October 6, 2023
How Las Vegas Aces can win the 2023 WNBA Finals
In the super team battle everyone has been clamoring for, the Aces will need to rebound and protect the three if they want to repeat as champs
With a perfect 5-0 record in the playoffs, the Aces have advanced to their second straight WNBA Finals appearance and third in four years. Las Vegas knocked off Chicago with ease in the first round before grinding out a sweep of Dallas in the semifinals. What remains is the matchup every WNBA fan has wanted since the start of the season, a Finals series against the New York Liberty. The expectations are astronomical in what should be a high-level series.
Season Series Recap
The Aces and the Liberty split the four games with each team winning the two games on their home floor during the regular season. The Liberty also beat the Aces in the Commissioner’s Cup final in Las Vegas but since the stats don’t count towards the regular season, I won’t be referring to them when talking about any numbers from the regular season matchups. The Aces won their two games at home by 13 and 17 and lost in New York by nine and 38.
In the two games the Aces won, they won the battle in the paint. They also won the rebounding battle in the third game and only lost it by four in the first game. New York was the second-best rebounding team in the league this year and that has been an area the Aces have struggled in, especially since they lost Candace Parker to injury. In the two games they lost, they lost the points in the paint battle and got dominated on the glass, getting outrebounded by 12 and 24 respectively.
During the four games, A’ja Wilson averaged 17.3 points per game for the Aces. She was much better in the last two games of the series, scoring 21 and 23 respectively. She also had one of her worst games against the Liberty, scoring just nine points in the Aces’ 38-point loss. Jackie Young also had a lot of success against NY, averaging 17.8 points in the four games, never scoring less than 15 against the Liberty.
“I think any series that I’ve ever played in the playoffs, just kind of approached it as like focusing on what we need to do,” said Kelsey Plum. “They’re very good team obviously, they’re extremely talented at every position, and they have a ton of firepower. But, you know, you can’t get too caught up in all these different things, I think you have to focus on what got us here and what our team needs to do to win.”
Matchups to Watch
The biggest matchup of the series will be A’ja Wilson vs Breanna Stewart. The last two MVP’s will go head-to-head with each looking for another championship. Stewart won the MVP race beating Wilson, and Alyssa Thomas, by a mere 13 votes, so many expect an intense battle between the two in the finals.
In the regular season matchups, the Aces held Stewart in check, as she only averaged 18 points, five below her season average. They did make her an incredibly inefficient scorer too, as she hit scored her average of 18 while shooting 35.6% from the field. For reference, she shot 46.5% from the field during the regular season.
Stewart is a once-in-a-generation talent who can score from all three levels on the floor. Her skill is unmatched, and the Aces will have their hands full guarding her. However, they have shown an ability to make her take difficult looks and turn her into a volume scorer which can be detrimental to the Liberty. The Aces will understand that Stewart will get hers but making her take a lot of them to get to her average is the key.
Wilson was the Defensive Player of the Year in the league and has taken her defense up a notch in these playoffs. She has matched up with Stewart many times before and knows what it takes to shut her down. She will also need to continue the strong offense she’s had in these playoffs, as she’s scored at least 30 in three of the last four games.
“I think the first thing that jumps off the page to me is their competitive spirit,” said Alysha Clark on what makes Wilson and Stewart great. “They have motors that are top of the top. And that’s something that again, when you have your franchise player, when you have your best player, like you want them to have that type of motor. And then two, just their work ethic, they’re constantly in the gym, they’re always in there, there’s never a day off, outside of like rest, obviously. But like, they live in the gym, they live working on their game and just perfecting, you know, what they do, and their attention to detail in that way. So that’s been actually pretty dope to see. And that’s something that I’ve kind of like, you know, when the media asks, it’s given me a chance to kind of sit back and reflect about that. But yeah, I would say the top two for sure those things right there off top.”
The other key matchup to watch is Sabrina Ionescu vs Jackie Young. As was detailed earlier, Young had success against New York this season but Ionescu has been an Ace killer this year. She averaged 21.3 points during the four matchups while knocking down 18 triples as well. She put up 31 points and hit six threes in the second matchup of the season, the one New York won by 38.
Ionescu has the ability to get hot quickly and stay hot. She also has incredibly deep range. It will be very important for the Aces to stay connected to her at all times. Ionescu does a great job of changing speeds and using screens to get open. She also can knock down threes off the dribble as well as catch and shoot. Lastly, once she hits one, it can start an avalanche where she can knock down two or three in a matter of minutes.
Jackie Young has been the Aces’ best perimeter defender all season long, so there is a good chance she will be connected at the hip to Ionescu the majority of the time. Young will need to do her best to run Sabrina off the line and make her looks as difficult as possible. The Aces know the damage she can do, so stopping her will be a very high priority.
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Stats that will decide the series
The two stats that will decide this series are rebounding and three-point shooting. I know I sound like a broken record because these are two of the stats I talked about deciding the Dallas series but they are important to this series in different ways.
Since the Aces have been without the services of Candace Parker, they have had to rely a lot more on smaller lineups which has caused them to struggle to rebound at times this year. New York was the number two rebounding team during the regular season and the number three offensive rebounding team in the WNBA this season. As was stated earlier, in the two games the Aces lost to NY this season, they were outrebounded by a combined 36 boards. They were even outrebounded in one of the games they won.
