‘Role players did that’: Connecticut Sun shares similarities with 2004 Detroit Pistons
The No. 2-seeded Sun should embrace its underdog status, and hoops history, in the WNBA Finals against the Washington Mystics
The stage is set. The league’s two best teams, the Washington Mystics and the Connecticut Sun, will face off in the WNBA Finals to crown a new champion. However, while the folks in New England have high hopes that the Sun will shine, the rest of the country seems to favor the Mystics (including here).
Now, let’s not get it twisted, the Mystics are good. Damn good. They aren’t the No. 1 overall seed for nothing. But all that glitters is not gold.
It was 15 years ago that the 2004 Detroit Pistons showed basketball fans everywhere not to let what’s on paper fool them, and this 2019 Connecticut team is very reminiscent of that NBA squad.
On paper, the ’04 Pistons were overmatched by a Los Angeles Lakers roster that boasted Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Like the Lakers, the Mystics have all the advantages on paper: They breezed through the regular season, setting a WNBA record with eight wins by 25-plus points. They have the league MVP, Elena Delle Donne, who is healthy this year. Emma Meesseman is a walking bucket (she’s a piece the Mystics missed in their run to the Finals last season, a series they ultimately lost to the Seattle Storm in a three-game sweep). 2016 WNBA champion Kristi Toliver, who missed 11 games this season with a bone bruise in her right knee, has returned. And, oh, by the way, Natasha Cloud is flexing on everyone on and off the court. To cap it off, they have arguably one of the best coaches in the game in Mike Thibault.
The Sun, meanwhile, is facing a 14-year Finals drought (just like the ’04 Pistons), having not played in the championship round since 2005 — ironically with Thibault at the helm. But, much like those Pistons, the team has showed an ability to be successful without a defined “superstar” (and I use that term loosely).
Sure, the Pistons had Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace, both four-time All-Stars, and Chauncey “Mr. Big Shot” Billups, who, alongside Rip Hamilton, went on to make three All-Star appearances in that time span. But Detroit was the epitome of team ball over star power.
Admittedly, there is an argument to be made that Sun center Jonquel Jones is a megastar in her own right, but Connecticut hasn’t reached its level of success this season on the back of one player. The Sun’s starting five, who have opened every game this season on the center circle together, have all made contributions.
The second-seeded Sun took it personally when it was called a group of “role players” on an ESPN broadcast earlier this month, and guard Courtney Williams mockingly expanded on the brash comments during her postgame interview after Connecticut swept the Los Angeles Sparks to secure its spot in the Finals.
"TELL 'EM A BUNCH OF ROLE PLAYERS DID THAT. BELIEVE IT." pic.twitter.com/UmwuVwXo06
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) September 20, 2019
One can imagine Detroit felt the same way when Jim Carty of The Ann Arbor News wrote, “The question isn’t who wins, but how long the Los Angeles Lakers toy with the Detroit Pistons en route to a 10th NBA Championship. Five games? Six?” Or when the Los Angeles Daily News published a similar article that threw more shade than a side chick on Valentine’s Day: “The Lakers need to do all of us — fans, media, the NBA — a huge favor and jump all over Detroit. Just stomp on them. Beat them down and wipe them out in four games. Before the Pistons threatened to bore us to death.”
It’s fair to assume the Pistons used this fuel to stoke their desire to win, and it appears Connecticut is looking to do the same. The Sun has adopted the #disrespeCT hashtag on social media, created motivational videos to embrace their underdog status and will be issuing T-shirts in Game 3 to fans that read “Role Players Did That.”
But as important as team ball was for the Pistons, so was their dedication to defense. During that championship season, Ben Wallace averaged 10 rebounds and two blocks a game, which continued for seven straight years, landing him NBA Defensive Player of the Year accolades four times. The team allowed only 86.5 points per 100 possessions after adding Rasheed Wallace to their roster in 2004. Comparably, the Sun’s defensive prowess has played a role in its run toward the title. Connecticut has allowed 96.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranked fifth in the WNBA this season. Jones led the league in rebounding with 9.7 per game, and teammate Alyssa Thomas cracked the top 10, placing eighth with 7.8 even while playing with a torn labrum in both shoulders. Coach-general manager Curt Miller acknowledged his team’s defensive performance and rebounding effort after Game 2 of the semifinals, pointing out that it was their stops and rebounding that ultimately saved it when its offense was struggling.
There’s also the energy from the 5-foot-8 Williams, who, despite her size, brings an abundance of toughness and grit. She motivates her team in some of the same ways that Hamilton did, and her presence is felt on both ends of the floor, as her rebounding prowess is just as impressive as her ability to nail a pull-up jumper on a dime.
Some say Detroit got hot at the right time, and when you couple that with the internal issues on the Lakers in 2004, you end up with arguably one of the greatest upsets in sports history. But one can also argue that when you play fundamentally sound basketball with players who band together for the sole purpose of being great together and add the right amount of motivation under the right leadership, championships can happen.
It’s not about what’s on paper, it’s about what’s on the 90 feet of hardwood. The Pistons proved it once, and the Sun now has that same chance too.