September 27, 2023
Key moments from each Aces star have Las Vegas one win from WNBA Finals
'Because you receive more when you give more'
A lot of time was spent on Tuesday in Las Vegas talking about the fact that A’ja Wilson didn’t win MVP. She was asked about it after shootaround, her teammates supported her throughout the day and Aces coach Becky Hammon even brought a notecard with stats to pregame to show that she felt Wilson deserved to be named MVP.
However, after a 91-84 win in Game 2 of the WNBA semifinals to give the Aces a 2-0 lead in the series, Wilson didn’t want to talk about the MVP race anymore. She just wanted to focus on the Aces and their quest to win another championship. Even though she didn’t win MVP, her play in the first two games of the series against Dallas is one of the biggest reasons why the Aces are one win away from the WNBA Finals.
“Really all year she’s been exceptional,” said head coach Becky Hammon of Wilson. “She got better in the offseason. I don’t know if people recognize that. She’s getting into her bag. She’s putting the ball on the floor. I mean, you got a six four bringing it all the way, dribbling, getting hit and laying it up. She’s just special. The last two months. I don’t know her numbers exactly off the top of my head. I think I already left some numbers probably laying around. But she’s been exceptional.”
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Wilson put up 30 points on Tuesday night, making her the first ever player in WNBA history to score 30 or more points in three straight playoff games. She finished the Chicago series by scoring 38, put up 34 in Game 1 and then 30 on Tuesday night. She did that on Tuesday along with 11 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal. Despite all that, the thing Wilson was most proud of from her performance was the fact that she went 10-10 from the free throw line.
Wilson has brought her game up a notch in this WNBA semifinals series against Dallas. These matchups have been one of the few times where she has been undersized compared to her opponent. Wilson has constantly been matched up against either Teaira McCowan, who is 6’7, or Natasha Howard, who is a former defensive player of the year. Despite those circumstances, Wilson has been able to flourish.
She has been really focused on using her speed to her advantage in these matchups. Throughout the first two games, Wilson has been getting out in transition and has scored a ton by running straight to the rim after getting rebounds. This was highlighted in Game 2 when she blocked Satou Sabally, got out in transition, and scored a layup on a no-look pass from Chelsea Gray.
She also has been very smart about using her athleticism to grab offensive rebounds against the bigger post players. She has grabbed six offensive rebounds over the two games and is averaging 9.5 rebounds overall during the first two games. Wilson hasn’t had anything change for her over these last few games, she has just been out there playing the game she loves.
“I’m happy to be here, I’m blessed. We played a great game,” said Wilson. “It was a good win that we needed to play and we grinded it out. It’s just a matter of me playing basketball and doing what I love…it’s playoff basketball, a lot of people wish they were where we are today. To be able to play alongside amazing athletes. I’m playing the game that I love so I wear my emotions on my sleeve especially when it comes to the game of basketball because I love it. It’s gotten me this far so I just kind of fuel it. I just try to fuel my team with energy.”
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While Wilson has been outstanding over the first two games, the Aces haven’t been able to get the wins without the contributions of her teammates. The other three members of the “Core Four” have found the right moments to make big plays when they have been needed the most.
Jackie Young got the Aces off on the right foot to start Game 1, scoring eight points and knocking down two threes. Then in the fourth quarter, after the Wings had gone on a 9-2 run, Young hit back to back threes to extend the Aces lead back to 17 and seal Game 1. On top of her offensive performance, Young has done an outstanding job of guarding Arike Ogunbowale. The Aces held Ogunbowale to just 12 points in Game 1 and while she did have 24 in Game 2, she had to take 22 shots to score those points.
“Jackie should have been on a(n all-)defensive team for sure,” Wilson said. “She has earned her way there. She’s one of the best two-way guards in our league. She guards the best guard every single night when you really look at it and still perform and still produce on the offensive side. So, she means a lot to us. She is someone that we can trust to just really make it hard for the other person. And it’s tough being on a side where defenses are geared towards me. I know how that feels. And Jackie shows up every single night. It doesn’t take a play off so she’s huge when you’re talking about the defensive end to us.”
Young has taken her matchup with her former college teammate very seriously. She has been picking up Ogunbowale very high on defense and really trying to make every look she has as difficult as possible. She punctuated her defensive effort by blocking Ogunbowale’s shot on the final possession of Game 2 to shut the door on Dallas’ comeback effort.
