UNCASVILLE, CONN. -- It's not a coincidence, or even a subtle hint, that every time Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas scores for her team at its home arena, the sound of an engine revving plays over the loudspeaker. She is the team's literal and figurative engine -- propelling it to every basket, rebound, steal and high-five. The sound is played so frequently throughout the night, one could be forgiven for temporarily thinking they're in the parking lot at a biker bar.
She does everything the Sun need and more, and has played every critical minute of the team's two wins over the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA semifinals. Had Connecticut not been holding a 23-point lead with just over 5½ minutes to play on Thursday night, she likely would have played every single minute, just as she did Tuesday in Game 1.
While Thomas is no stranger to extended minutes, and she isn't alone on her team or in the league there, she is almost certainly the only player with labral tears in both of her shoulders. An injury she has been dealing with for well over a year, she missed 10 games last season and currently can barely lift her arms above her head due to the damage.
But unless you were paying close attention to her unorthodox shooting form -- it looks almost like a shot-put motion -- or her shift from being predominately reliant on her left hand to her right, you likely had no idea. Her stat lines don't reflect a player who is putting off a debilitating surgical procedure that requires a seven-month recovery period. Thomas is averaging 11.6 points on an astounding 50.5 field goal percentage, and nearly eight boards a game this season. She had 12 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals on Thursday, to go with her team-high 22 points and 10 rebounds on Tuesday.
"Man, AT is a dog," said teammate Courtney Williams after Thursday's 94-68 win. "Having someone like that on my team who can come out and play through injury and just give us that toughness, it's crazy, it's amazing. We need that. And she just steps up to the plate and gives us that energy we need."
The leading scorer in Maryland college basketball history for men and women, Thomas was the fourth pick in the 2014 WNBA draft and made an immediate impact as a rookie, starting 28 of 34 games for the Sun. She made the WNBA All-Rookie team, and has since twice been named an All-Star, but she doesn't get the attention or accolades that many of her peers do. She has a quiet, unassuming demeanor off the court, and keeps a relatively private profile on social media. She has 14,000 followers on Instagram, or about 486,000 less than Candace Parker, her counterpart on the Sparks.
Thomas has changed her game and made adjustments due to the injury, but otherwise, she's the same leader the team has come to rely on.
"Obviously it's changed her game, she's not got the range, she can't do some of the things she wants to do, but she's modified her game and become a downhill player," Sun coach Curt Miller said. "You hear what we think of her in the arena -- there's an engine revving all the time. She makes great plays for us. She's got to get herself into the paint for us to be successful.
"She's really, really smart. She's our smartest X's and O's player we have, and she can see things. Good things happen when we play through her and the ball is in her hands."
Basketball is a star-driven sport, but it feels fitting for the Sun to be led by one of the most unsung heroes in the league, as the team itself has been dramatically underrated -- or "DisrespeCTed" according to the Sun's marketing efforts -- all season, despite notching win after win. And now, after quietly putting together the league's second-best record during the regular season and securing a double-bye in the postseason, the Sun are one win away from their first trip to the WNBA Finals since 2005.
On a team that is consistently scrutinized for its lack of superstars, Thomas is one of a core group of young players (no one on the roster is over 30) who claim they don't care about labels and joke about being called "role players." Williams even laughed on Thursday and said her dad, who has been an animated and beloved fixture on the sideline throughout the series, was "the star, and we're the role players." At this point, it appears the players on the team are fine with whatever you want to call them, because they plan to keep winning regardless.
The Sun, much like Thomas, have taken a backseat in the headlines this season, due in part to Elena Delle Donne's historic MVP season for the Washington Mystics, the rise of the Las Vegas Aces and injuries to many of the league's most well-known players. In fact, the offseason trade request of former Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike might have been the most attention the team has received from the national media and fans this season. But Ogwumike, who is currently on the Sparks, now knows what her former teammates and Sun fans have known all along: This is a team built to win a championship.
While other players might not want to jeopardize their future, or risk playing with such a substantial injury, Thomas' teammates never questioned what she would do as the Sun entered their biggest games in well over a decade. They knew she would be on the court, doing what she's always doing.
"I think her arms would have to be falling off for her not to play," Connecticut center Jonquel Jones said. "I don't think we've ever doubted that she was going to be out there. She would have to be bedridden or something. I'm just happy that she's on my team."