UNCASVILLE, Conn. — With their backs against the wall (again) in the WNBA playoffs, the Connecticut Sun found another gear. Leading the way was the player they call “the Engine,” Alyssa Thomas.
She had the first triple-double in WNBA Finals history Thursday as the Sun beat the Las Vegas Aces 105-76 in Game 3 of the best-of-five series after losing the first two games out on the famed Strip. If anyone thought the Sun would roll over for an Aces sweep … well, no one who follows the WNBA thought that. It’s just not the Sun’s personality.
They lost a close Game 1 on Sunday and a not-so-close Game 2 on Tuesday at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas. But back home at Mohegan Sun Arena in front of their fans, the Sun summoned the mojo they needed to force Game 4, which will be this Sunday here in Connecticut (4 pm ET, ESPN).
“If you could encapsulate Connecticut, it’s physical and very resilient,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said of the Sun. “They have kind of a battle-type mentality, and we didn’t match that tonight, in any category. They just kicked our ass in every way possible.”
Of Thomas, who finished with 16 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists, Hammon said, “She’s a beast. I went to a UFC fight the other night; I wouldn’t want to get in the cage with her. She is just tough. Tough, tough, tough. And then a playmaker.”
The 6-foot-2 Thomas, 30, was the No. 4 pick in the 2014 WNBA draft out of Maryland, which she led to the women’s Final Four her senior year.
Thomas is a difficult — if not impossible — player to compare to anyone else in the WNBA. Her longtime shoulder injuries (torn labrums in both that have not been surgically repaired) keep her from having an actual jump shot, but that doesn’t matter. Thomas has figured out her own ways to get the ball in the hoop, and she’s so crafty and strong, it’s hard to stop her.
Thomas is essentially a point forward, with how much she handles the ball and looks to create opportunities for her teammates. And rebounding? Well, as Hammon said, there’s nothing about Thomas that makes you think you will outmuscle or outhustle her.
“What’s remarkable is that’s every day. She doesn’t know how else to play,” Sun coach Curt Miller said of Thomas’ energy. “She’s probably the toughest player I’ve ever coached, but she’s the most consistent player in terms of effort that I’ve ever been around.”
Consistency was lacking in some regards for the Sun in the first two games of the Finals, which put them in a win-or-go-home situation. But they faced that in the first round when they had to go to Dallas to close out a best-of-three series and in the semifinals and when they beat defending champion Chicago twice on the Sky’s homecourt, including in the deciding Game 5.
Thursday, the Aces got off to a 9-2 start, but that was the extent of their control of this game. As if a switch was flipped, the Sun’s energy level skyrocketed and they led 34-19 after the first quarter. By game’s end, all the Sun’s starters had scored in double figures, led by 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones with 20 points.
DeWanna Bonner, after going 2 of 18 from the field in the first two games of the Finals, went 8 of 15 Thursday for 18 points, along with helping hold Aces guard Chelsea Gray to 11 points.
But the star of the night was Thomas, whose triple-double was her third of this season, also a WNBA record. There have been 19 triple-doubles in WNBA history — three in the playoffs, the others by Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot and Houston’s Sheryl Swoopes — but they are becoming much less rare than they used to be. Eight of the 19 have come this season, and two were last season.
That reflects more positionless play, which the WNBA is seeing just as the NBA has been. In Thomas’ case, it’s about her ability to be able to play both as a true post but also as someone who can float around and just make things happen for herself or her teammates.
And on a night when the Sun’s season could have been over, Thomas led the way in willing it to continue.
“For me, I approached the game like I approached any other game,” Thomas said. “I think we just wanted it. We’ve been struggling offensively. We haven’t really been hitting shots and tonight we came out ready.”