirit and energy every time and taking pride in your defense, I think our team has bought into that. And you see it, it’s a collective unit every time we’re playing defense.”
This is hardly a team that anyone would call offensively challenged, with the Sun a solid third in offensive rating this year. But Miller has turned this group into one whose identity is forged first and foremost around getting stops.
Bonner wasn’t ready to declare this team a surefire champion, calling the playoffs “a different ballgame when it’s a whole different season.”
But she completed her answer, sitting next to January and Bri Jones, by leading a call and response.
“You know the saying. Defense does what?”
“Win championships,” her teammates responded, in rhythm.
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