Montville, Connecticut – Some athletes have to be seen to be believed. With Alyssa Thomas, the more I saw her, the more difficult it was to believe her. She has two pieces of pulp ripped off, leaving her with a shooting motion similar to a waiter holding a tray, then tossing it in the air and taking off. You might be wondering how a player with such obvious physical limitations could possibly do anything in a WNBA game, which is why it’s so incredible that Thomas does it all.
On the day Thomas made her second WNBA team second-team, she did an extraordinary job of CPR basketball at the Connecticut Sun. She scored 16 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists to lead Connecticut to a 105-76 win over the Las Vegas Ice.
“She’s probably the toughest player I’ve ever coached,” said Sun coach Kurt Miller. “She’s probably the most consistent player in terms of effort I’ve ever been around.”
She probably embodies her team as well as anyone in sports. The Ace are the most talented and most explosive team in the series, and they should still be considered the favorites to win it. But Connecticut plays tough and bragging old school basketball. As striker DeWanna Bonner said Thursday night, “We’re not going away. We’re going to force Vegas to beat us.”
There are only so many hidden tricks a team can pull off in a five-game series, and Connecticut has fewer tricks than most. The Sun score an excessive percentage of their points in the paint, either from throwing it to their position players or when quickly breaking their trapped defense. Vegas let them do both with ease.
“I don’t know if we thought we would turn up and they would lie down and hand us the cup, but we should know better now,” aces coach Becky Hammon said. “They are physical and resilient. They have a battle-type mentality and we didn’t match that night in any category.”
Both teams talked about the importance of the first quarter – the Sun because they needed to think on a small scale, and the Aces because they often struggled early in the games. In fact, Vegas played better in the first two minutes, taking a 9-2 lead and forcing Miller to use the time-out. I suppose he told his team, “Hey, we tricked them into thinking the match was over,” because that’s exactly what the Aces played for most of the first half.
The bottom line was misleading – Vegas basically folded in the fourth quarter to edge 28-7. But there was no doubt as to who deserved to win the match.
If you listen closely to the coaches, you can feel the difference between the two teams. After an ace blasted the sun in Game 2, Miller lashed out at Vegas skill, noting the “massive single-player play that got in paint all night” and said how easy it was for aces to get into their strong hands while driving. After the Sun topped the Aces in Game 3, Hamon bemoaned her team’s lack of effort: “At the end of the day, as great as they were, we were well below average on the things we needed to do, the things we could control.. This game was all about physical fitness and mental toughness, and they smoked us in. Period.”
What neither of them will say, but remains clear, is that if the Aces play as hard as the Sun, they must win. But they need to do that. Connecticut, especially Thomas, is very difficult.
There have been eight triplexes in the WNBA this season. Thomas had three of them. How can a player grab 15 rebounds in a final match when she can barely lift her arms?
“This is a professional athlete out there, because I don’t even know if I’ll be able to do that,” Aces star A’ja Wilson, the league’s best player, said earlier this week. “A normal human being, they’re like, ‘No, I don’t do this. But that’s an athlete for you.”
The sun is worthy of admiration. Perhaps, when the streak is over, they will deserve the trophy. Most likely, we look back and say they forced the Aces to earn it.
“We weren’t trapped on the defensive side,” Wilson said on Thursday. “I will take full responsibility for that. We were lacking in energy.”
The sun had a lot. They usually do.
Ben Beckmann contributed to this article.