July 9, 2021 

A blueprint for how to slow down the Aces

And are we seeing another M'VP season?

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Brianna Turner defends A’ja Wilson. Photo via Twitter, @WNBA.

Look, there’s no way around it — the Aces came out flat Wednesday night in a 99-90 loss to the Phoenix Mercury. The energy just wasn’t there and, in A’ja Wilson’s own words, Phoenix wanted this win more.

Center Brittney Griner was deadly for the Mercury. Not only did she drop 33 points, she brought in 10 rebounds, dished out 5 assists, blocked a few shots and had a few successful trips to the charity stripe (5-7, 71.4%).

Pair this performance with that of Skylar Diggins-Smith, who poured on 27 points for Phoenix, including even more free throws (11-11) and you can see the Aces had a lot on their plate, even without Diana Taurasi in the game. The Mercury were able to shut them down in transition, and Vegas just never seemed to adapt.

“We can’t get hit first and then be like, ‘Oh snap okay, let’s play’ and that’s where it got caught up,” A’ja Wilson said after the game. “We can get it done… but it comes from the defensive side. We have to really understand what we’re doing on the defensive end and communication is key. That’s something that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.”

You also saw significantly less ball movement (like this play) Wednesday night, which Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer attributes to a bit of “me, me, me” creeping into the team.

Now, that’s not to say there weren’t good parts. You still had the signature Hamby hustle off the bench, clutch plays from A’ja and Vegas pressure in the paint (they outscored Phoenix there 40-22).

But there’s 40 minutes in a game, and those good parts really only shined for 10 of those minutes.

“We just didn’t have the wherewithal to get this job done tonight. We put forth a lot of energy to get back in the game, but that’s how we should’ve played the whole game instead of one quarter,” Laimbeer said. “We just laid an egg, and such is life.”

M’VP repeat?

Earlier this season, A’ja Wilson said she knew her redefined role this season likely meant she wouldn’t have a back-to-back MVP campaign. Yet somehow, she’s finding a way to keep her name in the running.

With more clutch pieces and playmakers around her, some of the pressure has been taken off Wilson’s shoulders to carry the bulk of the Aces’ weight. Her impressive run and leadership through last year’s Finals set her apart, but this is a whole new team for Vegas this year.

She’s still balling out in a big way though. Wednesday marked Wilson’s ninth double-double of the year, with 25 points and 12 rebounds. She’s also put up double-figure scoring in her last 49 consecutive regular season games (97 times in her 100-game career).

Not to mention the parts of her game she’s improved upon this season, such as her performance at the stripe (91.1% FT) and her passing ability (2.9 APG). She’s also been even more aggressive off the glass, hauling in 9.0 rebounds per game — her 171 so far are already nearly even with last year’s total (188).

There’s also things that don’t manifest themselves on the court, but still help elevate Wilson’s game.

“I’m just in a good place mentally,” Wilson said of her approach this year. “I think I really dialed in on it in the off-season that those details really matter and they can change the game in a sense.”

A multi-faceted weapon like A’ja Wilson is huge for the Aces. The combination of her leadership, selflessness and dedication to growth is a winning one.

She’s more focused on getting a ring than another MVP nod, but don’t be surprised if she’s a finalist for the honor again this year.

“I just appreciate my teammates trusting me in those situations with the basketball because at the end of the day, I’m going to try my best to be the leader for my team… whether it’s a couple points, a defensive stop or getting to the free throw line — that’s just the way I’m wired,” Wilson said. “I’m not gonna shy away from any moment, especially when it comes to this team. I’m going to try to dominate in any way that I can.”

Eyes forward

The last thing the Aces are going to do is dwell on this loss. They’ll just pick out the lessons from it and carry them into the next game.

In fact, Vegas doesn’t have any losing streaks all season.

Plus, they’ll be hungry for revenge Friday night when they face the Minnesota Lynx for the first time since the tough overtime loss to them on June 25.

“We can look back on this game and try to figure out where it went wrong, but we still have to perform — we have to show up and be locked in at all times,” Wilson said of the upcoming rematch.

The Aces will have another strong big to worry about Friday in Sylvia Fowles. Last time these two teams met, Fowles scored 30 points and had 14 boards. And let’s not forget Kayla McBride, Napheesa Collier and Layshia Clarendon, who have all had double-digit scoring efforts in each of Minnesota’s last three games.

Oh, and the Lynx are also on a five-game winning streak.

The momentum of, say, a runaway freight train may not be on the Aces’ side anymore, but if they keep their defense tight and come out aggressive from the jump, they could be the ones doing the streak snapping Friday night.

You can catch that game at 7:30 p.m. PT on ESPN3.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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