It took fewer than two minutes for Jonquel Jones to set the tone on Thursday night. In one of the first of what would be many battles with Teaira McCowan, Jones bumped her off her spot in the paint, then forced an ugly miss off the side of the backboard. As play went the other way, Jones sprinted the length of the court and was rewarded with a layup that was just as easy as any she made in pre-game warm-ups.
Jones' strong play early in the game helped the Connecticut Sun jump out to an early lead that they would not relinquish. They led for the final 36 minutes and eight seconds, and cruised to a 93-68 win over the Dallas Wings in Game 1 of their first-round matchup. The Sun will now have a chance to sweep the short best-of-three series on Sunday afternoon.
"Team basketball, that's what it's about," Jones said. "When you play team basketball you're really hard to beat in the playoffs. That's what we've done the entire season, so we want to continue to do that."
With the Sun in full control for much of the second half, Jones only needed to play 25 minutes on the night -- a factor that kept her from a truly special stat line. Even so, Jones finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and three assists on 5 of 10 from the field as she reminded everyone why she's the reigning MVP.
This has been something of a strange season for Jones. She was no longer the primary focal point on offense after Alyssa Thomas returned from Achilles tendon surgery and Courtney Williams signed in free agency for her second stint with the club. She also dealt with a bout of COVID-19 that kept her out of three games and limited her playing time and effectiveness when she returned.
But even if her numbers dropped and she won't win her usual array of awards, Jones is still the best player on the team. In Game 1, she was efficient on the offensive end and dealt with whatever look the Wings threw her way. When guarded by McCowan, she used her mobility and perimeter skills to take the lumbering center away from the basket where she's most comfortable. When the Wings tried to go small, she used her size and strength to score around the basket and draw fouls.
Defensively, she didn't give McCowan an inch. The reigning Western Conference Player of the Month was a revelation for the Wings during their hot streak to clinch a playoff spot, but she couldn't get anything going against Jones. She finished with seven points and three turnovers on 2 of 6 from the field; this was just the second time she's been held to single digits in the last month.
Plays like this from Jones made the difference. Twice in one possession she refuses to be bullied by the bigger McCowan and pushes her off the block. Eventually, McCowan is forced to settle for a mid-range jumper -- a shot she took only three times in the regular season -- and puts up a brick.
The Sun don't have the same buzz as some of the other teams in the playoffs and understandably have some doubters given their recent history of postseason failures. With Jones playing at this level, however, they are a legitimate contender to win the title.