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Connecticut Sun is relishing underdog role vs. Washington Mystics in WNBA Finals

Courtney Williams averaged 19.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists in Connecticut's three-game sweep of Los Angeles in the WNBA semifinals. (Jessica Hill/Associated Press)
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Standing on the court in Long Beach, Calif., after her Connecticut Sun dispatched the Los Angeles Sparks, guard Courtney Williams had a simple exhortation for those observing a rise she had prophesied all season.

“Talk to us, baby!” she said into the camera. “But talk nice!”

In a WNBA playoffs that most observers pegged as a Washington Mystics coronation, the Sun got to the finals first, clinching its bid with a dominant 78-56 win Sunday to complete a three-game sweep of the Sparks. That gave them two additional days of rest to prepare for the top-seeded Mystics, who on Tuesday eliminated the Las Vegas Aces with a 94-90 victory in Game 4 of their semifinal series.

The best-of-five WNBA Finals will begin Sunday afternoon in Washington.

In clash of contrasting stars, Elena Delle Donne’s poise carries Mystics to WNBA Finals

The second-seeded Sun entered the postseason demanding greater appreciation, adopting the social media hashtag #disrespeCT and emblazoning the phrase on T-shirts. Then the group that had been dismissed on an ESPN broadcast this month as “role players” dominated its semifinal series, particularly on defense.

During the regular season, the Sun allowed 96.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranked fifth in the league. That figure has plummeted to 81.6 per 100 in the playoffs, easily leading the pack. The Sun’s offensive efficiency rating, meanwhile, has increased from 100.3 to 105.3.

“We shored up some things, and we strung together some consecutive stops and got our running game going; the rebounding is what stands out on the stat sheet tonight,” Sun Coach-General Manager Curt Miller said after a 94-68 victory in Game 2 against the Sparks. “It really carried us when we were struggling offensively in that first half.”

That rebounding, the best percentage of any playoff team, is a collective effort. Six-foot-6 Jonquel Jones has been among the league leaders in rebounds since she entered the league out of George Washington in 2016. But she has been joined this month by 6-2 forward Alyssa Thomas, a former Maryland star who has two double-doubles in three games despite injuries in both her shoulders that will require offseason surgery.

There has also been Williams, the 5-8 spark plug who not only shut down Los Angeles shooting guard Riquna Williams but set a career high with 13 rebounds in the clinching Game 3. Williams averaged a team-high 19 points along with 8.7 rebounds and five assists per game against the Sparks.

The Sun has reached a new level on offense as well. Jones, not always assertive on offense, has been demanding the ball. She attempted a career-high 20 shots in Game 2, including 15 by halftime. Starting point guard Jasmine Thomas finished with 29 points in Game 3 — one point off her career high despite sitting for most of the fourth quarter as the game turned into a rout — while shutting down all-star guard Chelsea Gray.

“The fact that we're out there doing this, I think it elevated our game,” Jones said. “It's elevated our intensity as well.”

Even the team’s limitations — most notably, Alyssa Thomas’s injury — are serving as useful motivation for a group as convinced as ever that this is its time.

“A.T.' s a dog,” Williams said with a smile, bestowing her highest compliment. “A.T. is a dog. So having somebody like that on our team, who can come out and play through injury and just give us that toughness, man, it’s crazy. It’s amazing! We need that, and she’s been stepping up to the plate and giving us that energy that we need.”

The Sun took two of three regular season games against the Mystics, with both wins coming at home, but all three were played in the season’s first five weeks. That distance could mitigate the sting of the most recent meeting for Connecticut. In that June 29 matchup, the Mystics barreled over the Sun for first place in the league with a 102-59 beatdown, the largest margin of victory in Washington franchise history and tied for the fourth largest in league annals.

Now the Sun’s confidence is soaring. Jones, an imposing figure in the post, could provide a similar matchup problem for the Mystics that the Aces’ 6-8 Liz Cambage did in the semifinals. Alyssa Thomas’s defensive toughness could be key against the Mystics’ two scoring stars, Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman. And Williams has backed her public guarantees of a WNBA title with a blazing postseason.

Connecticut also could get a boost in depth from backup point guard Layshia Clarendon, who has been out since midsummer with an ankle injury. As she put it, when asked whether the Finals were a possibility, “They’re not not a possibility.”

Having another player step up in a rotation that has relied on balance will be key for the Sun, the heavy underdog in the Finals as both franchises pursue their first WNBA title. But the Sun has embraced the role and in doing so is playing its best.

“This was all our goal starting the season,” Williams said. “This is what we’ve been wanting to do. This is what we’ve been playing for. So you know, it’s all coming to light.”

Read more:

Courtney Williams is the heart of the Connecticut Sun’s WNBA title quest

Mystics earn second consecutive trip to WNBA Finals with win over Aces in Game 4

‘Playoff Emma is having some fun!’ Mystics’ reserved Meesseman puts on a show.