The 2019 WNBA Finals between the Washington Mystics and the Connecticut Sun begin on Sunday.
The top two seeds will meet in a best-of-five championship series for the third time in four years since the WNBA changed its playoff format by introducing single-elimination play and admitting the eight best teams regardless of conference affiliation.
The question of ‘Will anybody slow down the Mystics?’ has defined the season. This Finals preview will dive into the biggest issues facing each side as the series unfolds.
The ability of Washington’s defense to limit some of Connecticut’s top options is the headliner. Where will Courtney Williams’ shots come from? Some pull-up shooting windows will entirely disappear (or get much smaller) when Elena Delle Donne or LaToya Sanders switch out in pick and roll.
Williams has been one of the league’s top midrange scorers, ranking in the top three in overall midrange attempts—45.6 percent on 217 attempts in 2017, 42.7 percent on 225 attempts in 2018, 38.2 percent on 241 attempts in 2019—each of the last three seasons.
The tendencies and shooting limitations of Alyssa Thomas tie right in with what Washington can do to Williams. Thomas lives in the paint, looking to get all the way to the rim or strike with a runner or floater when she isn’t diming up open shooters on the perimeter.
Switches can also take away the pocket passes that often lead to downhill, 4-on-3 playmaking opportunities. The game for Thomas then becomes a question of whether she can back down and score over one of Washington’s bigger wings: Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins or Aerial Powers.
That size is one of the great strengths of Mike Thibault’s roster. Thomas is the exact kind of power forward to test it on the game’s biggest stage. Those are shots you like to think you can live with until a few in a row find the bottom of the net.
Thomas’ free throw shooting has declined year-over-year, dipping below 50 percent this season. The Mystics may even want to go so far as to say internally that fouling her is worth it when they know they’ve been beat off the bounce.
Sending help can get dangerous. Thomas and Jonquel Jones are headier kick-out passers facing hard doubles than most frontcourt duos.
Thomas shot 9-of-16 on non-restricted area paint attempts in the semis against the Sparks. That clip is good enough to make you sweat. She shot 35.3 percent (second-worst among players that ranked top-10 in attempts) on 156 attempts (third-most) in the 2019 regular season, 31.9 percent on 69 attempts in 2018 and 33 percent on 103 attempts in 2017.
Both Thomas and Jones can do some serious damage on the offensive glass. Switching could lead to some off-ball confusion or put either player in a more favorable one-on-one matchup as they work to carve out space inside.
The Sun led the league in offensive rebounding percentage (34.9) this season per WNBA.com. Washington ranked third (70.0) in defensive rebounding percentage. Las Vegas flexed its muscle (37.7 ORB%) in the semis. Even if some shots go away or become tougher because of the switching, Connecticut’s bigs will be in favorable spots to create second chances.
Now, will Thomas shoot closer to 50 percent in these Finals on a shot that’s been more of a 33 percent shot across a much larger sample? If she does, Washington may need to adjust its coverages, potentially opening doors that would help her spend more time playing downhill while unlocking easier looks out of pick and roll for others. If not, the Mystics will feel more comfortable reaping the benefits of their switching scheme elsewhere.
Similar to the challenges Williams is sure to face, Jasmine Thomas won’t see as many clear driving lanes because of Washington’s switching.
The Sun are a much better team when she’s putting pressure on the rim. She has flashed the ability to freeze that big with a live dribble or blow right by.
Those looks will become even more valuable if Alyssa Thomas isn’t able to collapse their defense at her normal rate.
Let’s move on to Jones. Hopefully waiting this long isn’t chalked up as more disrespect of the megastar. (Sorry, Connecticut. I get why you’re doing it, but the campaign is corny. Why are people falling for it to suddenly react differently to the same, very true things everyone has said about this team before?)
Those three names came first because they’re at much greater risk of being marginalized by Washington’s execution and versatility. Jones isn’t quite as tall or strong as Liz Cambage, but she’s big and skilled enough to draw a second defender against a base matchup and follow the same rough blueprint as Cambage—working non-stop to establish deep position and make herself available as a giant target in the middle of the lane.
As a real stretch 5, Jones puts a lot of strain on opposing defenses. The path to victory for Connecticut likely comes down to what she can do in the paint. Pick-and-pop triples are what Washington’s switching is built to handle.
Jones consistently rolling hard to the rim, possibly drawing a guard/wing onto her along the way, will put more pressure on the Mystics than Jones popping and hoping for an open 3-pointer or spotting up as Washington switches another pick-and-roll combination without as much fear.
Sanders switches out onto Williams, and Toliver does her job first by impeding Jones’ direct path for a roll to the rim. Toliver anticipates Delle Donne’s arrival before getting out to Alyssa Thomas. The Mystics can even flip one more matchup on the backside with a bigger wing taking Thomas and kicking Toliver back out to the perimeter.
Remember: Alyssa Thomas not being guarded outside the paint isn’t as much of a concern when Jones rolls into deep post position. You aren’t as worried about a guard crashing down off Thomas and onto Jones. Washington’s two biggest defenders will be on Jones and the initial pick-and-roll ball-handler.
Alyssa Thomas spending more time away from the rim can get dicey. Congestion has become a Sun buzzword. Standard Jones post-ups often welcome too much early help before she can get into scoring position deep in the lane.
When Thomas isn’t dropping in high-low feeds, the Sun could look to use her more as an off-ball screener or dribble handoff initiator. One player not being guarded as their star struggles to work one-on-one inside can quickly turn into an advantage situation for Connecticut.
