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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Wings-Sun, Game 3

What's next is anyone's guess.
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Arike Ogunbowale's return and Marina Mabrey's sharp shooting couldn't get Dallas to the second round. Photo by Mary Adger Bowen.

The playoffs are complicated. Each series is its own story, and each game is its own chapter encompassing a dozen moments and plot points. But the playoffs can also be simple. Each of those moments, those plot points, falls into one of two buckets: the things we observe and the emotions they inspire within us. That’s what we’re here to talk about.

What We Saw

The easiest way to say it: Dallas wasn’t good enough. There are a lot of reasons why, many of which plagued the Wings all season. Among them: a lack of a dominant ball handler, the offense going quiet when missing critical parts, and an inability to stop bigger teams from dominating the paint. They kept Dallas from advancing to the second round for the first time since 2009.

The most glaring problem was turnovers: 19 for Dallas, which led to 20 Sun points, compared to only six Wings points off 13 Connecticut turnovers. The passing was dreadful (particularly in the second half), but an inability to hold on to the ball, a lack of creative ball movement, and overall poor decision-making all played a role, too. 

Which might have been surmountable had Connecticut not rediscovered its Game 1 dominance in the post. But it did, with 42 points in the paint, along with 17 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points, a byproduct of all three star bigs scoring in double digits. Dallas’ Teaira McCowan had eight points to go with 12 boards, a solid game that wasn’t close to enough when Jonquel Jones put up 18 and 10 for Connecticut despite first-half foul trouble. And, also like Game 1, it wasn’t just McCowan; Kayla Thornton made only two shots and Allisha Gray, three. Take out Marina Mabrey’s 7-of-14 night, and Dallas was a total of 13-of-41 from the field. 

One of Dallas’ biggest problems was out of its control. Isabelle Harrison went down in the second quarter with an ankle injury, which limited Dallas’ mobility and forced a still-readjusting Satou Sabally to shoulder a load she wasn’t ready for. At her peak, Sabally is an All-Star. This was not that: she missed all but two shots on the night. While the two makes were right at the rim, she couldn’t replicate Harrison’s creativity at the basket; it’s not her game. But coach Vickie Johnson’s offense didn’t adjust, and the points dried up in the second half. Even Arike Ogunbowale couldn’t save the Wings in her shocking return from an abdominal injury. Impressive as her effort to play was, she wasn’t close to 100 percent, which was evident both in her movement and missing all three of her shots in six minutes. 

In the end, the team with the better offense, the better passing, and the better game plan won. Given a chance to seize the moment, Dallas tripped when it mattered most. There’s no dismissing the progress the Wings made in earning their first playoff win since the team relocated to Dallas. But as the series drew to a close, Wednesday showed the organization’s road left to go could be more difficult than the road it traveled to get this far. –Sam Hale

What It Felt Like

A game, much like the season itself, that can be taken in whatever light you choose.

The optimists can hang their hats on Dallas taking a heavily favored Sun team within one half of its breaking point. That the Wings hung tough despite Sabally’s coat of rust after missing weeks of game time leading up to the playoffs. Despite Ogunbowale, Dallas’ leading scorer and bellwether in last year’s playoffs, clawing past an abdominal injury only far enough to be a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency substitution. Despite Harrison, the lynchpin of Johnson’s defensive adjustments in the Game 2 rout, going down with an ankle injury before halftime.

The pessimists, meanwhile, can point to how the Wings hacked and wheezed to the finish line, their lively first half undone by the Sun getting whatever they wanted in the post and on the boards. That all their problems reared their head in concert, a hallmark of immaturity that was far easier to wave off a year ago in this core’s first crack at the postseason than it is now.

You can see this season as an unqualified success: Dallas’ best record since the team relocated from Tulsa six years ago and its first postseason victory, too. Or you can question exactly how far the Wings have come when that record was only 18-18, and they once again got bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

All of which puts Dallas on the precipice of the great unknown. Unlike last year, there is no clear roadmap for what comes next. The front office could run last offseason’s play again: trust the young core to keep growing and augment it with a big splash move. Or it could decide that more aggressive action is called for—that it can only wait so long for the cadre of early first-round picks in the classes after Ogunbowale and Sabally to grow into contributors.

The waning moments of this game, when the outcome was academic and the reserves played out the string, laid bare just how tenuous this all felt, as though so much of what we watched this summer could be built upon as easily as it could be swept away. Advancing to the second round would have brought more certainty. Instead, we wait to see what’s left standing when the 2023 Wings take the floor. —Mike Piellucci

Authors

Sam Hale
Sam Hale covers the Wings and FC Dallas for StrongSide. His relationship with Everton FC is forever "it's complicated." He's…
Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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