Kelsey Plum, meanwhile, started slowly in both Game 1 and 2 but made huge impacts in different moments in each game. In Game 1, after going scoreless in the first quarter, Plum scored 12 points in two and a half minutes stretch of the second quarter, basically trading baskets with the Dallas Wings during that stretch. This helped keep Dallas at arm’s length and her last basket forced a timeout by the Wings.
In Game 2, she scored just one point in the first half. But after Dallas had tied the game at 49, Plum exploded. She scored 10 of the Aces next 16 points to help Las Vegas go on a 16-4 run over a 3+ minute stretch. Plum has been able to knock off these slow starts in both games to have big scoring runs by herself when it has mattered most. Hammon has said she believes every shot Plum takes is going in.
“In the playoffs have learned to have a short memory, good or bad,” Plum said. “It’s just about the next play. And, we haven’t played live in a week. So a lot of those turnovers, I was just going a little too fast, or just kind of mishandled the ball. So, I think they were self-inflicted, but we’re just gonna keep playing. And I know for me that I put in the work, and I’m very confident and I know my teammates are confident in me. So, I’m always just gonna stay aggressive and just the next play good or bad, I don’t really care what happens in the past.
Chelsea Gray didn’t have her best performance in Game 1. She scored just 13 points and only had four assists. In Game 2, Gray was a different player, scoring 23 points and dishing out eight assists. Her eight assists were on top of some fancy passes she was making all over the floor to her teammates throughout the game.
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In Game 2, Gray seemed to be the soothing presence for the Aces. Multiple times in the second half, the Wings went on a run to cut a large Las Vegas lead down. Every time this happened, it was Gray who settled the Aces down and got them a good look on offense. She was constantly talking, whether she was directing traffic on offense or getting her teammates to the right spots on the floor on defense. Her presence was key for the Aces to grind out a Game 2 win.
“I try to always be that calm, weather the storm,” said Gray. “Whether it’s a game of runs, in different quarters in different moments and it’s not always scoring. It’s not always me getting an assist to my name, it’s calling the right players or just talking like this, calming everybody down, we’re still in the game. We’re still up, it’s a long game. It’s a game of runs. These athletes are great for a reason. They’re here for a reason. So just having a calming presence. It helps me as well to kind of organize my thoughts as I was coming down offensively.”
All four of the Aces stars contributed in a major way in the first two games. This is what makes the Aces so difficult to beat. They have four players who have the ability to have a few special minutes within a game. It’s hard to stop one of them, but when you have four, it’s almost impossible.
The four of them work so well together and care as much about each other’s success as their own. Wilson constantly calls them her sisters and says she would go to war with them every day if she could. This is what makes them so special, they are so humble and selfless. They are all the kind of people who will pass up individual success for team success. Because of that, it makes them extremely difficult to play against because they will always find the hot hand and the open person. They want to see each other succeed.
“It’s just who we are as people, that’s not something that you can fake,” said Alysha Clark. “Credit to everyone’s parents for bringing them up the way that they did, and for having the coaches along the way that helped instill that. We have people that who want to be great and want to be the best to ever play this game and are willing to do that. And because you receive more when you give more and so I think everybody understands that concept, not just on a basketball level, but on a life level. And that’s really special, so it’s just the character of who we are as human beings and that translates on the court as well.”
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The togetherness and strength of this Aces team has guided them to a 2-0 series lead over Dallas as the series shifts to the Lonestar state. They have gotten key moments from everyone so far over these first two games but closing this series out on the road isn’t going to be easy. They are going to be need more clutch moments from their stars if they want to advance to their second straight WNBA finals.
“It’s extremely hard to close out a team, especially a team on their home court,” said Hammon. “Some of their strengths, maybe you could call one of our weaknesses a little bit. So, there’s a little bit of a clash of strengths and weaknesses and vice versa. I think we do some things really well which pose problems for them. But it’s hard to simulate that kind of emotion that will be coming from a very angry locker room to a very locker room who you know, happy but I don’t want us to be content. You know, we still have a lot more work to do. We have a lot more basketball in front of us. I expect it to be an all-out war.”
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.