Aces

Las Vegas Aces Trump Regular Season Ahead Of Mercury Shuffle

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The Las Vegas Aces clinched the top seed in the 2022 WNBA playoffs with their 109-100 victory over the Seattle Storm on Sunday. The game encapsulated the story of Vegas’ season: it was high scoring, back-and-forth, and included some stellar performances from the Vegas starting five.

Vegas begins its quest for a championship on Wednesday night against a hurting but spirited Phoenix Mercury team. The Aces may have the easiest path on paper, but they’ll need to get through some hearty foes before getting their hands on some hardware. 

But before that, a look behind.

Way back in May, I wrote an Aces season preview. Now, I’ll examine how the 2022 regular season compared to my predictions.

“The number one player to watch is Kelsey Plum”

Perhaps “number one” was a bit of an overstatement; A’ja Wilson comes first in any discussion about this team (more on that later). But Plum entered the season with a deep, burning hunger, and that hunger hasn’t been quelled yet.

In 2021, Plum won Sixth Woman of the Year and never started a game. She contributed 14.8 points and 3.6 assists on 39% three-point shooting and 43% shooting overall. It was an impressive season, especially considering she was coming off a major injury. If Plum merely repeated her performance this year, Vegas would have happily taken that production.

But what she did this season was more than any Vegas fan could have desired. She recorded an average of 20 points and five assists, shot 42% from beyond the arc and 46% from the field. She started all 36 games, led the team in scoring, and set a franchise record for three-pointers made. Plum won All-Star Game MVP and could be up for multiple end-of-season awards. She’s been consistently excellent all year long.

“But the team feels confident with the rookies they kept”

The team would echo this sentiment again. Kierstan Bell and Aisha Sheppard each flashed talent at times this season.

However, those flashes have been sporadic and inconsistent, mainly because their playing time has been sporadic and inconsistent. The two rookies played only 295 minutes combined, and both played under 24 games. 

This deficiency is less of an indictment on the rookies and more of a judgment on the Vegas bench. The reserves averaged about 13 points per game, which was the worst-scoring bench in the league. Ace starters played many minutes, and for a good reason: they averaged more points than any other starting group in league history. 

Riquna Williams played productive minutes, as did Theresa Plaisance, while Kiah Stokes replaced Dearica Hamby in the starting lineup for the last three games. Stokes gave the bench more offensive punch with Hamby leading the way. But Hamby sustained an injury in her first game as a reserve, and she may not be available for a few weeks. So that scoring punch quickly vanished. 

“As she enters her fifth season in the WNBA, Wilson is hungry for hardware, and not just for herself”

Wilson may not be leading the team in scoring, but she has easily been the best and most valuable player on this team. She led the league in total rebounds, blocks, and field goals made this season. She’s been unstoppable in the paint on both ends of the floor. 

With Liz Cambage gone, Wilson plays above her size, often defending the opponent’s best big. Wilson also adapted her game to shoot more threes. She attempted just two longballs in her first four seasons in the league. This season alone, she attempted 83 threes, making 37%. The sole weakness in her game: gone.

While it’s not clear precisely what she’ll win, one must imagine she’ll add a trophy or two to her collection over the coming weeks. MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and First Team All-WNBA are all possibilities.

“New head coach [Becky] Hammon made outside shooting the focus of her new system”

In 2021, Las Vegas shot the fewest threes in the league (13.5) and made only five a game. That’s efficient, but stretching the floor was not a significant part of the offensive strategy under Bill Laimbeer.

In 2022, Las Vegas shot the third most threes in the league (26.4) and made 9.5 per game. That’s good for 36% efficiency, tied for the best in the league.

This prediction wasn’t challenging; the team sent a clear message that the offense would look different before the season. But it bodes well for first-year head coach Hammon that she implemented her system quickly and effectively.

So, what did I miss?

I missed two major storylines. They’re both in the starting lineup.

Jackie Young started the year on an MVP-level tear. Through the season’s first month, she led the team in scoring and looked like the best two-way player in basketball. But unfortunately, an ankle injury in early June sidelined her for a couple of games, and she hasn’t quite reached those heights since.

Even with a slight dip, Young consistently produces. She sits third on the team in points, rebounds, assists, and scoring efficiency and led the franchise in three-point efficiency. On defense, Young consistently guards the opponent’s best perimeter player and can challenge both guards and bigs. She’ll likely win Most Improved Player of the Year.

And where Young dipped, Chelsea Gray provided. Gray has been excellent in the second half. Since the All-Star Break, Gray averaged nearly 16 points a game, six assists, four rebounds, and almost two steals, all while shooting above 50% from the field. 

She won the Commissioner’s Cup MVP last month and scored a career-high 33 points in the final game to help clinch the No. 1 seed. Gray has led the team on and off the court all season long.

But enough looking in the rearview mirror. It’s time to look out the windshield. What lies ahead for the Las Vegas Aces?

The Road to the Trophy

The Aces face the Mercury in a best-two-out-of-three series beginning Wednesday night. Vegas won all three matchups against Phoenix this season, outscoring the Mercury by an average of 17 points. The Mercury missed wrongfully detained Brittney Griner all season, and they’ll probably be without Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi. Also, considering that Tina Charles left the team midseason, it seems Vegas will have an easy series.

But in the playoffs, anything can happen. If Vegas wants to advance, they’ll need to focus their game plan on perimeter defense, defensive rebounding, and ball movement.

In their three matchups, the Aces held the Mercury to under 30% shooting from beyond the arc. Vegas should keep their attention on hard closeouts and tight rotations.

The Aces averaged four more rebounds per game in wins than losses this year. With Hamby out, rebounding must be an intense game plan focus. Look for bigger lineups, including some combination of Wilson, Stokes, and Iliana Rupert

Vegas must work the ball around the court and find the best shot. Too often this season, players took early-shot-clock, contested threes instead of moving the ball to get paint penetration. True, the roster holds talented isolation players. But it’s also filled with gifted playmakers, including Gray, the best passer in the league. Vegas is best while sharing the ball.

The Aces have a long, challenging road ahead of them. But they’ll need to get through Phoenix before anything else.

All statistics by basketball-reference.com

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About Jack Levenberg

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