May 18, 2021 

‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’: Aces remain confident after dropping season opener

Tighter defense and more shooting pressure will be key in Tuesday's rematch against Seattle

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Liz Cambage jumper. Photo by Abbie Parr, via Las Vegas Aces.

The Aces started their season opener against the Seattle Storm pretty strong — jumping out to a nine-point lead, 17-8 in the first quarter. A’ja Wilson decided to throw in her first-ever three-pointer as a pro just to add some extra spice.

But from there, Vegas seemed disjointed and jittery throughout the rest of the game, losing 97-83. But the season is a marathon, not a sprint — and Wilson, for one, doesn’t sound worried.

“It’s just something we have to feel, we have to go through and practice and do — but I feel like once we get there we’ll be good,” Wilson said after the game. “We’ve got to gel and we’ve got to mesh … It’s going to take time, but that’s the biggest thing for us.”

The Storm came out hot in the second quarter, kicking things off with a 19-6 run and leading by as many as 14. This, followed by a 10-0 run by Seattle to start the third, and you could see the game start to slip away from the Aces.

Working with a new hand

I’m not denying the Aces are absolutely stacked on paper, but it’s going to take some time for them to actualize that greatness on the court. And you can’t really put a timetable on that.

Only four active players on this year’s roster played for Vegas last season: Wilson, Jackie Young, Dearica Hamby and Emma Cannon. Other key pieces like Kelsey Plum, Liz Cambage, Riquna Williams and Chelsea Gray are going to take some time to mesh together with the Aces’ system.

The team doesn’t really know each other yet, and that’s why we saw some miscommunication and disjointedness in Saturday’s game.

A common theme when hearing from every single one of these players, and even head coach Bill Laimbeer, is that the number one path to success over the span of the season is going to be communication and team chemistry.

The parts are there, now it’s time to build the whole.

Chelsea Gray dribbling. Photo by Abbie Parr, via Las Vegas Aces.

Now, things are about to get even bumpier because Plum is about to head off with USA Basketball to a three-on-three qualifier tournament overseas. She’s slotted to play in Seattle Tuesday night, but after that will likely miss six games.

This throws a wrench into that team chemistry and how these players start to learn each other and build up their trust in each other on the court. But for Plum, the focus is on doing anything she can to help give her team an edge, even if that means helping newcomers, like rookie Destiny Slocum, feel like they can step up and get the job done when she’s gone.

“In practice, if I don’t play the way I would play in a game against her, then I’m doing her a disservice as a teammate,” Plum said of Slocum. “I think she’s done a phenomenal job, she’s come in and she’s been in great shape… She really makes sure she studies the plays, so I have confidence when Coach calls her number she’ll be ready.”

Plum is also adjusting to filling in a different type of role and says her focus is on being super aggressive off the bench and provide an extra spark of energy (and buckets).

Another new-but-not-really-new Ace is Cambage, who is working to learn the system and to get in shape. Despite scoring double figures for the 99th time in her career (16 points), Cambage felt her jitters got the best of her Saturday.

“If you don’t come out with nerves, it means you don’t care about it,” she said after the game.

Once the Aces shake their collective jitters and start to mesh together on the court, it’s going to be a beautiful thing.

Finding the win in a loss

The fact of the matter here is the Seattle Storm is very good at basketball.

And this is a tough opening series for Vegas:

  • It’s a rematch of the 2020 Finals that saw Seattle sweep Vegas

  • The first two games of the year are on the road in Seattle

  • The Aces are practically a brand new team, still learning how to vibe with each other on the court

  • Even though the Storm made some changes this off-season, their core group is still very strong and very familiar with each other

The difference between these teams was glaring at times in the opening game. Seattle was so smooth — you could tell they just knew where each other was and what they could do with the ball at any time.

The Aces’ defense looked spotty, and it’s an area that could use some attention as they look to rebound with a win Tuesday night. The Storm made 50.7 percent of their shots, including 12-of-27 threes compared to Vegas’ 3-for-12 from beyond the arc.

The difference makers for the Aces on Tuesday will be better execution on defense, and piling on more shooting pressure. Particularly important: shutting down the Storm’s dynamic duo of Breanna Stewart and Jewell Lloyd. Stewie was unstoppable Saturday, boasting 28 points, while Lloyd poured on 22 points of her own.

Kelsey Plum guarding Sue Bird. Photo by Abbie Parr, via Las Vegas Aces.

Typically the Aces are known for carving out a path to the charity stripe, leading the league in free throw attempts in each of the last two seasons. But over their last four meetings, the Storm have taken 12 more free throws than Vegas (99-87), including a 15-12 edge in this season opener.

While this is a tough opening match-up for Vegas, it’s arguably the best one to whip the team into shape quickly. A challenging opponent is going to force you to bear down and play better basketball.

To be a championship team, you have to beat a championship team.

The long haul

The Aces are in no rush to perfect their game. They know what they’re capable of, and they understand what it’s going to take to get there.

Each player is taking a selfless and patient approach to building up a winning team. Some players are learning new roles and some are getting back in the groove of playing in the W.

“I think there’s just so much versatility with this team in general, so being able to be flexible and have me as an option to do that lineup I think adds another dimension to our team,” Dearica Hamby said of her new spot in the three. “It’s going to take some time to get used to, but it’s a pretty big lineup.”

The versatility of the Aces’ roster is one of their strongest assets, they just need to learn how to use it best.

A’ja Wilson. Photo by Abbie Parr, via Las Vegas Aces.

In Laimbeer’s own words this is Game One and “we’re going to be just fine.”

The Aces will take on the Storm again on Tuesday at 7 p.m. PT, and you can catch that game on ESPN2.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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