It is easy to get lost in the individual and team-wide offensive brilliance of the Connecticut Sun. There’s Jonquel Jones, currently fourth in WNBA history in true shooting percentage, who just enjoyed a 32-point outing in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals. There’s Courtney Williams, who scored 26 in Game 1, with a signature midrange jumpshot, and there’s Alyssa Thomas, who combines physicality with an array of trick shots around the hoop to score in bunches.
But the Sun, who are now just two wins from a WNBA championship after defeating the Washington Mystics on Tuesday night, 99-87, made that final leap into the league’s elite with a defense that’s found another level this postseason. As with their offense, it is a collaborative effort.
It began, Sun coach Curt Miller said, with a team meeting between him and a few of his veterans.
“It was a little past the halfway point,” Miller said. “And basically what they were saying was, ‘You don’t have to be conservative with us. There’s a synergy that we’ve played together for so long and trust each other.’ And that core group gave us the confidence [in] the second half of the season to pick our places to try to be more disruptive.”
2019 has seen a significant improvement in Connecticut’s defensive rating, from 101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions in 2018 to 96.8 in 2019. Come playoff time, that’s dropped even further, despite the improved competition: Through five playoff games — two against the greatest regular-season offense in WNBA history, the Mystics — their mark is 94.8.
So how do they do it? Similar to how they’ve established their offensive success, Miller’s Sun attack opponents on the defensive end in a variety of ways, some of them difficult to practice for or counteract.
There’s Courtney Williams, for instance. Just 5-foot-8, she may seem like a defensive liability for the Sun. Instead, per Synergy, she’s allowed the fewest points per possession (0.62) among players this postseason with at least 50 defensive possessions, and players she’s guarding are shooting 31 percent in the playoffs.
“All I’m saying is I got robbed for second team all-defense,” said Williams, who was not nearly finished with all she was saying. She then asked for the numbers to be repeated.
“Stats don’t lie, bro,” Williams concluded. “Stats don’t lie.”
Teammate Jasmine Thomas, upon hearing this, wryly inquired, “That’s a sample size of how many, one?”
But even if the horizon is extended beyond the playoffs, Williams’s defense is worthy of recognition — and it plays a critical role in how the Sun have improved at that end. Williams — a player Miller said simply wasn’t prepared to contribute on defense when she came into the league in 2016 — finished with a steal rate of 2.4 percent in 2019, almost double her 2018 mark, and a 1.2 percent block rate, especially high considering she is among the shortest players in the league. And she grabs more defensive rebounds than anyone in the league shorter than 6 feet.
“Where she’s come from understanding schemes, understanding the systems that people use in this league and then just the commitment at that end, the defensive end’s been Courtney’s biggest growth,” Miller said. “And I don’t think she’s done.”
But Williams is merely one of the Sun players who disrupt opponents by jumping into passing lanes — nine current Sun players had steal rates of 2 percent or better during the regular season. First among those, at 3.3 percent, is Alyssa Thomas, the team leader in minutes this regular season and a versatile 6-foot-2 wing who guards everyone on the floor — from the 6-foot-5 Elena Delle Donne to the 5-foot-7 Kristi Toliver. As a result, Miller hasn’t taken her out of the game for a second of this WNBA Finals.
“As she walked in the locker room, I said, I am going to take you out at some point,” Miller said following Game 2. “But she just is so important to us.”
An example of her versatility came in Game 1, when she not only helped limit entry passes to Delle Donne, who took only 13 shots, but also switched onto Toliver in the final seconds of the third quarter. Toliver has made her living in the WNBA by effectively creating her own shot against the defense, but Thomas stayed firmly between Toliver and the basket as the guard tried several different fakes and maneuvers. She finally forced up a shot that Thomas swatted away as the buzzer sounded.
“We switched and I’ve watched a lot of video on her,” Thomas said of Toliver. “I know her tendencies, what she likes to do and it’s just about contesting. I know she’s not going to try to drive past me, so I just tried to keep my hands high and not allow her to get any space or a three off on me.”
Miller identified Thomas as the defensive counterpart to Williams on offense; it’s less about scheming and more about trusting his versatile player to understand where she needs to be at any given moment. The approach has worked, especially in Game 1, when Thomas helped keep the Sun in the game with five steals.
And should an opposing scorer manage to get past Thomas, Jones is waiting. That wouldn’t have meant much as recently as last year, when Miller identified Jones improving on the defensive end as the most critical change necessary for the Sun to ascend to a title. But for her part, Jones took up the challenge with gusto, and after leading the WNBA in block rate this regular season at 6.1 percent, she’s gotten the better of bigs like Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker and Emma Meesseman this postseason, with three blocks on Tuesday night alone.
“He challenged me coming into the season, and I think that I’ve gotten better at it,” Jones said of her defense.
The league agreed and put Jones on the all-defensive first team, along with Jasmine Thomas. Alyssa Thomas made the second team. And for all of her skepticism about playoff sample sizes, Jasmine Thomas is just behind Williams with 0.66 points allowed per possession, second among all postseason defenders with a minimum of 50 possessions played. Furthermore, players she’s guarding are shooting just 32 percent.
Her role on the team, as the lone veteran over 30 (she turned 30 just this week), is to keep her teammates organized at the defensive end, just as she runs things on offense as the starting point guard.
“They make open shots,” Thomas said of the Mystics. “If there’s anything about Washington that stands out, is they make open shots. So when you’re in rotation, when you are trying to help off in certain areas, they find each other, and they make open shots. So it does present its own challenges, and when we do get them to miss, when we do get them to make an occasional turnover — they don’t turn the ball over much — we have to capitalize off of those possessions.”
If the Sun can do this just twice more, they’ll be WNBA champions. And in the process, it might exorcise what Miller views as an unfair knock against his coaching — that he is an offense-first coach.
“I’ve never been given any credit as a defensive coach, through all of the championship success at the collegiate level,” Miller said. “So I feel a little bit vindicated that our defense has been better throughout this run.”