Why Connecticut Sun-Washington Mystics is the weekend's must-see WNBA game and the Minnesota Lynx...

ByAlexa Philippou ESPN logo
Thursday, June 16, 2022

The WNBA might be one-third of the way through its 36-game regular-season schedule, with separation among the contenders, pretenders and everyone else starting to take shape. But even the league's top echelon -- teams with .600 winning percentages or better -- have plenty to prove this weekend and to tinker with as the All-Star break approaches.

On Wednesday, the Connecticut Sun (11-4) got their fifth win in six games and have rebounded nicely since losing starting point guard Jasmine Thomas to a season-ending ACL tear five games into the season. But general manager and coach Curt Miller wasn't done toying with his roster just yet: In an effort to boost his team's perimeter defense, which took a hit with Thomas' injury but also with the loss of Briann January in free agency, Miller waived 32-year-old rookie Yvonne Anderson and signed Jazmine Jones, a third-year player, earlier this week.

Even with Thomas sidelined, the move indicated that Miller felt comfortable enough with his depth at point guard, where Alyssa Thomas is increasingly taking the reins, to shore up his roster elsewhere. Miller said last week that while Connecticut's jumbo lineup -- featuring 6-foot-2 point-forward Alyssa Thomas at the point and 5-8 Courtney Williams, 6-4 DeWanna Bonner, 6-6 Jonquel Jones and 6-3 Brionna Jones surrounding her -- is a work in progress, he's excited to see where it can go. He was particularly pleased with that lineup's defense and rebounding numbers, and said that with more practice time that group can improve its spacing and timing in and out of actions.

The jumbo lineup sports a net rating of 29.2. Miller's starting five, where point guard Natisha Hiedeman replaces Jones, has a net rating of 8.6.

The Sun have a tough stretch of competition leading into the All-Star break that will test the feasibility of their jumbo lineup and strength of their backcourt defense. They face the Seattle Storm on Friday, the Washington Mystics on Sunday, the upstart New York Liberty on June 22 (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), and the Chicago Sky the week after.

Sunday's schedule features five games, but Connecticut-Washington is the headliner. The Mystics are concerned about peaking at the right time with Elena Delle Donne (back) and Alysha Clark (Lisfranc injury) coming back from ailments, but they could use a résumé-boosting, confidence-instilling win. Washington is 5-5 in its past 10 games after a 5-1 start, but with just one true quality win in that stretch: over Chicago (10-6), which is 2-1 against the Mystics this season.

Delle Donne has been in and out of the lineup as she manages her recurring back issues; she is expected to miss Thursday's game against the Liberty but play Sunday against the Sun. The Mystics improved to 7-3 with the two-time MVP in the lineup versus 3-3 without her following Tuesday's bounce-back win over the Phoenix Mercury. Amid that fluctuation in the frontcourt, rookie Shakira Austin has continued to make her mark, recording her second career double-double Tuesday going up against one of the all-time greats in Tina Charles, and Clark has started to find her groove offensively.

Connecticut won Game 1 between these teams 79-71 on May 28, a contest both Delle Donne and Miller (COVID-19 protocols) missed.

Elsewhere, Chicago (9-4) has found more of a stride with seven wins over the past 10 game, and will look to take care of business against the Atlanta Dream (7-7) on Friday and to avenge its 83-76 May 28 loss to the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday.

What else is at stake: Are the Lynx a lost cause?

Minnesota Lynx coach/general manager Cheryl Reeve was encouraged Tuesday after her squad dropped a close contest to the Storm, a marked shift after Reeve didn't appear for postgame media following Sunday's loss to the Indiana Fever, instead sending associate head coach Katie Smith in her place. After demanding more effort from her players since the preseason, Reeve seemed finally happy with what she saw, even though Minnesota didn't get the end result it was looking for.

"[There was] maybe an understanding today of how hard we have to play, because I thought we did," Reeve said after Tuesday's 81-79 loss, the team's fourth consecutive. "We're dragging it out of them but they finally got a sense of what it feels like to actually be difficult to play against."

Nonetheless, the Lynx -- who have been arguably the most injury-riddled team this summer and have started 11 different lineups so far in 2022 -- fell to 3-12 on the season, the worst 15-game start in franchise history. And with Sylvia Fowles out indefinitely because of a cartilage injury in her right knee, plus Napheesa Collier's status is unclear as she's out on maternity leave, time is running out for the Lynx to salvage their season.

Tuesday might have been a sign of life for the Lynx, and some of their late additions -- such as Moriah Jefferson and Nikolina Milic -- have been good finds. But it's hard to see a dramatic turnaround happening without Fowles especially, as Minnesota is still searching for its first win without its future Hall of Famer, who might be the best center to ever play in the WNBA. And if Collier, who gave birth three weeks ago, wants to take the court this summer -- remember, the regular season ends Aug. 14 -- would she even be returning to a team in playoff contention?

Wild things have happened in the WNBA. The Liberty made the playoffs last season with a .375 winning percentage, the worst in league history. Last season Minnesota earned the No. 3 seed in the playoffs following an 0-4 start, though it was 12-7 by the Olympic break.

And while playing up to Reeve's standard toughness-wise would help things, it's difficult to imagine that alone solving all of the Lynx's problems when they are in the bottom quartile of WNBA teams in offensive and defensive rating, assist-to-turnover ratio and various shooting metrics -- and that they could pull everything together enough to surpass multiple other teams that, to date, have looked more like playoff caliber squads.

Things don't get much easier in Minnesota's final eight games leading up to the All-Star break; the Lynx play Chicago and Vegas a combined five times in that stretch, starting with the Aces on Sunday.

What else is at stake? Making sense of Atlanta

The Dream's hot start has cooled as of late, as they've lost six of their past nine games and have fallen to .500 with Wednesday's loss to the Sun. Strength of schedule has something to do with their leveling out: Atlanta has yet to record a win this season over a team that's currently above .500, with the defending WNBA champs awaiting Friday.

Even if the Dream aren't quite as good as early excitement wanted to believe, assuming they don't suffer a late collapse, Atlanta is markedly better than it looked last season, capable of playing gritty, tough defense that can give most any team headaches. The team also has found a budding star in No. 1 overall pick Rhyne Howard, for whom it traded up. This is still a step in the right direction for a franchise that went top-down scorched earth over the past two seasons, and the Dream have the salary-cap flexibility in the offseason to continue their rebuild as they see fit.

Fantasy women's basketball picks

Who to start: Jackie Young is back for the Aces after missing a pair of games because of an ankle injury. Candace Parker will look to guide the Sky to a strong weekend with matchups against the Dream (Friday) and Fever (Sunday) ahead of Tuesday's game vs. Vegas.

Shakira Austin has been a revelation for the Mystics as they've navigated Elena Delle Donne's periodic absences from the lineup.

Who to bench: Dallas' Satou Sabally is dealing with a knee injury and missed Wednesday's game against the Aces. Erica Wheeler (left foot sprain) and Kia Vaughn (health and safety protocols) have been out for the Dream.

Seattle's Mercedes Russell is out because of a non-basketball-related injury and is being reassessed by team doctors.

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