When taking over the Connecticut Sun in 2016, coach Curt Miller figured 2019 could be a big year for the franchise. He thought success would come before then, and it has. But his long-range plan was about building a core -- and the accompanying chemistry -- that could contend for a championship. It's a process that takes some time.
Now in the stretch run of 2019, a season largely impacted by injuries and absences, the playoffs could be excitingly unpredictable. And, as Miller hoped, the Sun are right in the thick of things.
"I'm so proud of them," Miller said. "It doesn't always feel as smooth this year; we've really had to grind out some wins. We're excited that some of the vision we had back in 2016 is coming true. But ultimately, we know at the pro level, you're judged by success in the playoffs."
The Mystics are in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed. Of their remaining seven regular-season games, four are against Dallas and New York, both in the bottom four in the league. Four of the Mystics' remaining games are at home, plus they have the league's best road record (10-4).
Connecticut owns the WNBA's best home record (13-1), and the Sun will need that Mohegan mojo to come through Friday when they host Las Vegas. The Aces survived an overtime game against Phoenix on Tuesday, happy to have A'ja Wilson back after an ankle injury cost her nine games.
There will be a mix of nostalgia and playoff atmosphere at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday, as Connecticut will honor retired guard Lindsay Whalen then. She played her first six seasons with the Sun and helped them make the WNBA Finals twice before going on to win four titles with Minnesota.
Should Washington stumble, Connecticut has the season-series tiebreaker with the Mystics, 2-1. The Mystics have the tiebreaker with the Aces, 2-1. And the tiebreaker between the Sun and Aces will be decided Friday.
A double-bye into the postseason semifinals is what's at stake for all three teams. Connecticut has lost in the single-elimination second round the past two years, both times at home to Phoenix. The Sun would love to avoid that round altogether this season, although they've also been careful to reinforce that they don't fear facing a do-or-die game again.
Miller doesn't shy away from the blunt facts: Seven years have passed since the Sun won a playoff game. That was Oct. 5, 2012, when they beat Indiana to open the Eastern Conference finals. But the Fever rallied and won the next two games, a crushing blow to a Sun franchise that had gone 25-9 that season. Connecticut parted ways with longtime coach Mike Thibault, and Washington was waiting for him with open arms.
The Sun didn't make the playoffs in three seasons under Anne Donovan, and then Miller was hired for 2016. The Sun missed the postseason again with a fourth consecutive losing record. The past two years, the Sun are a combined 42-26 in the regular season.
Under the old playoff system, before the one-and-done rounds were introduced in 2016, the Sun would have had a chance to bounce back in a series. Instead, the playoffs were over for Connecticut in one night.
But the Sun have learned from that disappointment, too. The core group that Miller sought to build has blossomed into the only starting five in the WNBA this season that has started every game: Jonquel Jones, Courtney Williams, Jasmine Thomas, Alyssa Thomas and Shekinna Stricklen. That doesn't mean the Sun have avoided injuries; they've just been able to play through them.
"We're pretty banged up, so it's a lot about finding recovery time -- mental and physical -- at this point," Miller said. "We knew we would have a very challenging August.
"We're not perfect; we may not come out with the energy and effort that you need every game. That's been one of our concerns on the road. It's different knowing you have more of a target on your back. But they've embraced that better and understand it more."
Jones, the Sun's leading scorer (14.8 PPG) and rebounder (10.3 RPG), echoed her coach's viewpoint that the team has had to become more comfortable with being one of the front-runners.
"We had to understand that's a big responsibility, and it takes even more effort," Jones said. "It takes everyone being a little more locked in. We're a playoff team, but it's time to take the next step."
Jones, a 6-foot-6 post player who can also shoot from the perimeter, has superb offensive talent, as does 5-8 guard Williams (12.0 PPG). Both have go-to player ability. But at the same time, the Sun isn't constructed as a team with a superstar that everyone knows will try to take over at crunch time.
That can be a strength. But Miller is pragmatic that it can also be a weakness if the Sun don't execute the way they need to.
"We're a team where the ball goes through all five," he said. "When we have high assists, that's when you can tell we had a good night offensively. Still, in a playoff game, when it can grind more into a half-court game, who can you count on with 3 minutes to go? We play some teams with megastars who do that. But I believe that we've really grown that way, too.
"We believe Jonquel is one of the elite players in the league. And when Courtney gets into a groove, she's as good a scorer in stretches as anyone. Our transition game, spearheaded by Jasmine and Alyssa, makes us go. And when Shekinna makes 3s, we're really tough to beat."
Still, the Sun are not as productive offensively this year overall as they've been the last two seasons. But that has been counterbalanced by their defensive improvement across the board. And that, like the offense, is more based on chemistry than great individual defenders.
"We have a couple really talented defenders in Alyssa and Jasmine," Miller said. "But we still are very much team-oriented on defense. We can't go out and guard teams one-on-one. They have to trust each other, and they do. They know each other, and they have each other's backs.
"So there's not just one way to win. We're finding some different ways, even on some nights when it's ugly."