Aces-Liberty a Likely Finals Preview


“Every time we step on the court, I feel like it counts,” Aces guard Chelsea Gray said post-game last Tuesday night. “This one hurts, just the way that it happened. On our home court.”

The 82-63 loss to the New York Liberty in the Commissioner’s Cup Championship doesn’t count in the record column, but this was still Las Vegas’ first home loss of the season. It’s not truly a regular-season game. But just like Gray said — it counts.

Each of the Aces players still took home $10,000, but the extra $20,000 they missed out on still counts. Their second blowout loss to their primary championship adversary still counts. And the horrible shooting performance, that still counts too.

The Aces only scored 11 points in the first quarter and only grabbed four rebounds in the entire second half.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in my entire life,” head coach Becky Hammon said, awestruck at the low rebounding total for her team.

They shot just 29.7 percent from the floor on the game, and 14.3 percent from three. 

The Liberty scored 26 points in the fourth quarter — enough to equal the Aces first and fourth quarters combined.

They shot 51.6 percent from the floor in the second half, and 64.3 percent from three.

“It was rushed shots, some poor spacing and people have to make shots,” Hammon said.

Truthfully, the shots the Aces were taking were quality looks, especially in the first quarter. They just wouldn’t fall. The Aces were quick to point out that their struggles all started with missing good looks.

But that isn’t the only thing the Aces needed to improve. New York did a good job of disrupting Las Vegas’ defense and burning holes in the Aces with scorching second half shooting.

“The biggest thing is just getting defensive stops so we can get out in transition and play the speed we want to play at,” all-star guard Jackie Young said.

Hammon’s team loves to play fast, that’s nothing new. But, New York came at them fast, and put Las Vegas on their heels. The Aces were scrambling to catch up, and because they couldn’t hit shots, they had to depend on interior scoring. But that was difficult due to the lack of transition opportunities created by defense.

“Our defense has had some slippage over the last 10 games,” Hammon said. “New York’s defense has gotten better. And I think before that, that was a separation factor for us.”

But now the Liberty seem to be separating from the Aces. The fiery dominance of Las Vegas seems to have been doused — at least it was Tuesday night. 

MVP candidate A’ja Wilson struggled mightily due to the team’s shooting and defensive woes. When the guards can’t get shots to fall, and they can’t get out and run, it’s easier to keep the bigs in the paint and cover Wilson. 

And the Liberty had Wilson covered.

Wilson was scoreless in the second half. Breanna Stewart and Commissioner’s Cup MVP Jonquel Jones used their combined size to drastically reduce the role of the two-time MVP.

“[The paint] did feel congested,” Hammon said. “It’s basically five on four. They don’t guard Kiah [Stokes], and they weren’t guarding [Alysha Clark] tonight.” 

With Wilson out of the equation, all the Liberty had to do was make shots. And they sure made shots.

Marine Johannès drilled five of seven from beyond the arc, and Sabrina Ionescu took control of the second half, sinking impossible shots from even more improbable distances.

When asked about how you game plan to stop shooters like Johannès, Hammon had this to say: “Did you see the shots she took? Some of them, I don’t have any defense. Sorry, play on.”

They certainly played on. 

Although the Aces had lost two straight matchups to New York by an average of 28.5 points per game, they had to press on. The two teams met once again on Thursday, Aug. 17. The two-day turnaround made for good playoff practice against a team they may very well meet in the finals. 

“It’s like a playoff type of vibe,” Gray said. “Another one’s coming at you, and the same opponent. What are the little things that are going to change? They’re going to change some stuff, so we’re going to change as well.”

Gray made perhaps the biggest change of all. She recorded the first triple-double in Aces franchise history as she posted 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in Las Vegas’ bounce back win over New York on Thursday, 88-75.

Even with a 13-point deficit, it was the closest of the four matchups between the two juggernauts so far this season, and it evened the score 2-2 in the regular-season series.

The win ushered in a night-and-day turnaround for Wilson, too. She scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Kelsey Plum was vital as well, scoring 18. Young added 16, as the Aces core showed up in a critical statement game.

Simply put, the shots started falling. Not at an extremely high clip though, which is good to see in a win. The Aces shot 44.4 percent from the floor and 36 percent from three. Those are solid marks, but they also indicate that the Aces aren’t simply relying on shots to fall.

They are moving the ball, defending and covering all the winning intangibles.

Last week provided an intriguing potential finals preview. If the two games were any indication, if a playoff matchup between Vegas and New York arrives, it should be must-see-TV.

Chelsea Gray Championship Bobblehead!

Chelsea Gray Las Vegas Aces

WNBA champ and WNBA Finals MVP? Now THAT’S something worth celebrating. And there’s no better way to celebrate than with this Chelsea Gray Las Vegas Aces 2022 WNBA Champions Bobblehead.

About Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick is a sports writer from North Carolina. He has run independent blogs and begun writing for The Lead in 2023. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel as well, where he has worked since September of 2022.

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