UNCASVILLE, Connecticut — The Engine did everything she could. She never once sputtered. It still wasn’t enough.
Alyssa Thomas finished the 2022 WNBA season with back-to-back triple-doubles, a historic rarity that’s turning more commonplace in the league. But instead of heading back to Las Vegas for a winner-take-all Game 5, Thomas and Connecticut Sun teammates had to walk by the visitors’ locker room to hear the Las Vegas Aces popping bottles and answering questions about dynasties.
That’s what the Sun have wanted and come close to so many times, only to keep passing the celebrating locker room.
“We just lost, so I'm just trying to process this right now,” center Jonquel Jones said in answer to a question about taking the final step as the Aces’ noise filled the hallway. “I really wish I could answer that for you right now, but all I know is it hurts me, and that's all I'm feeling right now.”
It was the second time in four years most of this group has ended its season with such a scene. In 2019, it was the Washington Mystics and MVP Elena Delle Donne who partied in the District after a Game 5 in which the Sun led late. In the 2020 bubble season, they lost in five games to the Aces in the semifinals. And last year, they rode the No. 1 seed only as far as a Game 4 semifinals loss to the eventual champion Chicago Sky, who were the No. 6 seed.
They ousted that 2021 demon in a shocking Game 5 semifinal in Chicago. And they avoided another Finals sweep behind Thomas, who secured the first triple-double in WNBA Finals history on Thursday night to keep the season alive in Game 3. She had 16 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists.
“She's a beast,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said after the Aces were blown out by 29 points in Game 3. “I went to a UFC fight the other night; I would not want to get in the cage with her. She is just tough. Tough, tough, tough. Tough, and then a playmaker.”
Then Thomas turned around and did it again on Sunday, marking her fourth since July 21 and of her career. She had 11 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds to pass Candace Parker and Sabrina Ionescu for most triple-doubles in WNBA history. It was a perfect cap for a season that’s seen a record nine. There are 20 total.
“Alyssa was terrific and a warrior through this whole series, and at times, tried to put us on her back,” Sun head coach Curt Miller said.
Sun players have made it no secret their window was closing with a salary cap crunch looming in 2023. Player salaries nearly doubled when the new collective bargaining agreement was signed ahead of 2020, but the salary cap only inched up 30%. Every year, they each raise incrementally.
It’s creating difficult decisions as not everyone can sit at the player max. The Aces core is locked up because some took less than they might have elsewhere as free agents. The Sun have $847,500 of their $1,420,500 cap locked up in Thomas ($212,000), DeWanna Bonner ($234,350), Jonquel Jones ($211,150) and point guard Jasmine Thomas ($190,000), per Her Hoop Stats.
Jasmine Thomas sustained a torn ACL two weeks into the season and was out for the rest of the year, a recurring theme with the Sun. Last year, it was Alyssa Thomas out with an Achilles and the year prior, Jonquel Jones opted out of the bubble season. They’ve had bad breaks and run into teams that take on a “destined to win” feel. Case in point, the league-leading Aces.
Brionna Jones, the 2021 Sixth Player of the Year, is an unrestricted free agent, as is guard Courtney Williams, who returned to the Sun to win a ‘chip after two years away with the Atlanta Dream. Natisha Hiedeman, who took over point guard duties, is restricted. It’s going to take some ingenuity to build a roster to compete. And it almost surely won’t keep the core.
The success that this group has had since 2016 is “really special,” Miller said. That was his first year as coach and the same one they drafted 2020 MVP Jonquel Jones with the No. 6 pick and traded midseason for No. 8 pick Williams. The Sun are the winningest franchise since 2017.
“But in pro sports, you want banners and we are going to keep grinding and grinding until we can try to hang a banner,” Miller said.
Who helps bring that to the rafters is currently a largely written question mark.