History was abound as the Connecticut Sun completely flipped the script after a cross-country trip and short turnaround.
Alyssa Thomas notched the first triple-double in WNBA Finals history as the Sun amped up their offense in support of their normally imposing defense to stave off elimination with a 105-76 win over the Las Vegas Aces in Game 3 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Thursday. Game 4 is Sunday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Connecticut.
Thomas, who was named to the All-WNBA second team before tipoff, had 16 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists as the Sun moved to 4-0 in elimination games this postseason. Thomas has three career triple-doubles with the first two coming earlier this season (July 22 against Minnesota and Aug. 2 against Phoenix).
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"We put the ball in her hands a lot tonight, and when things work as a coach, you feel really good that you pushed some right buttons," Sun coach Curt Miller said. "But she's so unselfish. You know, her and Candace [Parker] are the two best facilitating forwards in the world, and it's just really fun to watch non-point guards share it. And tonight, she just sprayed the ball around all night, and it was fantastic to watch."
Jonquel Jones got her way in the paint to score 20 points, but the tradeoff was four fouls, which limited her to 25 minutes. The Sun ended the game on a 19-0 run.
The Sun finally found their shots, and those shots were falling in the first half. The Sun set a Finals record by shooting 82.4% in the first quarter, which was also the highest-scoring first quarter in Finals history. Connecticut closed the first quarter on a 25-4 run.
For the game, Connecticut 55.8% and 53.3% (8 of 15) from 3-point range. The Sun had 38 rebounds and 32 assists on 43 made field goals.
DeWanna Bonner, who had scored only five points in the first two games of the series combined, scored nine points in the first half of Game 3. She finished with 18. Her offense was sorely needed.
Bonner also switched up her defensive assignment, trying to slow down the Aces’ Chelsea Gray. It worked, as Gray found success only largely when Bonner was on the bench.
There were flashes where the Aces looked like they would take control of the game. Gray reeled off three straight 3-pointers near the end of the first half and the Aces ended the second quarter on an 8-0 run capped by Kelsey Plum’s buzzer-beater.
In the second half, though, the Sun were the team in control. Jackie Young led the Aces with 22 points, while A'ja Wilson added 19.
The Sun had a 23-point lead in the first half, the largest lead by either team in the series (the Sun won by a 29-point margin but that was after both benches were emptied with the game out of reach). Connecticut had 19 assists on 21 made field goals in the first half, and pulled down 18 rebounds (16 on the defensive end).
How the Sun won Game 3
The defensive adjustments by Miller made all the difference. Miller tapped into Bonner's length to try to slow down Gray and her astonishing postseason run. It worked. Gray did not score after halftime.
"Chelsea Gray's numbers are historic right now on contested shots. So we are pleased going into tonight, two games, 27 of her 33 shots in this series had been contested, 27 contested shots," Miller said. "So we were staying in place with her, trying to make them difficult but she has an incredible release point and incredible knack of scoring while contested. So we decided a little bit more length on her, and we knew everyone's going to guard her, everyone's going to guard her tonight. But let's put some length on her."
Bonner's all-around game and the home-crowd support were exactly what the Sun needed to force at least one more game. Bonner had struggled offensively earlier in the series, something that Jones talked to her about prior to Thursday.
Jones' MVP-level play and Thomas' triple-double cannot be discounted, either. The all-around team effort was rewarded. The Sun could have stolen Game 1 in Vegas and were confident after the three-point loss. Their outing in Game 3 was what was expected in Game 2, but didn't come to fruition.
How the Aces can bounce back in Game 4
Now, it's on the Aces to make defensive adjustments if they want to win their first title in franchise history. Las Vegas is known for its offense, but it first must get stops when Connecticut gets rolling.
"I've got a ticked off crew in there. I'm not going to have to say much," Aces coach Becky Hammon said. "Go back. Look at ways we can exploit what they are doing and go throw the ball up. This game was about physicality and mental toughness, and they smoked us on it, period. The physical follows, but the mental for them was there and not us."
There were glimpses in Game 3 where the Aces could get back on track and close out the series. Each time, though, the Sun kept pushing the ball inside. The Sun scored a Finals-record 64 points in the paint; the Aces had only 26.
"That's just been, I guess, the MO of the playoffs, right. Like even the Chicago series, the team that won the paint won the game. That's where it's done," Jones said. "You know, I think a long time ago, I talked to Lisa Leslie and she said, 'To win the championship, you have to win the paint.' I see it now and I feel it now and being a veteran now, I can definitely go back to that and say that she was right."
WNBA Finals schedule
Game 1: Las Vegas 67, Connecticut 64
Game 2: Las Vegas 85, Connecticut 71
Game 3: Connecticut 105, Las Vegas 76 (Aces lead 2-1)
* — if necessary