The dam broke with three minutes left in the fourth quarter. Alyssa Thomas, the Connecticut Sun’s Swiss Army knife, dribbled to the paint, planted her left foot to fake a spin to her right, then zipped a cross-court pass with one hand to teammate Courtney Williams in the corner. With three Washington Mystics players fully zoned in on Thomas, the Sun guard delivered on a dagger triple.
Thomas is a menace, and might be the Mystics’ biggest problem in the WNBA Finals. The Sun’s ultimate competitor has a hand in everything Connecticut does on both ends of the court: sticking the 6’4 sweet-shooting Emma Meesseman on defense, pushing the pace on offense, and crashing the boards every possession. In two games, she’s averaging 21 points on 64 percent shooting, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals. She’s been so good on both ends of the floor that Sun head coach Curt Miller hasn’t subbed her out in 80 minutes.
“I’ll say this to my dying days,” Miller said after the game. “I don’t think there’s a better defender in the league.”
Thomas’ influence on the game is incomprehensible given her lack of full health. Since 2015, her second year in the WNBA, she’s been playing through a tear in both of her labrums that inhibits the ability to fully stretch her arms. She feels acute pain if she raises them above her ear, yet she hasn’t had surgery on either shoulder, instead playing overseas in Korea and Czechoslovakia each year.
“She’s gonna play unless they’re carrying her off [the court],” Williams said.
The labral tears mean Thomas can’t really shoot. Once a left-handed scorer in college, she now sort of shot-puts the ball with her right. She made that change in the 2018 season, feeling more mobility in her shoulder on that side. But it hasn’t been a smooth transition. Going from a 75 percent free-throw shooter her rookie season, she now shoots it at just 50 percent. For most players, that alone would keep them off the court in the game’s final moments. But Thomas is still tearing apart one of the best WNBA teams of all time without missing a second of action.
“It’s frustrating that somebody at that size is outworking people because she gets tips, and she can’t even fully extend,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said after the game, “but she’s getting offensive rebounds. That’s sheer will.”
Thomas is a never-ending freight train at her most terrorizing self when she’s running the break. With 6’5 MVP Elena Delle Donne sidelined due to back spasms three minutes into Game 2, she had her way. There is no answer to a 6’2 wrecking ball built to blast through walls, nimble enough to pirouette across the hardwood and observant of even the tiniest gaps in the defense to thread passes. It’s why she ranked No. 5 in the league in fast break points in 2019, scoring 2.5 per game. (She was the only forward among that group.)
“Offensively, she’s such an extra facilitator,” Miller said. “She keeps us in attack mode.”
The Mystics tried throwing their center, LaToya Sanders, in front of her, and used All-Defensive team guard Natasha Cloud on switches. But nothing worked. This was the game Connecticut had to win if it wanted a chance at dethroning the league’s best team of the regular season, and Thomas’ motor willed them to it. All 185 pounds of muscle worked tirelessly by way of power dribbling to the pain, strip-stealing guards in motion and screening like a brick wall to free teammates.
“She’s the toughest player in the league,” Williams said. “AT’s a dog.”
But it’s been her scoring that’s left the Mystics no answer. Despite torn labrums limiting her shooting range (98.5 percent of her shot attempts came from the paint in the regular season), D.C. can’t keep her away from the paint. She’s too strong on the offensive glass, too quick off the dribble, and too careful releasing with a soft touch around the rim.
“She’s a bully in the paint, and she’s learned that that’s her game,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said after his team’s Game 2 loss. “She has pretty incredible touch for a player that just kinda floats it up there, and the ball bounces around a lot and it just goes in there for her.”
Thomas is at the center of everything Connecticut does, and if Delle Donne remains sidelined past Game 2, Washington’s options to contain her run slim. Even without fully-functional shoulders, Alyssa Thomas could be the biggest difference-maker in a colossal Finals upset nobody saw coming.