Thursday night's matchup between the Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm looked like one of the games of the week on paper, and it more than lived up to the billing. The Sun battled back from an early double-digit deficit and held on down the stretch for an 88-83 win to clinch a playoff spot.
Alyssa Thomas led the way with 19 points, five rebounds and 11 assists on 8 of 11 from the field, as the Sun extended their winning streak to four games and moved to 6-1 since the All-Star break. In addition to punching a postseason ticket for the sixth straight season, the Sun extended their lead on third place to a full two games.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
Sun win has major playoff implications
The Sun and Storm have been battling over third place in the standings for well over a month, with the spot trading hands multiple times along the way. Heading into the All-Star break, the Storm were in control, but the Sun have been on a mission since play resumed -- one they continued on Thursday with their comeback win.
Winners of four straight and six of seven since the break, the Sun have improved to 20-9. Even more important than clinching a playoff spot -- which was a foregone conclusion at some point in the next few games -- the Sun solidified their lead on third place. If the Storm had won this game, the two teams would have been tied; instead, the Sun now have a two-game lead in the race for third and own the tiebreaker between the two teams.
With just seven games remaining, the Sun would really have to collapse to fall below third. There's no time for the Sun to relax, however, as they still have a chance of earning the No. 2 seed. They're just half a game behind the second-place Las Vegas Aces and 1.5 games behind the first-place Chicago Sky, with two games left against the defending champs.
As for the Storm, this loss was a major blow to their seeding hopes. While they're going to make the playoffs, fourth place is now likely their ceiling, and even that is no guarantee. They're tied with the Washington Mystics at 18-11 and travel to the nation's capital for a massive back-to-back against them this weekend. Those two games will not only decide the tiebreaker between the Storm and Mystics, but possibly who will finish fourth and earn homecourt advantage for the first round.
Thomas continues stellar play
Earlier this month, Alyssa Thomas became the first player in Sun franchise history to record a triple-double when she put up 15 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in a win over the Minnesota Lynx. Thomas didn't get another one on Thursday, but she did play one of her best games of the season.
She finished with 19 points, five rebounds and 11 assists on 8 of 11 from the field, and was particularly impressive in the second and third quarters as the Sun erased the Storm's double-digit lead and built an advantage of their own. In the closing minutes, she also came up with three straight vital defensive plays. First a steal, then two straight contests to force misses from Breanna Stewart.
This possession, where Thomas chased Stewart all over the floor, stood her up in the paint and got a strong contest was especially impressive.
Since the All-Star break, she's averaging 12.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game, which is good for fifth in rebounding, first in assists and third in steals in the league during that span. The Sun are 6-1 in those games and have been plus-77 with Thomas on the floor.
This is the Thomas the Sun were missing last season in the playoffs as she bravely made an early return from a torn Achilles tendon but was never her full self. Her defense and ability to push the pace and make plays for others is vital to the Sun's success, as we've seen over the last few weeks.
Bird says farewell to Connecticut
Early on Thursday, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont proclaimed that in honor of her final regular season appearance in the state, July 28 was Sue Bird Day. The Sun also honored Bird with a pre-game ceremony and presented her with a bottle of wine from 2002, the year she made her WNBA debut.
When Bird started the game with a 3-pointer on the first possession and had eight points at the end of the first quarter, it seemed like a fairytale ending was in store. Alas, while Bird played well and finished with 14 points and seven assists, the Storm couldn't get the win.
Still, it was quite a send-off for the legendary point guard who will retire at the end of the season. Though a New York native, she emerged on the national scene at UConn, where she was named AP Player of the Year in 2022, helped the Huskies win two national championships and played a major role in turning the program into the dynasty it has become.
"No way did I have the dreams of sitting here now after going to the University of Connecticut, after having a 20-plus year WNBA career, I mean no way would I have thought that, so it is pretty cool," Bird said after practice on Wednesday. "I'm very proud of the things I've been able to accomplish on the court and it started at UConn, right? I always say like that's where the foundation of who I am as a player, as a person, really established and developed and I was able to build on top of that as I went through my career."