Alyssa Thomas (16 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists) recorded the first triple-double in WNBA Finals history and Connecticut finally found a way to cool off red-hot Las Vegas guard Chelsea Gray as the Sun won 105-76 at home Thursday night to force a Game 4.
“They just kicked our ass in every way possible,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “If there was a stat on mental toughness and physicality, they would have kicked us there, too.”
But before Connecticut won its fourth elimination game of the 2022 postseason, there were scoring runs — a whole lot of them.
After Vegas jumped out to a 9-2 lead, Connecticut reeled off a 25-4 run to end the first quarter, building as much as a 23-point lead in the first half. The Sun weathered an Aces run right before the break that cut the lead to nine, then scored three quick baskets to open the fourth quarter and close out the win. With the Sun firmly in control with less than five minutes to play, Hammon pulled her starters. Game 4 will tip Sunday at 4 p.m. ET. The Aces still lead the series 2-1. Both franchises are seeking their first WNBA title.
WNBA playoffs 2022:How Sun and Aces got here
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The real story Thursday night, though, was defense. In what might have been the adjustment of the series, Sun coach Curt Miller tapped 6-foot-4 Sun guard DeWanna Bonner — who has an impressive wingspan that stretches beyond her height — to check Gray.
Gray finished with 11 points and seven assists, but she did not score in the second half and only attempted seven shots all night. (Nine of Gray’s points came on three consecutive 3s she hit when Bonner was on the bench.)
Bonner’s length bothered Gray whenever they were matched up. She blanketed Gray, who was shooting a blistering 60.5% from the field in eight playoff games, averaging 23.3 points and 7.1 assists.
Bonner said she tried to “just stay locked in” when guarding Gray, using her length to “limit her from getting a clean look at the basket before she even got to her spots.”
“I think it was a team effort,” Bonner said of slowing Gray. “Now we gotta figure out another game plan to do it again.”
Perhaps more importantly, though, the veteran finally showed up offensively.
After scoring just a combined five points in Games 1 and 2, Bonner totaled 18 points, to go with six rebounds, five assists and two steals.
“She’s such a respected presence in our locker room,” Miller said of Bonner, who won two WNBA titles with the Phoenix Mercury. “It’s no secret she has championship pedigree. We have a group that really looks up to her. When she plays with energy and offensive efficiency, it gives the rest of our crew so much confidence.”
Meanwhile, Thomas was dominant in every facet of the game; along with her triple-double she had two steals and a block. Her play energized her teammates — but they said Thomas can play even better, and will have to if Connecticut is to win Sunday and force a decisive Game 5.
“She did all right tonight,” Bonner said, giving Thomas a sly look. “We need her to be great though.”
A’ja Wilson scored 19 and was virtually unstoppable no matter how many defenders Connecticut sent at her, but the Sun dominated the paint, outscoring the Aces 64-26. Jonquel Jones, the 2021 MVP, had 20 points.
Said Miller: “We did a lot of things better, harder and more determined — with more confidence, more pace and more physicality.”
Jones said retired WNBA great Lisa Leslie, one of the most dominant centers in the history of women’s basketball, once told her that to win a WNBA championship, teams must score inside. Jones took the advice to heart.
“That’s the MO of the playoffs, right? The team that wins the paint, wins the game,” Jones said.
Jackie Young led the Aces with 22 and Kelsey Plum chipped in 17. Connecticut’s bench also outscored Vegas 26-5. The Sun set a playoff record with 19 assists in the first half, and finished with 32 on 43 made baskets.
All-WNBA Teams revealed
Wilson, the 2022 MVP, along with Las Vegas guard Plum, Seattle forward Breanna Stewart, Chicago forward Candace Parker and Phoenix guard Skylar Diggins-Smith were named to the All-WNBA First Team on Thursday, each earning a $10,300 bonus. Connecticut’s Thomas and Jones, along with New York guard Sabrina Ionesco, Los Angeles forward Nneka Ogwumike and Minnesota center Sylvia Fowels made up the Second Team, each earning a $5,150 bonus. Wilson and Stewart were both unanimous selections.