September 14, 2022 

How paint dominance helped to give the Aces a 2-0 series lead

And why A'ja Wilson is the Finals MVP frontrunner

The paint. If you ask most basketball experts and purists, it may be the most important area on a basketball court. On offense, you want to score in it. On defense, you want to protect it. In many games, your success in it is the difference between winning and losing. Coming into the 2022 WNBA finals, the Connecticut Sun had controlled the paint with their size and physicality all season long. However, that wasn’t the case in Game 2.

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The Las Vegas Aces got a commanding victory, 85-71, Tuesday night over the Sun. Their victory was in large part due to their paint dominance. The Aces outscored the Sun 46-28 around the basket. The Sun’s ability to dominate the painted area was one of things Becky Hammon wasn’t pleased about in her team’s Game 1 victory.

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The Aces dominated the paint in Game 2 in a lot of different ways. They had a ton of easy drives to the basket, many of which came from Kelsey Plum. Plum had her best game of the postseason in Game 2, scoring 20 points and adding seven assists. A lot of her points came on drives to the basket where she was just beating Sun players one on one to the rim to score. She seemed to have her first step working on Tuesday night and opened up the entire Aces offense with her drives.

“I was just very happy with our paint defense, the fact we were getting downhill in the paint offensively, obviously helped us. Again, I thought Kelsey’s drives opened us up. But yeah, that’s a huge part of the series for us is the paint,” Hammon said. “I thought the difference really in the game was Plum getting downhill. She’s fast, she’s fast with the ball. And I just wanted to use her, tell her she needed to live in the paint and we’ll live with whatever she does in there.”

Another reason the Aces dominated the paint was the play of MVP A’ja Wilson. Wilson put together another 20+ point, 10+ rebound performance, her fifth straight in these playoffs. She is the first player ever to accomplish that feat. Tonight, she was doing it in a lot of different ways. She was scoring off the bounce from the free throw line, off post-ups around the basket and finding spots for her beautiful jumper.

With her performance tonight, Wilson has solidified her case for finals MVP. Ever since her poor performance in Game 1 against Seattle in the semifinal’s series, Wilson has been on another level. She’s had the five straight 20 and 10 games, but that streak has included two games with two games of three plus and no fewer than 23 in a game. She is also shooting 50 of 77 which is 65%. This run of offensive play has been incredible for Wilson and then you remember she has been guarded by two All-WNBA first team performers who finished second and third for WNBA DPOY in Breanna Stewart and Alyssa Thomas.

“She’s just done that all season, I feel like she’s been the most consistent player. Night in and night out, offensively and defensively in this league. That’s why she’s the MVP. It’s tremendous. A lot of times when we’re watching greatness, we don’t appreciate it in live time. We have to wait until someone’s done playing but it’s absolutely a treat for basketball, people that are watching to see what she’s doing,” said Plum.

It’s not only her performance on the offensive end that has made her frontrunner for Finals MVP. She has dominated on the glass as well. Wilson again has had at least 10 rebounds in every game over the last five. She’s had double digit defensive rebounds in three of the five games. 

In these games, she is rebounding against the likes of Tina Charles, Stewart, Thomas, Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner. All of those players are listed at 6’4 or taller. Those are four of the top nine rebounders during the regular season. When rebounding, Wilson looks like she is outjumping these players for the ball. Her apex looks higher, and she is doing a good job of being strong with the ball after securing the rebound.

“I think we talk about her numbers offensively, but she’s holding it down in the paint defensively, like a two-way player through and through. Rebounding, snatching rebounds, blocking shots, having our back when I get beat. All that and she’s doing production on the offensive end. And then the last series, she played all but four minutes. So like being in shape playing both ends talking being that person like it’s all around and the stuff is still not in the stat sheets that she’s doing. And that’s when you start to start building a legacy for yourself,” Chelsea Gray said.

Not only has she been great offensively and on the glass, but she has been outstanding on the defensive end. During this five-game stretch, she has at least three blocks in three games and at least one steal in three games. She has been all over the paint defensively, protecting the rim and when not blocking shots, altering shots.

While Wilson’s defense has been incredible by the numbers, it is necessary to recognize who she has been asked to guard. In the Seattle series, she guarded Breanna Stewart, who finished just behind Wilson for MVP this year. Stewart had some amazing games, but a lot of production came when Wilson was not guarding her. In the Finals, Wilson has been guarding last year’s MVP, Jonquel Jones. Jones has scored 15 and 16 points in the two games in this series, but her presence has been felt when Wilson has been guarding her.

The last thing that really solidifies Wilson’s Finals MVP frontrunner status is the number of minutes she’s played over this stretch. She’s played at least 37 minutes in every game including two games where she played every minute, one of which went to overtime. Yet, when you watch Wilson play, she doesn’t look tired. She is out there playing with a high motor and a ton of energy on every play. She doesn’t take a play off and is competing every second she is on the floor.

Wilson’s play over these last five games is on another level. While Finals MVP looks at just what has happened in the Finals series, her play over the last five games has elevated to something we haven’t seen before from her (or nearly anyone, ever).

It’s a major reason why the Aces are one win away from their first-ever WNBA title.

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.

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