October 12, 2023
Why are the Las Vegas Aces playing their best basketball in the WNBA Finals?
'When they're locked in and rested, I like us'
LAS VEGAS — Going into the WNBA finals, the conventional wisdom had this series as a toss-up between the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces. However, through two games, the Aces have been the superior team in a multitude of ways, and that was the case on Wednesday night in a 104-76 victory. In the process, the Aces played their best all-around game of the season.
“I thought we played great tonight,” said Becky Hammon. “The character of this team, their absolute buy-in to the person to their left or right’s success is authentic. And it’s tough to deal with when you share the ball and people are skilled and competitive. I mean, we were good tonight. They don’t leave me speechless very often, but they executed defensively. Offensively shared it. Everything we’ve been asking them to do.”
On Wednesday night, the Aces came out of the gates with a bang, outscoring the Liberty 19-2 over the first 4:38. The Aces knocked down four threes over that stretch and as each basket went in, Michelob Ultra Arena got louder.
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The Liberty responded in the second quarter but out of the halftime break, the Aces once again put their foot on the gas and floored it. They turned an eight-point halftime lead into 22-point lead over a stretch of five minutes and 20 seconds. During that stretch, they outscored the Liberty 17-3. That was the game, they went on to win by 28 with the Liberty never really feeling like they were in the game for more than five minutes.
“I think it’s our defense,” said Jackie Young on their third-quarter success. “Just getting stops, being locked in on the defensive end and executing our defensive schemes. Whenever we get stops, we’re able to play in transition and play at the pace we want to play.”
Besides that stretch in the second quarter, the Aces played the best all-around game they’ve played all year and possibly of the entire Becky Hammon tenure. However, this isn’t a one-game anomaly. The Aces have been playing at this high level this since the playoffs began. They have won every single one of their playoff games so far this postseason. In fact, besides Game 3 against Dallas in the semifinals, the Aces have won every postseason game by multiple possessions and five by double figures.
This Aces team was dominant early in the season. But then they lost Candace Parker midway through the year and the armor started to show some cracks with some losses in the month of August. They had every opportunity to quit with the injuries and the tough road trips, but they didn’t. They weathered the rough patch together and despite having a consistent rotation of just six players, the Aces have come to this postseason and played at the highest level it has all year.
“It’s a blessing. Were a group that has been together for a little while,” said Wilson of her team. “We’ve been through the highs, the lows, the rollercoaster that this game brings us and I think it’s just a beautiful thing to watch it unfold and flourish. We’ve been in those locker rooms where I know, these four have my back when I was crying. And I would go to war for these girls. And so at the end of the day to see us where we are now and to understand where we came from never losing sight of that, that’s what’s building us to have this championship culture and identity that we’re trying to build here.”
The thing the Aces have been so much better at this postseason is their defense. In the regular season, opponents scored an average of 80 points against the Aces. So far in the playoffs, they’ve held opponents under 80 in all but two of their seven games. In the finals alone, the Aces have held the Liberty, the second-best offense during the regular season, to an average of 80 points. That is nine points below their average.
Watching the Aces on defense over the last two games, you can see how locked in they are. They are flying around, making the second and third effort and forcing the Liberty to work for every look. The Liberty haven’t had a lot of them, especially from three, where they made a lot of their money during the regular season.
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During the second quarter of Game 2, Jonquel Jones was killing the Aces, using her size to dominate the glass, grabbing offensive rebounds, and scoring around the basket. In the second half, the Aces made an adjustment, putting Wilson on her. At half Jones had 19 points, but she finished the game with 22. While Wilson is a phenomenal defender, it was a team effort — doubles and digs from the Aces guards to make Jones life difficult.
Sabrina Ionescu presented problems for Las Vegas during the regular season but so far in the two WNBA Finals games she has averaged just 8.5 points. Ionescu killed the Aces with her threes during the regular season but she has only knocked down three in the series.
It isn’t just Ionescu, the Aces have made life difficult on many of the stars they have faced in these playoffs. They held Arike Ogunbowale to 18 points, Satou Sabally to 11.3 and Marina Mabrey to 9.5. They have been stifling on the defensive end from the first tip of their postseason run.
“I thought you know, when we’re great defensively, we’re great offensively,” said Hammon. “That’s the whole key. And I thought in that second quarter, when they made their little, punched us in the nose a little bit — I thought we stopped doing the little things defensively. Mainly, the paint and the boards — physicality, we started letting them loose. So those are things that we have in our control. So, I felt like if we can control those little aspects of the game, we’ll get the ball back and be able to run. But the defense was superb.”
It hasn’t just been the defensive end where the Aces have thrived. In the first two games of this series, the Aces are averaging 101.5 points. The Aces had one of the best offenses in WNBA history during the regular season and they still averaged eight points less than they have put up so far in the finals. They also become the first team to ever shoot at least 50% from the floor and 40% from three in the first two games of a Finals.
Key to that first quarter run was phenomenal ball movement and intentionality to get great shots. The Aces assisted on their first eight baskets of the game, capped off by a Chelsea Gray three she knocked down at the buzzer with every Ace on the floor touching the ball as it moved from one side to another. This is when the Aces’ offense is at its best.
Everyone knows the Aces can score; however, they play their best basketball when they are sharing the ball. When they have struggled offensively, it because the ball sticks and they try to play a lot of one-on-one. In the finals so far, the Aces have an assist percentage of 72%. This is 7% higher than the Aces’ rate during the regular season. In fact, coming into this series, this was an area the Liberty had an advantage in, since they were the number one team in the league in assist percentage while the Aces ranked eighth.
“I know for us it’s an emphasis to play with each other make each other better,” said Plum. “So moving, moving the ball. And then you know getting them in rotations and you know, we trust all of this, all of us to make the right read and when whoever it is, is gonna knock it down. We have a lot of faith in each other like that. So, I think it’s just a testament of playing team ball.”
The biggest thing to the Aces success has always been that they have a group that cares more about team success then individual success. That has been highlighted in these playoffs. Wilson had a stretch of three games with at least 30 points. However, in these finals, the Aces have seen Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum shine. Young is averaging is 25 points while Plum is averaging 24.5.
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That is what makes this Aces team so dangerous. A lot of star players would demand to have the ball all the time, but not the Aces. It all starts with Wilson. As Hammon has said, she is the easiest superstar to coach because she celebrates her teammates’ success more than her own. She sets the tone for this team but every single one of the players on this team is bought into the idea of team over me. It is ingrained into the culture of the franchise now.
The Aces have taken their game to an even higher level this postseason. It has shown in the first two games of the Finals. This was supposed to be a competitive series. The two super teams squaring off. That hasn’t been the case. When asked what the biggest reason why the Aces have taken their play to another level in the postseason, Becky Hammon had a simple answer.
“We’re rested and they’re focused 100%,” she said. “It’s pretty basic. When they’re locked in and rested, I like us.”
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.