UNCASVILLE, Connecticut — Much like their counterparts days prior, an MVP took aside her shooter and gave it to her straight. Unlike their counterparts, their entire season was on the line.
Jonquel Jones, the 2021 WNBA MVP, told DeWanna Bonner the Connecticut Sun needed her at her best to win Game 3 of the WNBA Finals with the Las Vegas Aces 40 minutes from a championship. She delivered and the Sun stayed alive with a 105-76 drubbing of the title favorites at Mohegan Sun Arena on Thursday night. The Aces lead the series, 2-1, and can clinch the title in Game 4 on Sunday.
“My teammates, thank goodness for my teammates because it was a rough two games for me in Vegas,” Bonner said. “They just told me to stay confident, and that’s what I did.”
Bonner was, it’s fair to say, abysmal offensively in the first two games of the season. She was 1-of-9 in each of the games, the first a three-point loss and the second a 14-point blowout, and scored a total of five points. It was a sharp turn from the Chicago series in which she reached 15 points in four of the five games, though in only two did she shoot at least 50%
A good night’s sleep in the comfort of home turned that scoring slump around to 18 points on 53.3% efficiency (8-of-15) and draining 2-of-6 from 3-point range.
“Man, I got to sleep in my own bed,” Bonner said. “Being at home just feels so much better because we were on the road for like seven or eight days. With the playoffs, I feel like we’ve been on the road a lot and it was just so good to be home in front of these fans. I can’t shoot like that in front of them again.”
They last played at home on Sept. 6, a 24-point win over the Chicago Sky in which Bonner scored 19 points and was 7-of-13 (53.8%), her best shooting clip of the postseason. That forced a Game 5 in Chicago and made Connecticut road warriors. After the Game 5 win on Sept. 8, they traveled by charter straight to Las Vegas for Sunday’s Game 1.
The Sun have been stellar with their backs against the wall, and Thursday night was no different. Though head coach Curt Miller said pregame his goal was to force the Aces to take the first timeout, he had to at 7:45 and trailing 9-2.
They reset before the game got out of hand and delivered the first-quarter punch that has determined each winner with a season-record 34 points in the frame. It was the most the Aces have allowed all season. Bonner was 3-of-4, including a 3, for seven points.
“She’s such a veteran, respected presence in our locker room,” Miller said. “You know, there’s no secret that she has championship pedigree and has played on some great teams. And so we have a group that really looks up to her. So when she plays with energy, when she took on challenges that we asked her and challenged her going into this game and she took them head on and played with that energy and then played with offensive efficiency, it just gives the rest of our crew so much confidence.”
All five starters and Sixth Player of the Year Brionna Jones were in on the scoring for a team that averaged a third-best 85.8 points per game in the regular season. The Sun can put on nearly as much offensive firepower as the Aces when the shot is hitting, and in the first quarter, it was at clips of 82.4 FG%, 60 3FG% and 75 FT%. Those slid to 55.8%, 53.3% and 84.6%, but still squashed their Games 1 and 2 showings to hold off the Aces — and Chelsea Gray.
Gray came into the game having dropped 21 in each of the first games on at least 52% shooting. Miller said at morning shootaround Gray hit 27 of 33 shots that the Sun had contested.
“So do you just announce publicly, ‘Hey, don’t guard Chelsea Gray?’ ” Miller said pregame. “That would be insane.”
Instead, Miller put Bonner mostly on Gray to bother her with length. She’s never measured her wingspan, but internet searches list it as 7-foot-4. It slowed Gray down and the team collectively trapped harder, forcing her into errant passes as they won the turnover battle, 14-9.
“I’m a 6-4 guard for a reason, so I just try to use my length, use my speed because I don’t even know how she’s been playing. Like she’s been playing incredible basketball,” Bonner said. “However, I can limit her touches or try to limit her from seeing the basket [or] get a clean look at the basket is what I’m trying to do before she even gets her a spot.”
Gray didn’t have her second bucket until late in the second quarter and helped the Aces head into the locker room on a mini-run. She finished with 11 points on 4-of-7, all postseason lows. She had scored fewer than 21 points in the playoffs only twice and never less than 17 over eight games heading into Thursday.
“That’s about the only matchup they didn’t try [in Games 1 and 2],” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said. “I think it’s a good adjustment by them. And when they had early success with it, it fuels the fire when you don’t burn it early.”
The Aces and Sun, neither of which have won a WNBA title, will both make adjustments heading into Game 4. Las Vegas is still 40 minutes from the trophy. Connecticut, after its own get-it-together pep talk, is 40 minutes closer.