The Aces did just come off playing the Wings, who were the best rebounding team in the league this year, so they should have attacking the boards on their mind. Having this mindset will be key as the Liberty were the second-best offense in the league this year so limiting them to one shot every possession will be vital to the Aces’ success. The Aces will need to neutralize the New York rebounding advantage if they want to win this series.
“I think protecting the paint and the boards,” said Plum. “I don’t think we strung together four quarters of it throughout each game. But when we got the opportunity to kind of clamp down and get stops and rebounds we did. And that’s a really, really big team, a really good team, very physical team. And so, a lot of those games were close and could have gone either way. So, just really proud of that, you know, we came out in the possessions we needed to, we won. And that’s what you have to do, you have to stack possessions. And I thought that our group did an incredible job when we needed to.”
Three-point shooting will be key because the Liberty shot the lights out of the basketball in the four games during the regular season. In three of the four games, NY made double-digit triples against the Aces. The Liberty were the number one team in the WNBA when it came to three-point shooting, knocking down an average of 11 triples per game.
The Liberty shot 38.4% from beyond the arc against the Aces this year, which is 1% above their season average from downtown. In the second game against the Aces, the Liberty knocked 17 triples, tying a season-high and something they actually did four times during the regular season. New York led the WNBA in points from the three-point line at just over 37%.
The Liberty have an offense that can kill you from all over the floor. They can kill you inside and out and the Aces will have their hands full defending them. The Liberty seem to always have five players on the floor who all have the ability to knock down the three. The Aces will need to always be cognoscente of the three-ball and then put a body on someone to box out New York. If they do these things, they will greatly increase their chances of winning the championship.
X-Factor for the Aces
The X-Factor for Las Vegas is Alysha Clark and the Aces bench as a whole. The starters for the two teams are about even so it will come down to who can get more out of their bench. Clark won Sixth Player of the Year but the rest of the Aces bench behind her will need to pick up the slack. The Liberty have Kayla Thornton, Marine Johannès, and Stefanie Dolson, all of whom bring different things to the NY lineup and create a different look for opponents.
The Aces will need to try to get some of the same things from their bench. In the games the Aces won, Clark averaged seven points and they also got a small contribution from Kierstan Bell and Cayla George. Even in the fourth game, which they lost, Sydney Colson played some good minutes which sparked a stint in the regular rotation for her but that hasn’t continued into the playoffs.
Becky Hammon didn’t play her bench outside of Clark a whole lot in the series against Dallas. We will see how much she trusts them and whether she can get some contribution from them. If they can add some scoring and give the starters a few minutes of rest here and there, it will go a long way to the Aces securing a Finals victory.
“They’ve been important to us all year. I think our bench is great,” said Jackie Young of the bench. “You know, led by AC. I mean, she’s been a starter in this league. She is a starter you know, and they’ve been ready all year. They have a lot of energy. I mean, you can see them like during the games and they just come in ready. They stayed ready this whole the whole year. And so we know we can count on them and we trust them whenever they do come in the game.”
Who has the Offensive and Defensive advantage?
The simple answer to this question is neither. Both of these teams were top two in offensive rating and the Aces were first in defensive rating while New York was third. These teams are very close on both sides of the ball but there are some small areas each has an advantage.
Offensively, the Aces have an advantage when it comes to getting to the free-throw line. The Aces were fourth highest in the league in free throws attempted while New York was 10th. Las Vegas averaged nearly three more attempts from the charity stripe per game than the Liberty. That could be huge in a series many expect to be almost even. The Aces also took better care of the ball, averaging just below 12 turnovers per game while New York gave the ball away 14 times per game. A couple of extra possessions in a series like this could go a long way to deciding it all.
New York meanwhile not only has an advantage from beyond the arc, which we detailed earlier, but they also have an advantage when it comes to sharing the ball. The Liberty were the number-one team in assists per game this year. The Aces were second but the margin between them was 2.4 assists per game. Both teams share the ball well but making the extra pass to an open teammate will be huge in a series full of shot-makers.
“We know that their defense is going to be aggressive, they’re gonna be up, pressuring us,” said Young of the New York defense. “I think for us, it’s just taking care of the ball. And you know, just being unselfish, coach talks a lot about good to great. You might have a good shot, but your teammate might have a better shot, you know, so just trying to work for the best possible shot.”
Defensively, the Aces were great at creating havoc. They were number three in the league in steals and number one in blocked shots. They were also number three in points off turnovers, averaging 17 points from opponents’ mistakes. The Aces will need to find ways to slow down the Liberty high-powered offense. Taking the ball from them and turning it into points will be massive for Las Vegas.
For New York, the Liberty have a huge advantage when it comes to rebounding. They were the number-one defensive rebounding team in the league this year. They also weren’t bad at blocking shots as they ranked fourth in the league in that category. Their ability to dominate the glass will go a long way to helping them win their first-ever WNBA championship.
These two teams are incredibly talented and even though the games between them haven’t been close, the margin between the two is razor-thin. These are two teams full of stars and both have the capability to win the series. The Aces having home-court advantage and returning the same core group from last year’s championship run is what gives them the slight edge in my book. I also think the way the Aces’ defense has rounded into form during the playoffs will play a big role in this series. Aces in five games is my prediction in a series that seems to be a coin toss either way.
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.