Sun continue final road trip looking to lock up a top seed

Brionna Jones has become a force for the Connecticut Sun in the second half of the season. Scott Taetsch/Getty Images photo.

The Connecticut Sun are sitting pretty in first place as they embark on a West coast road trip consisting of three games in five days.

With the Aces’ loss to Chicago over the weekend, the Sun now lead Las Vegas by two games in the loss column, with five remaining. Only one of Connecticut’s games is against a team with a winning record in Phoenix, whom they play Sept. 11.

The Sun blasted out of the Olympic break with six consecutive home wins, including defeating the second-place Aces for the third time this season, and gutting out back-to-back wins over Los Angeles. They followed with a road win over Washington, who were missing All-Stars Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles, due to injury. Connecticut’s nine straight victories have shown them to be the best defensive team in the league.

That defense has been the core of their victories, with two of the WNBA’s best guard defenders – Jasmine Thomas and Briann January – backed by the trio of All-Stars in the post, Brionna Jones, Jonquel Jones, and DeWanna Bonner.

Brionna Jones, thought of as a slow, strong low post player in the past, has been the surprise defensive standout in the season’s second half.

“Bree Jones is an elite defender that doesn’t play by the rim,” coach Curt Miller said after the Las Vegas win. “It’s physicality; it’s smartness; it’s angles.”

“You don’t defend a great low post player with one person. It’s ball pressure, it’s help side, it’s different looks, it’s different schemes on different plays. But Bree Jones just keeps working. I mean, think about her three game stretch: Sylvia [Fowles], Liz [Cambage]. And now her reward is to go guard Nneka [Ogwumike]. That’s what this league is in the post and just, we just love Bree Jones, she’s so under underrated and unheralded.”

Among numerous clichés about championships is that “defense and rebounding” wins them. While not always true, that is certainly the Sun’s formula. They are fourth in rebounds per game, but that is mostly a reflection of the deliberate pace (and fewer possessions) that they favor. Their rebound differential on the season is 8.9 boards. The next closest team differential is the Aces’ 4.6 rebounds.

Jonquel Jones leads the league in rebounds, with 11 per game. Brionna Jones is tenth, with 7.3, and Bonner is 12th with 6.9. In their second win over the Los Angeles last week, Connecticut dominated the boards, 38-18, led by 15 from Brionna Jones.

On offense, the post players are the focus, scoring 65 percent of the team’s points, led by Jonquel Jones’ 20.3 per game. But the Sun have also proven they can win on days when the big three are not at their best. Against Las Vegas, a team able to neutralize the post, veteran January dropped in 19. Point guard Thomas averages 10.9 points.

The biggest challenge so far in the winning streak was brought by the ultra-physical Sparks, who led Connecticut for most of the first of two games last week. In a sign of the championship-ready team they have become, the Sun came back in that one to grab a win. Then they adjusted their schemes two days later (kudos to the coaching staff), and crushed Los Angeles by 15, outscoring them 36-24 in the second half.

With two more wins in the last five games, Connecticut has guaranteed the double bye into the semifinals, which Miller says has been a year-long, but mostly unspoken, goal. In the unlikely scenario of losing three of five, the Sun would be tied with the Lynx (if they win out), but still hold the season tiebreaker, as they do with the Aces.

The plan to continue the win streak, even on the road, is twofold. On offense, “give the ball to JJ [Jonquel Jones] and Bree Jones,” said assistant coach Brandi Poole with a smile. “But it’s really just playing through the paint.”

“Whether that be our posts getting post touches, whether that be DB [Bonner] getting post touches, whether it be our guards, getting into paint and then making plays for themselves or others. We’ve got to continue to play through the paint, that’s what’s been successful for us on the offensive end,” Poole said.

“On the defensive end, obviously, you know, they have just bought into our preparation, to our scouting. They play so hard that even when we do make defensive mistakes, it’s covered up because of how hard they play. So you know we have to remain consistent defensively, on that end of the floor as well.”

Poole said their game flows from their offense, and not just out of blocks and steals. She pointed to the defense of Thomas and January, who held Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale to single-digits for the first time in 65 games last night, as part of the equation.

“I don’t think people understand: we don’t do what we do without Briann January and Jazz Thomas locking up some of these really, really good guards and being aggressive,” Poole said. “We don’t do what we’re doing without Bree Jones, how smart she is behind the ball and rotating and helping.”

“What they’re doing on the defensive end is really special, and they’ve just all bought in and they hold each other accountable – like we don’t even have to coach them sometimes – they hold each other accountable on the defensive end. And it’s just, it’s really special and fun to watch right now.”

Even as they stand at the top of the league, in perhaps their best position ever, the players are not satisfied with their performance.

“I really just think we have maintained great focus,” Thomas said.  “We have continued to learn from each game. There’s been slippage in each game. There’s been things that we need to get better at, and I think they’ve done a really good job of not settling and being okay with it.”

“I think, not being satisfied with our performance night in, night out, even though it’s been coming up with wins. We’re lucky enough to be learning through wins, but we are committed to getting better and I think that starts with everybody on our team.”

Two more road games against LA and the surging Mercury this week will put that progress to the test. So far in the back half of the season, Connecticut has met each of the challenges they have faced.