UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Guard Briann January knows how hard it is to face Alyssa Thomas from all the years playing against her. But after Thursday's 2021 WNBA playoff game, January just smiled and talked about how great it was to be teammates on the Connecticut Sun.
"I've always admired her toughness," January said after Thomas put the Sun on her back in a 79-68 Game 2 victory in their semifinal series with the Chicago Sky. "There's a few players in the league that you know play very hard. I'm glad she's on my side, because when we would play her, I'd be like, 'I'm staying away from her screens.' I mean she's just phenomenal."
Thomas, playing in just her fourth game this season after returning from an Achilles tendon injury, had 15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals coming off the bench. On a night when the Sun, who lost the opener on Tuesday, were in a must-win situation and league MVP Jonquel Jones was struggling, Thomas was her old self.
"You know, this is probably one of the hardest things I've ever gone through," Thomas said of the injury, which she suffered in January while playing overseas. "There's a lot of hard days. I'm a perfectionist, and I'm just so used to bouncing back from things. Days that weren't good and I couldn't get after it or push myself were frustrating.
"You really start from ground zero just to learn how to walk again. It was a slow process, a hard process. But you've just got to celebrate the little things."
There is nothing small about how big Thomas has come up time and time again in her WNBA career. She has played for years with labral tears in each of her shoulders. Last year in the WNBA's bubble in Bradenton, Florida, she had to leave Game 2 of the Sun's semifinal series against Las Vegas with a dislocated shoulder, yet returned for the rest of the series.
Yet when Thomas suffered the Achilles injury, it seemed unlikely she would be able to play in the 2021 season. Thomas had other ideas. She appeared in her first game Sept. 15 and her second in the regular-season finale on Sept. 19, combining for 11 points and 10 rebounds.
In Tuesday's loss, she had seven points and two rebounds. Thursday, with the Sun falling behind 11-0 to start the game, things looked shaky for the top seed. Jones was limited to just four points on 2 of 9 shooting, her lowest point total in any of the Suns' 53 wins she's played in since 2019.
Sun coach Curt Miller said Jones got hit in the head almost immediately after the game tipped off.
"It wasn't her night," Miller said. "She's got a goose egg like a golf ball on her head. She was affected by the physicality early. We tried to have her sit and watch so the game would slow down for her and then get her back in."
While it wasn't a great game for Jones, Thomas made sure it didn't put the Sun in an 0-2 hole in the best-of-five series. In the fourth quarter, Thomas scored or assisted on 13 points as the Sun outscored the Sky 21-9 to close out the game. She finished with her 10th career playoff double-double.
"She truly is one of the toughest people I've ever been around," Miller said of Thomas. "She's had to reinvent herself. She probably should be a 'three' player in this league. Because of her shoulders, we've reinvented her as a facilitating 'four.' It's really remarkable. She just finds ways to be successful with some of the limitations she has physically."