August 17, 2022
What the Aces need to do to advance to their fourth straight WNBA semifinals
While Phoenix knocked Las Vegas out of last year's playoffs this season's opening round series has a much different feel to it
The four words we have been longing to hear since the WNBA season started are finally true: the playoffs are here. The Aces will face off against the Phoenix Mercury in the first round beginning on Wednesday night in Las Vegas. The Aces were 3-0 this season against the Mercury, but they haven’t faced them since May 21st. So what will it take for the Aces to beat the Mercury and advance to their fourth straight WNBA conference finals?
While the Aces won all three matchups against Phoenix earlier this year, this is a very different Mercury team than they faced in May. Three-fifths of the Mercury’s starting five from those early season games won’t be available for Phoenix in game one. Diana Taurasi remains out with a quad injury; Skylar Diggins-Smith is not with the team right now and Tina Charles is now starting at center for the Seattle Storm. While Phoenix is missing some weapons, they are still a playoff team and the Aces will need to bring the defense they have played in the second half of the season to the series.
“They are just a completely different team, across the board, but I can say the same about us. When it comes to schemes, when it comes to personnel, we’re a different look as well. Of course, you have to pay attention to the first couple because we played them and it’s the plays they run but now that it’s playoffs you have to pay attention to tendencies, you have to pay attention to personnel as a whole,” said A’ja Wilson.
The Mercury are led right now by two strong guards in Diamond DeShields and Shey Peddy. Peddy and DeShields combine averaged 26 points in the three matchups earlier this year. They are both excellent guards who thrive in using their quickness to score at the rim. Jackie Young, the Aces’ best perimeter defender, spent most of the three-game regular season guarding Taurasi and shut her down for the most part. It will be interesting to see who she guards in the series, but I would expect she will start on DeShields.
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The other player playing well right now for Phoenix is Sophie Cunningham. Cunningham is having a breakout season and her size and ability to shoot from the perimeter can make her difficult to guard. In addition, her offensive game has grown drastically as she has increased her scoring average from 5.6 last year to 12.6 this year. In her last 15 games, she is averaging 15.7 points and has scored in double figures 16 times since the all-star break, including a 36-point game against Minnesota. I would expect the Aces will have Wilson guard her and use her length to bother Cunningham.
Lastly, the Aces will have to focus on guarding the three-point line. The Mercury were second in the WNBA in threes attempted per game and fourth in threes made per game. The Aces’ defense struggled a lot this year guarding the arc, with opponents shooting 35.6% from deep against Las Vegas. Three players on Phoenix were in the top 22 in threes made this season, but one, Taurasi, will not play in this series. However, the Mercury have shown they can make their outside shots and if they get hot, it could cause the Aces some trouble.
“The number one thing was their threes and the ability they have to shoot deep from the three. They have really good shooters so if we are hard on defense and we cut what they like the most, which is threes, it’s going to be hard for them,” said Iliana Rupert.
A significant factor in this series is that many of the Aces’ key role players didn’t play in the regular season matchups. Kiah Stokes and Riquna Williams each only played in one of the three matchups, while Rupert hasn’t played at all against Phoenix. Those three players have been major contributors for the Aces down the stretch of the season. Stokes is now starting in the middle, while Williams has returned to form as a microwave bench scorer after missing a lot of the early part of the year with an injury.
Rupert will be a very important player for the Aces as they will need someone to help replace the production of Dearica Hamby. Hamby will most likely remain out for the entire first-round series against Phoenix as she injured her knee against Atlanta on Aug. 9th. She was very effective in those games against Phoenix in the regular season averaging 16.7 points and six rebounds against the Mercury. Las Vegas will need the likes of Rupert, Theresa Plaisance and Kierstan Bell to step up off the bench and help make up for some of the production lost without Hamby.
“From my experience, it’s the defense because now that you are in the playoffs, it’s the best teams on offense. Everybody is good, and everybody has talent, but the number one thing to secure the title is defense. The last few games we were intense and getting stops, so I hope that continues in the playoffs.” Rupert said.
Offensively, the Aces will need to continue to do what they have done all season long. Las Vegas was the number one scoring team in the league averaging 90.4 points per game and in the three regular-season matchups, they averaged a whopping 97 points. Between Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray, Young and Wilson, the Aces have so many weapons that anyone can go off on any night. I don’t think Phoenix will be able to stop Las Vegas as long as the Aces don’t fall victim to the turnover bug. Expect the Aces to continue to put up gaudy offensive numbers in this series.
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Finally, the Aces will want to try and crash the offensive glass hard. The Mercury averaged giving up almost ten offensive rebounds per game. While the Aces were second to last in the league in offensive rebounds, they should have a size advantage against Phoenix. The Mercury’s two frontcourt starters are listed at 6’1 and 6’3 as compared to Stokes and Wilson, who are 6’3 and 6’4, respectively. If the Aces can gain a few extra possessions in each game, it will go a long way to avenging the knockout blow Phoenix delivered them in last year’s playoffs.
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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