The Connecticut Sun lost Game 3 of the WNBA semifinal series against the Chicago Sky, but Alyssa Thomas dominated despite it being just her fifth game back from an Achilles injury. I asked head coach Curt Miller this question: Where would your team be in this series without Thomas?
Miller took a long pause and began with the caveat that “it’s a hard question.” But he continued: “She’s willed us at times, and with that, we all see how hard she plays. So it’s hard to act tired. It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself if you’re feeling tired, because you see how hard AT is playing. And that’s one of the things that she’s always brought to us, is leading by example with the effort.”
Thomas’s effort was a given — that is simply how she plays. What’s been revelatory, however, is just how effective she’s been since her injury, and she’s not alone. Thomas is one of several vital contributors who returned from various ailments to make a significant difference in these WNBA playoffs.
Thomas’s Achilles injury was expected to keep her out for the duration of the 2021 season. But as a player who has spent years playing through a torn labrum in each shoulder, Thomas doesn’t live by typical timetables. Still, two factors suggested possible limits to Thomas’s minutes: the success of her team, which had won 12 straight games and secured the WNBA top overall seed by the time she returned to action for the final two contests of the season, and her small body of work in those games.
Thomas played a total of 35 minutes and shot 4-for-15 from the field, a far cry from her career field-goal percentage of 47.7 percent. It was tough to expect anything more than just a few energy boosts from Thomas as an extra big off the bench.
But James Wade, Chicago’s head coach, knew the Sky had to be ready for more of Thomas.
“She put us out of the playoffs last year, Alyssa Thomas, and that was a great team we lost to last year, but she really dominated that game,” Wade said after Sunday’s game. “And so we prepare for — when you have a player that dynamic, you know what they’re capable of. You don’t shortchange them even if they’re coming off injury. Once you’re healthy, you’re healthy.”
It’s hard to argue otherwise, given how Thomas has played. The Sky are doing an exceptional job limiting touches of both Jonquel Jones, the 2021 WNBA MVP, and Bri Jones, the league’s Most Improved Player. That’s led to Thomas carrying much of the offensive load — topping Connecticut in shot attempts on Sunday, in a close loss, after she outscored the Sky team entirely in the fourth quarter of Connecticut’s Game 2 win.
Thomas is averaging 13.3 points per game so far in this series, shooting 43.6 percent, but this is just the start of what she has done for the Sun attack. She’s also posted a 32.8 assist percentage while grabbing 14.5 percent of available rebounds, according to Basketball-Reference.com. This is Thomas, as point forward, taken to another level of efficiency.
Although the Sun trail the Sky 2-1 in the best-of-five semifinal, the series may have been over already without Thomas. If Connecticut comes back to win this series — we told you it would be close! — it will likely have Thomas to thank.
A similar situation is unfolding out West, where the Las Vegas Aces trail the Phoenix Mercury 2-1 in the other semifinal series after Sunday’s 87-60 loss in — well, near — Phoenix.
Aces star center Liz Cambage has cleared COVID-19 protocols and returned to the court after suffering a breakthrough, symptomatic COVID-19 case, but she’s not playing at her peak. And her head coach, Bill Laimbeer, says that’s just how it is going to be for the remainder of Las Vegas’s season.
“She won’t get there even if we go to another series — it’s not going to happen,” Laimbeer said following Sunday’s game. “She just hasn’t had the wind right now, the COVID took a lot out of her. So it’s going to be one of those things where I have to manage my way through it, and it’s hard when she’s got a couple of baskets in a row and then all of a sudden she has to come out.”
Cambage has made the most of her past two playoff games. After playing just 9:29 in Game 1 and scoring 7 points, she reached 24:28 in Game 2 and 22:39 in Game 3, scoring 13 points in each — she’s been a factor for the team, if not the determining factor she’s been so often in her career, for understandable reasons. Cambage is matter-of-fact about the challenge of playing after struggling with COVID-19.
“Yeah, it ain’t easy,” Cambage said. “I just spent three weeks in bed, battling COVID, you know, and then popped out of bed to play the playoffs. It’s not easy, but I’m pushing myself as hard as I can.”
While Cambage works through the difficulties of recovering from COVID-19, her opponents have gotten a surprise boost from Diana Taurasi. The Phoenix guard has found a way to navigate the ankle injury that limited her for much of the final stretch of the regular season and was still clearly hobbling her at the start of the playoffs.
After shooting a combined 10-for-30 in the Mercury’s second-round game against the Storm and Game 1 of the semifinals, Taurasi posted a transcendent Game 2, scoring 37 points on just 13 shots from the field, including eight threes, and adding six rebounds for good measure. Taurasi’s taking almost exclusively threes, and it’s working.
Earlier in the series, Laimbeer had echoed Wade on how to prepare for players who return from injuries.
“Taurasi ain’t hurt,” Laimbeer told reporters after Game 1. “C’mon, please, this is the playoffs. Nobody’s hurt. I’ve been there, done that. All of my friends have been there, done that. I don’t want to hear anything, no. There’s no sympathy factor in the playoffs.”
Taurasi’s Game 3 performance seemed to validate that sentiment, though she had her own response when asked about these comments: “Who’s Bill Laimbeer?”
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