UNCASVILLE, Conn. — In the W.N.B.A. finals, where almost nothing has been constant, the Connecticut Sun’s 90-86 win on Tuesday over the Washington Mystics provided a window into what each team will need to do to earn that final victory in Game 5.
The two rosters, each with innumerable options to take over a game, will have 40 minutes to figure out the path to a title on Thursday night in Washington.
“When the ball tips up on Thursday, it’s going to be who stays true to themselves,” Sun Coach Curt Miller said, “who imposes their will on their style and their system, and who plays with more energy.”
Recency bias has not been the prognosticator’s friend in this series, with each game deviating sharply from the one before. The teams have alternated wins over the first four games.
After getting just 15 points combined in Game 3 from Courtney Williams and Jonquel Jones, their two top scorers, the Sun could not afford a further dip in production from either player. In Game 4, the Sun ran plays for Williams and fed Jones in the paint and beyond the 3-point line.
By halftime, the two had combined for 22 points, and finished with 34. The Sun’s offensive flow worked through Jones even on possessions when she did not get the shot. For example, a first-quarter feed inside to Jones, who was triple-teamed, led to a quick pass to Shekinna Stricklen for an open 3-pointer.
“Her activity never stopped,” Miller said. “I thought she was really active on the glass, even when she wasn’t touching. I thought she screened better tonight. And then we got her touches when we needed her in the fourth quarter.”
Jones is almost unguardable when she is fully engaged, and seeing her resume a dominant level of play, even with the Mystics star Elena Delle Donne present, is an important indicator for Connecticut heading into Game 5.
Both teams have had sharp swings in performance from key players in this series, with only the intensity and two-way leadership of Alyssa Thomas for Connecticut and Natasha Cloud for Washington serving as constants in every game.
One team falling into an early hole has also been a pattern; the winning team has held a double-digit lead after one quarter in each game of the finals.
“Both teams have come back,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said. “But it’s hard when you’re looking at the deficit we were looking at.”
Delle Donne, who overcame pain from a herniated disc to play a vital role in Washington’s win in Game 3, was moving far more freely in Game 4, driving to the basket more frequently, if still with less fluidity and force than she displayed in her M.V.P. regular season.
“I was a little looser today, so I felt better,” said Delle Donne, who finished with 11 points. “Hopefully I’ll continue to feel even better Thursday. They were playing a little more aggressively defensively, weren’t letting us just sit outside and shoot 3s comfortably, so I tried to draw attention by driving and getting other people open.”
The Sun need Jones’s active two-way presence, whether forcing Emma Meesseman to miss shots, crashing the boards or serving as an elite rim protector.
Williams, too, needs to provide a defensive presence for the Sun, getting into passing lanes for steals and deflections.
“My teammates definitely challenged me, personally, told me that regardless of what my offense is, I’ve got to get after it on defense,” Williams said.
It is an open question just how much Delle Donne can and should provide offensively to the Mystics in a deciding Game 5. She has been effective since returning to the floor in Games 3 and 4, but had single-digit shot attempts in each contest, after a regular season in which she averaged nearly 14 shots per game.
And Ariel Atkins, she of the less famous back injury on the Mystics, found her shooting stroke on Tuesday. Her movements, too, reflected an extra few days to recover from back spasms. And while her offense provided a welcome boost, it was moments like the one midway through the third quarter, when she timed an interior pass from Jasmine Thomas to Jones perfectly and turned an easy layup into a jump ball, that truly indicated she was back.
Both teams think, for all their offensive firepower, the cliché holds true in this case: Defense wins championships.
“We talked about that the whole second half,” the Sun’s Jasmine Thomas said. “In our huddles, in the timeout, we talked about that defense and stops were going to win us the game.”
The Mystics’ Delle Donne acknowledged the drama of playing a winner-takes-all game to capture a championship, a long-elusive goal for both franchises. She added with a wistful smile, “I wanted to win it in four.”