October 18, 2023 

Shorthanded Las Vegas Aces found answers in Game 4

How sheer will propelled the Aces to victory

BROOKLYN — A’ja Wilson stood calmly along the baseline on the Las Vegas Aces’ side of the court, pacing softly on the balls of her feet, before her team’s unfamiliar lineup was announced to soft boos and she pulled her teammates into a hug, an intimate huddle that lasted for a large part of the New York Liberty’s light show introduction Wednesday night at Game 4 of the WNBA Finals.

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For Wilson, the overwhelming operating mode on the court Wednesday night was that of needing to do it all. Several times in Las Vegas’ first few possessions, Wilson ran the point, like a tribute to her fallen teammate, Chelsea Gray. She’s still A’ja Wilson, so her ability to control the game at times came through the newly-designed Aces rotation.

But the effects of losing both Gray and Kiah Stokes were clear at both ends of the floor. The changing gravity quickly mattered. Help defense for Jonquel Jones, guarding Wilson, turned what would have been a one-on-one into a trap turnover, and at the other end, Sabrina Ionescu had her cleanest look of the series without a full complement of Aces guards to stay close to her, nailed it, and Hammon called a timeout, Liberty up 11-9.

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A series of substitutions followed, Hammon throwing the “kitchen sink” she promised pregame. Kierstan Bell gave way to Sydney Colson, the latter attacking the Liberty immediately on a shot fake of Ionescu, drive and finish at the rim, and some words for Ionescu on her way back down the floor.

But the lack of connectivity was clear — six turnovers in the first six minutes, eight by the end of the first quarter. Wilson went to the bench late in the first, as much to preserve her as to navigate her two fouls, and the Aces didn’t get a shot off on their final possession of the first quarter without her.

Meanwhile, the Liberty, while getting more of the shots they wanted, missed numerous shots at the rim, the Aces doing just enough to bother New York into missed shots. Young found a cutting Wilson and suddenly Las Vegas turned a 23-13 first-quarter deficit into a one-point game, 29-28.

The limitations of this approach reasserted themselves late in the first half. At one end, the Aces swung the ball, finding not one of their stars, but Cayla George, who was all but invited to take another three, one she missed badly. Back the other way, the Aces did the same, but instead, it landed in the hands of Courtney Vandersloot, a look of grim understanding on Wilson’s face as she ran out at the Liberty shooter buried her third three of the half. After New York got a good look for Jones right at the rim and the Liberty center overwhelmed the Las Vegas defense to finish, New York extended its lead at the half to 39-30.

By the third quarter, George had hit her third three — on ten attempts — while the Liberty largely shut off access from the Las Vegas guards to Wilson, though she reached double figures in points just beyond the halfway point in the period with a free throw line jumper. it was just the tradeoff New York had schemed for — Cayla George, shooting from deep more often than A’ja Wilson attempted around the rim.

It took continued heroic efforts on the defensive end, though, and a combination of Liberty misses at the rim and max effort from the Aces kept the game just messy enough to remain in doubt.

Kelsey Plum‘s effort was a prime example of this. Asked to do most of the playmaking when the plan wasn’t Point A’ja, Plum missed eight of her first ten shots, but collected seven rebounds before the end of the third quarter, serving as a tiny power forward when the situation called for it, racing out beyond the three-point line to space the floor after giving up the ball on other possessions.

And Hammon corrected on offense, finding creative ways to get Wilson the ball. By the end of the third, Las Vegas, improbably, held the lead, Wilson had 18 and 14, Plum hadn’t come out of the game for a moment. Sydney Colson committed her fifth foul in ten minutes, a virtual mirroring of the joking “backpack defense” she and Hammon had talked about during practice this week.

The Las Vegas defense forced Stewart to miss ten of her first 13 shots. Jones had been a nonfactor for the first time in the entire postseason, 2-for-6 for four points, stopped by the Defensive Player of the Year in Wilson. It was working. The Aces got the rock fight they needed and were a quarter from another championship.

So once Jackie Young finished strong at the rim, then sank a three to quiet the New York crowd, Brondello called a timeout, Las Vegas extending to its largest lead of the game, 60-53, with 8:19 left.

Everyone on the Aces was physically supporting each other. Hammon all but carried Plum back onto the floor, her arm around her extension on the floor. Colson pushed Wilson playfully back onto the floor following the timeout. Everyone could see the mountaintop, steep but within reach.

And just like that, New York came to life. Betnijah Laney drove the lane and finished, unwilling to let her team fail to take advantage of an Aces team that had exerted all its effort. A long miss from Plum led directly to a transition three, Stewart finding Ionescu. As Stewart had pointed out pregame: “If we’re able to get stops defensively and get into our flow, it won’t matter how they set it up.”

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Soon it was tied. Colson returned despite the five fouls. Broken plays abounded on both ends, Plum racing to make something of nothing, bodies everywhere. A team that set league highs in offensive and defensive efficiency was left with only will.

Young kept attacking the rim, hitting a layup, then, after an Ionescu mental mistake led to a turnover thrown out of bounds into the hands of now-retired Sue Bird sitting courtside, heading back to the rim and drawing a foul once more. She sank both free throws and the Aces led 68-64. Stewart missed a wide-open three.

And when A’ja Wilson took on Jonquel Jones one-on-one, the outcome was seemingly preordained, Wilson’s patented mix of feints, hops and a rise and fire from eight feet out extending Las Vegas’ lead to 70-64 and settling a sense of doom over the New York crowd.

The Liberty weren’t done, though. A three from Vandersloot, a pull-up from Ionescu, and suddenly the lead was one. Syd Colson screened for Jackie Young — not enough. A timeout with three left on the shot clock with 20.2 seconds left — Hammon’s final one. The kitchen sink. Would the Aces or the game end first?

An improbable interior pass out of the timeout from Cayla George (!) to Wilson at the rim, but three Liberty players denied her the hoop, Jones blocking her. And then: one more defensive stop, an air ball at the buzzer from Vandersloot at the buzzer. A totally fatigued Aces team collapsed in a heap at the center circle, before Wilson rose, first, out of the pile, and pointed at Dawn Staley, her college coach, the two eventually meeting and embracing, Wilson lifting her into the air and then collapsing into sobs of joy in Staley’s arms.

It wasn’t anything like the Aces who had raced through the 2023 WNBA season. But on Wednesday night, it was enough.

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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