WASHINGTON — During the D.C.-based portions of this year's WNBA Finals, the Ferris wheel visible from the Connecticut Sun's team hotel in National Harbor, Md., served as a constant reminder of the ebbs and flows the series would feature.
"You're going to feel on top at times during this series, and you're going to feel at the bottom at times in this series," Sun coach Curt Miller told his team after their Game 1 loss in D.C. "But it's going to keep changing."
And the metaphor rang true the rest of the series, as the Sun emphatically won Game 2, faltered in a Game 3 loss at home, and staved off elimination with a nail-biting victory in Game 4.
Early on in Thursday night's winner-take-all Game 5, the Sun found themselves at a summit, leading by nine a few minutes into the third and by two going into the final quarter. But when the buzzer sounded and confetti fell from the ceiling, Connecticut had descended to the bottom, with a late 13-2 run from Washington giving the Mystics the edge in an 89-78 win and a franchise-first WNBA title.
The Sun may not have ended the night on top; but the ride that was their 2019 season marked a coming-out party for a smaller-market team and group of previously lower-profile players that, title or no title and regardless of the noise, demonstrated until the Finals' closing moments that they were right where they belonged.
"Knowing that this season included some highs, and knowing there's times when you're low," Miller said postgame as celebratory music for the Mystics and their home crowd blared from outside the press conference room, "they fought through those moments the entire season and put themselves in an unbelievable position to win their first championship."
The Sun came into 2019 as the only team in the league to finish in the top four in each of the previous two seasons. But their regular-season success was eclipsed by back-to-back postseason losses in second-round single-elimination games. With the franchise's last playoff win coming in 2012 and its last Finals appearance being in 2005, the Sun knew they needed to take that next step — a deep playoff run — as an organization.
All that, and more, came into fruition this season.
Behind a season-long tagline of "burn it down," the Sun established themselves early as a team to be reckoned with, starting off the season a blistering 9-1 before ultimately concluding the regular season with the second-best record in the league (23-11), behind the Mystics. The Sun were exceptional at home, where they went 15-2 to tie a franchise record.
The Sun did all this despite being forced to trade their former No. 1 draft pick Chiney Ogwumike, for so long the foundation piece of the organization, and parting with their 2019 first-round draft pick Kristine Anigwe. But the Ogwumike trade opened up an entire new realm for Jonquel Jones, who led the team in points and the league in rebounding while earning an All-Star bid. Still, the Sun boasted an incredibly balanced offense, in which all five starters averaged at least nine points and four averaged double figures. Miller, an offensive-minded coach, was also proud of his team's improvement from last year on the defensive end, a commitment spearheaded by his group of defensively enthusiastic players. Jones, Alyssa Thomas, and Jasmine Thomas were All-WNBA Defensive Teams selections.
But going into the playoffs, the Sun still had a lot to prove: Pundits questioned whether this Sun team was too young, too inexperienced to edge a Sparks roster with established stars such as Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, and Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike. With Jasmine Thomas sitting two seats away, an ESPN commentator called the Sun "role players" on a live broadcast. Even after the Sun swept the Sparks, Washington — home of the WNBA MVP, the league's deepest bench, and arguably the best offense the game has ever seen — was still heavily favored.
But as Courtney Williams told Holly Rowe after the Sun's Game 4 victory, "pressure busts pipes or makes diamonds." Not only did the Sun end with a gem of a postseason run, positioning themselves only 10 minutes away from a WNBA title, but it was the why in which they competed in their eight postseason game that stood out.
Playing with a pair of torn labra in her shoulders, Alyssa Thomas made a convincing case for Finals MVP, averaging 18.4 points, 7.6 assists, and 9.2 rebounds while playing all but three and a half minutes of the series. Jones made WNBA Finals history in Game 2 with the first 30-point, 15-rebound performance, and stepped up big with a double-double in Game 4 and a game-high 25 points and nine rebounds in Game 5. Courtney Williams, a mid-range jump-shot machine for much of the postseason, and her father Don became fan favorites for their unparalleled energy and swagger. Shekinna Stricklen came through with some of the Sun's biggest shots in the Finals, and Jasmine Thomas' shutdown defense disrupted opponents' backcourt flow the whole postseason.
It was an incredibly evenly matched series, but only one team could go home with the trophy; the Mystics closed out the game better, Miller said, and deserved the championship.
Regardless, the Sun — playing with youthful energy and a fast-paced style of play, team-oriented offense and physicality on defense, and fueled by a chip on their shoulder from that outside "disrespeCT" — ensured that this group of players were overlooked no more.
"I told them (after the game) that they became household names in this series. Everyone is going to know their name now," Miller said. "And where we were considered a team without a mega-superstar, we were forced to trade a No. 1 overall draft pick weeks before the start of the season, and that locker room bonded together and said, 'nothing can derail us.' They became legendary."
"They were not considered megastars. Well, that locker room is filled with a bunch of megastars, and they proved that and everyone is going to know who they are for the rest of their careers."
As Miller switched places with both Thomases and Jones at the post-game press conference, he consoled each of his stars, the group choking back tears as they spoke of what was and what could have been.
But as for what could be? With a core group of relatively young players, an established identity, and a blueprint of success from this season, the future for the Sun certainly looks bright.
"Going forward, we know what we're capable of," team veteran Jasmine Thomas said. "We know we can be back here. It hurts right now, but we have a lot to be proud of."
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