September 7, 2022
The Aces used multiple gritty performances to defeat the Storm and advance to the 2022 WNBA Finals
It was by no means easy but behind some tough performances the Aces were able to win two games in Seattle
Winning is not easy. Winning on the road is not easy. Winning on the road in the playoffs to advance to the WNBA finals is not easy. However, behind a lot of toughness and grittiness (and a little Chelsea Gray magic), the Las Vegas Aces were able to defeat the Seattle Storm three games to one and advanced to the 2022 WNBA Finals.
In what many believe to be one of the greatest all-time playoff series, the Aces were able to gut out two wins on the road to seal the series. The Aces had the best road record in the WNBA and had to fight tooth and nail to steal the two from Seattle. They only won game three after some last-second incredible out-of-bounds plays to force overtime and needed some Gray clutch shots to seal game 4.
The Aces, all season long, have been a team full of stars. They had four All-Stars, the Coach of the Year, the Most Improved Player and the Defensive Player of the Year on their roster. But, even with all the star power, it was the little things the Aces did that helped them win this series. They hit timely shots whenever Seattle got any momentum. They got stops late in games when they needed them the most. They made clutch shot after clutch shot in every situation imaginable to win these two road games. They did all the things you see from championship teams and for a franchise that has never won a championship, that is a big deal.
“It’s partly in them as competitors and then the other part is they’ve learned how to take a hit together. I mean, at the end of the day, was it Mike Tyson? Everybody has a plan until they get hit,” said Becky Hammon. “They’ve learned how to take a hit; champs have to learn how to not only throw punches, you’ve got to learn how to take punches because the punches will come. I told them you know one time during a timeout like this is the point. This is the point we either get together or we fall apart. Y’all choose who you want to be. They chose each other.”
The Aces won these two games with contributions from different players up and down their roster, but it all started with the out-of-this-world play of the Point Gawd, Chelsea Gray.
Gray was incredible in the series, averaging 25 points over the four games while shooting 59.1% from the field. She also added 8.5 assists per game in the series. While her scoring was incredible, her shot-making ability and the timeliness of her shots made her so special. Every time Seattle had momentum, here came Gray with either a made basket or an assist to one of her teammates to stop Seattle in their tracks. Additionally, the level of difficulty on some of her shots was on another level. She hit so many shots were many probably said, “there is no way she hits that.”
“I mean, this is something that’s just in her DNA. I mean, she’s just in her DNA. She is just stone-cold with the game on the line. It’s a luxury; you just put the ball in her hands and let her go to work,” said Hammon of Gray’s performance. “So the smartest thing I can do is just get me and everybody else out of the way and let her go. Especially when she’s having nights like that.”
“I mean, when Chelsea’s rocking and rolling, my biggest thing is just getting the hell out of her way. I’ve always said she’s the head of our snake. So, when she’s going, best thing is how can I make her life easier? What can I do to help her get easier looks or just dictate the game?” added A’ja Wilson about Gray. “I’ve never ever seen someone honestly, live do that and dictate the game and just stay composed and all moments like she’s built for this moment.”
The league’s 2022 MVP also stepped up her game in the two road games. After a miserable game one where A’ja Wilson scored just eight points, she responded in a big way. She scored 34 in the game three win, including a clutch basket to put the Aces up one with just seconds remaining in regulation. Then in game 4, she added 23 points and 13 rebounds and knocked down clutch free throws down the stretch to seal the game. Wilson was calm out there on the floor throughout games 3 and 4. She got to her spots offensively and found a rhythm in a difficult matchup. Not only was she being guarded by Breanna Stewart, but she also had the incredibly difficult task of trying to guard her.
“I was hot. I don’t think y’all understand how I felt after that game that was just terrible by me. It ate me up like I didn’t sleep that night. I think I figured that I just didn’t believe in myself. My confidence went away and I’ve never seen that in A’ja ever,” Wilson said of her mindset after game 1. “So after that game when I took it very, very personal to understand and realize who I am and my teammates rallied behind me and got me the basketball in my spots. And we started rocking and rolling.”
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On top of the performances of Wilson and Gray, the Aces got a huge lift from Jackie Young. Young tied game 3 with a layup as the clock expired to force overtime. Then in game 4, she added 18 points and made all her shots from behind the arc and the free throw line. All of Young’s threes in game 4 seemed to be very timely and was a great additional scorer the Aces needed in the closeout game. She also had the task of guarding Jewell Loyd throughout the series. She shut her in game three and made Loyd work hard for all her baskets in game 4.
An incredibly underrated performance was the job Riquna Williams did off the bench. The Aces were lauded for the small ball lineup they went to in game 2 of the series and Hammon was only able to do this due to the play of Williams. Williams scored 14 points in game three and hit some big shots to help keep the Storm’s momentum in check. While she only hit two baskets in game 4, they were both vital shots. Having her on the floor allowed the Aces to space the floor and created open looks for herself or her teammates.
“I told them from the very beginning the way I want to play, y’all gotta be scrappers. You’re gonna have to scrap, we’re going to have to play hard, physical, we’re gonna be small at times. So you gotta come battle, and they’re competitive,” Hammon said of her team. “I think that we had a point right after All-Star where I was like, alright y’all, we’re either going to come together, or we’re going to fall apart. We’re going to be great individuals, or we’re gonna be one frickin unbelievable team. You decide what you want to be. But last time I checked, there’s no one-on-one tournaments and they keep choosing each other as long as they do that, I like us.
At the end of the day, the Aces were able to win in Seattle due to the fight and grit they had. It wasn’t going to be easy to win two on the road, but the Aces believed in each other and gutted their way to the finals. Nothing is given to you in the playoffs and the Aces showed in this series they were ready to go get it, something championship teams do. The Aces are now battle-tested after this incredible series against Seattle and whoever they face in the finals needs to be ready for a fight.
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.