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Curt Miller isn’t afraid to say it.
His team doesn’t have the smooth, offensive beauty that the Sky, Storm and Aces have. When the Sun win, they win ugly.
“There are a lot of free-flowing offenses of the teams left, and we know who we are,” he said on Sunday after his team upset the Sky 68-63 in Game 1 of the semifinals. “We are blue collar. We are going to be good around the basket, we are going to rebound, but we have to make it messy. And we got the game messy tonight, which was to our advantage.”
While the Sun are comfortable in that mess, the Sky are not. Their season has been defined by silky cuts to the hoop and organic ball movement.
“We need to be more in rhythm,” Julie Allemand said Tuesday after a practice session. “We just have to share the ball like we do. We were static, we were just waiting. We need to run, don’t overthink, just play our game.”
On Sunday, the Sun dictated everything from the pace to the style of play. Connecticut did all the little things right, while the Sky came up short in the details, an area they’ve typically thrived in this season.
Of the five matchups these two teams have had — four in the regular season and one in the postseason — Miller says the outcome has been decided in the final few minutes.
The reasons for the Sky’s loss were imprinted all over the contest, but the final four minutes of play offer a clear snapshot of the entire game. Here’s how it went down Sunday and what it means for the semifinal series as the teams prepare to tip off Wednesday in Game 2.
3:58 left: Alyssa Thomas drives to the hoop and knocks down a floater
Thomas’ game is a perfect example of the kind of grit Miller wants from his players. Despite shooting just 6-for-16 from the field (37.5 percent) in Sunday’s game, she made an impact in other ways. She had 12 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and, despite the overall sloppiness of the game, just one turnover.
Thomas’ ability to do everything for the Sun is a major key to victory. In the Sun’s 11 losses this season, Thomas has been held under five in one category (points, assists or rebounds) in all but three. The Sun thrive when she has a hand in every play. To have success in this series, the Sky need to limit at least one aspect of Thomas’ game, whether it’s stopping her from scoring, keeping her off the glass or limiting her ability to create for others.
3:26 left: Candace Parker knocks down a 3-pointer, assisted by Courtney Vandersloot
Parker did everything in her power to will the Sky to a win, finishing with 19 points, 18 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and four steals. Chicago, though, has found success in its balanced attack this season, and it didn’t get that on Sunday. Kahleah Copper’s 13 points and Emma Meesseman’s 10 were both under their season averages. Beyond those three, the Sky didn’t have another double-digit scorer. Allie Quigley finished with seven points while going 0-for-5 from 3-point range, while Vandersloot had just five points.
The Sky also didn’t get any major contributions from their bench, as Allemand, Azurá Stevens and Rebekah Gardner combined for nine points, seven rebounds and four assists.
In addition to the uncharacteristic lack of balance, Vandersloot’s performance was highly uncharacteristic. The guard averages 6.5 assists per game, second-best in the WNBA, but her dish to Parker to tie the game at 60 was just her second of the contest. Vandersloot has had only one game this season with fewer assists than the two she recorded Sunday: In a win over the Sparks on June 23, she finished with one assist in 16 minutes of play.
The Sky are capable of winning when Vandersloot doesn’t score, but they need her to be active in running the offense.
3:08 left: Kahleah Copper misses a 2-pointer
The Sky had a chance to take the lead at this point, and despite the miss, Copper is exactly the player they should go to in crunch time. Last season’s Finals MVP averages 15.7 points per game and has more than proved she’s capable of stepping up in big moments.
Copper started the game 4-for-4 with eight points and then didn’t take another shot in the second or third quarters. She had five attempts in the fourth. Copper needs to be a focal point of the Sky’s offense if they want to be successful in Game 2.
2:35 left: Brionna Jones makes a layup
The Sun have relied on Jones to make an impact off the bench all season — which is why she is a leading candidate for Sixth Player of the Year — and her impact was felt once again on Sunday. She scored 12 points off the bench to go along with three rebounds, three assists and one block.
1:31 left: DeWanna Bonner makes two free throws
Like Thomas, Bonner does a lot of the dirty work for the Sun. She finished with 15 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals, but no moment was more important than these free throws to give Connecticut a three-point lead. Bonner shot just 4-for-16 from the field during the game but still found a way to make an impact. It was exactly the kind of messy performance that Miller wants from his players.
1:08: Jonquel Jones blocks Parker
The Sun’s defense was one of the biggest factors in their opening-game upset. After holding the Sky to 35.5 percent shooting and 26.7 percent from beyond the arc, Jones put an exclamation mark on the performance by rejecting Parker and maintaining her team’s three-point lead. The Sky’s last point came on a 3-pointer from Meesseman with 2:11 left in the game. From then on, Connecticut locked down.
The Sun proved capable of covering up a lot of shortcomings — like their 37.3 percent shooting performance — with defense, and the way they smothered Chicago down the stretch was a major key to the win.
Jones, who was named to the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team on Tuesday, did an excellent job guarding the paint and forcing Chicago into high-difficulty shots.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.
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