Chicago threw a very fun wrinkle at Washington’s three-player switches that Jones or Alyssa Thomas would be wise to borrow. Just as the guard jumps out to the top of the key expecting a big to stay high, Stef Dolson crept toward the foul line to get a head start on a quick drive as Washington scrambled to match back up again.
Circling back to the obvious, Connecticut needs to win at least one game on the road, where they went just 8-9 this season, including the 43-point loss on June 29 in D.C. The home/road splits really stood out for three of their five starters.
Shekinna Stricklen shot just 41.2 percent on 9.3 3-pointers per 36 minutes at home and 34.1 percent on 8.4 attempts on the road. Jones’ road shooting splits (41.6/29.2/77.3) weren’t encouraging (47.8/32.8/87.7 at home). Jasmine Thomas shot nearly seven full percentage points worse (35.8) from the field on the road.
Thomas shot 9-of-22 from deep against L.A., including 5-of-8 shooting to close the Sparks out in Game 3. Will they manage to ramp up the volume for one of their other starters? Jones, Williams and Stricklen shot 9-of-34 in those three games.
Matching up with Stricklen in transition (while also staying in front of Alyssa Thomas) and after offensive rebounds is always a key against the Sun. Jones, Stricklen and Williams are tough to keep tabs on coming off screens.
A big question for Connecticut’s defense centers around the decisions they make with Cloud as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Her dribble penetration has been a key component unlocking so many of those swing-swing sequences that result in a wide-open triple for one of their shooters.
Teams can risk ducking under screens on Cloud, not on Toliver. Cloud still makes you worry because she can kick it into high gear and beat you to the other side of that screen to get all the way to the rim.
Vegas resorted to a switch-heavy approach. Can the Sun do the same without as much size on the perimeter?
On a related note, which version of Kristi Toliver will we see? One not attacking hard off the bounce, seen earlier in the semis, makes the Mystics easier to guard.
When she is, the contrast in that Toliver-Cloud two-headed point guard monster becomes incredibly difficult to contain. You must live in constant fear of the pull-up shooting of the former while the latter turns the corner looking to score at the rim or toss it out to an open shooter.
Vegas really settled in nicely by Game 3, about as well as anyone has this season spending more time forcing Washington to make shots over the top than playing out of the multi-pass sequences that force you to chase the ball and watch somebody eventually launch an open trey.
Williams is one of the league’s most electric midrange artists when she heats up. It’s tough shaking the idea that Mystics have even more firepower. Delle Donne (20-of-40) and Emma Meesseman (17-of-34) each shot 50 percent on non-RA two-pointers against the Aces, and Toliver shot 8-of-17.
Connecticut hasn’t faced that duo playing together all season. Whether Meesseman comes off the bench or gets some time with the bigger lineup, the Mystics will be getting 40 minutes of at least one of them looming as a constant threat to attack and draw two.
Sanders shot 9-of-26 on midrange jumpers last round. That’ll remain the ‘lesser of five evils’ option in guarding the Mystics: Try using your center to help and recover in time. Cloud shot 6-of-17 from deep but had some moments, especially in Game 3, where she looked hesitant. Atkins shot just 2-of-11 from deep and averaged just 17 minutes per game in the final three games of the semis.
Even if some of the supporting players around Washington’s big three miss shots, a big game or two from Powers off the bench is just sitting on a tee. In seven starts this season while Toliver was sidelined, she averaged 16 points with 43.4/44.2/90.0 shooting splits.
Connecticut isn’t as deep as Vegas with big, versatile wing defenders. Powers is devastating with her 3-point shooting and first step. You’ll rarely get a chance to prevent both going up against her in this offense.
The Sun will need quality minutes from Bria Holmes and Morgan Tuck off the bench. Holmes gives them some more scoring punch at the rim. She and Jasmine Thomas are the team’s best perimeter defenders.
Tuck, more of a stretch 4, is probably too small to handle a Delle Donne or Meesseman matchup one-on-one. We’ve seen Alyssa Thomas go the distance in many of their big games to date. Expect more of the same. Tuck could slide in nominally at the 3, though. Stricklen, Tuck, Holmes and even a heathy-ish Layshia Clarendon (ankle) could help them switch more actions.
Delle Donne really getting mean from the top of the floor with some more inverted pick and rolls is just sitting there, too. Switching puts the defense one dribble from an emergency help situation. Trying to get through a screen will probably force you to send some help.
They can park your center in the ball-side corner with Meesseman or Tianna Hawkins at the 5. Now even if help does arrive, it’ll be a much smaller player she’ll be able to freeze and shoot over anyway.
The Mystics have rarely had to go to these actions. If all else sputters or Toliver’s knee doesn’t continue to progress in a somewhat-linear fashion, Thibault can just put the ball in the hands of his best player smack dab in the middle of the floor where she can see everything unfold.
Connecticut won the season series 2-1, but Delle Donne (knee) didn’t play the first time. Meesseman was away at EuroBasket for the final two.
If they do go down, Curt Miller and the Sun will have done it riding their five best players. That’s all you can ask for after seeing how utterly dominant Washington was throughout the regular season.
Connecticut is still trying to figure out how good their core group can become. The Mystics got swept each of the past two seasons and came back stronger each time. One of these franchises is about to win its first WNBA championship.
Now we wait. After bypassing the single-elimination roadblock, will the Sun continue to roll, or will the Mystics put the finishing touches on a season they’ve owned from start to finish?