Aces say rivalry with Sun will look different by season's end

What Las Vegas can learn from their close games with Connecticut

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The Las Vegas Aces may not have gotten the revenge they were looking for against the Connecticut Sun Tuesday night, but they did learn an important lesson: Play your own basketball.

Twice the Aces have tried to morph their style to match the Sun’s, and twice they have failed, this time losing 75-67.

The Las Vegas offense looked very different from what we saw in the back-to-back bucket-fests against the Indiana Fever over the weekend. It never seemed to settle into a groove — the team finished without making a single shot from beyond the arc, and the Sun was once again plugging up the paint.

The one thing the Aces did have going for them, was a fired-up Liz Cambage, who dropped 28 points, hauled in 7 rebounds and swatted away 3 shots.

Play your way

Head coach Bill Laimbeer called this game a carbon copy of the first time the Aces faced Connecticut. He says his squad focused too much of their energy into mimicking how the Sun play rather than playing to their own strengths.

That’s not to take away from what the Sun do, or how good they are. Obviously, at 7-2, Connecticut has been excelling this season. But a team like Vegas expects more from themselves, especially against another powerful team.

When the Aces play their own way, they’re scary — as we saw against the Fever and as Cambage still managed to show us Tuesday (more on that later). But when they don’t, they look sluggish and disjointed — like we’ve seen against Connecticut and in the very first game against Seattle.

The ball handling was also a little sloppy, with the Aces committing 13 turnovers, which the Sun turned into 23 points.

“The tempo is the biggest problem I have right now for the last two games with Connecticut — we have to push the ball, that’s who we are,” Laimbeer said after the loss. “It opens up the entire offense, it gets people more distance shots, open shots. That’s just how we’re structured … When we don’t play that way, we’re a little lost.”

Despite the loss, the team is reemphasizing the same message it has all year: this is one game and it’s early. The Aces (and every other team in the league) will look very different as the season goes on. Vegas’ only focus is on building a championship team, and though it would’ve been nice to get revenge in Connecticut, that’s just not their end goal here.

The Aces won’t face the Sun again in the regular season, but they can still use what they learned in their two losses to them throughout the summer.

Particularly when they play the New York Liberty Thursday evening. This will be another tough opponent for the Aces, with weapons like triple-double queen Sabrina Ionescu, Eastern Conference Player of the Week Betnijah Laney and Rookie of the Month Michaela Onyenwere (Natasha Howard is out with a knee injury).

A winning hand for Vegas would look something like this:

  • Push the pace

  • Drive to the basket

  • Spark the offense

  • Take care of the ball

  • Communicate

Mind games

Before tip-off, Liz and Connecticut head coach Curt Miller exchanged words following the aftermath of the last game between these two teams. They were all smiles and even hugged.

Yet, Cambage was met with flooding of boos from the Sun’s crowd, from beginning to end. And she was LIVING for it.

Every foul she drew, every bucket she made, every shot she blocked Cambage handled with her signature swagger. It was impressive to see her push through swarms of white uniforms to find the basket. And she was loving every minute.

After the Fever game, Cambage had said her only focus right now is on rebounding and protecting the paint… but she poured on a season-high 28 points against Connecticut. Her defensive presence was still as important as ever, though.

“Liz has really conformed to what we’re trying to accomplish, she’s sacrificed her game in many ways,” Laimbeer said before the game. “She’s paying attention more than she ever has in the past. It’s been great improvement for her since the last time we had her — the commitment is there on her part. Liz is a very fine offensive machine, and as you can see lately, she’s swatting every shot.”

Laimbeer also touched on the one-two punch that is Cambage and A’ja Wilson. Cambage’s home is right under the basket, while Wilson is more of a perimeter player. This means they complement each other very nicely.

But, despite Wilson dropping 14 points and handing out 6 assists, it felt like Cambage was a one-woman show Tuesday night. The Aces will need more of a well-rounded effort from both the starters and the bench when they face the Liberty.

It’s impossible to deny, though, that Cambage was a blast to watch Tuesday. She thrived off the boos from the crowd, and her confidence really had a chance to shine. It’s the first real look we’ve had this season at what a threat Cambage can be on both ends of the court.

“The girls were like, ‘Was it everything with Curt that got you going tonight?’ I was like, ‘No, I hugged that man before the game, we cleared the air,’” Cambage said after the game. “But for me to come out and have the crowd boo me like that, that’s like cheering for me. That’s like adrenaline straight into my veins. So thank you, Connecticut crowd — keep booing me, I love it.”

Plum back in action?

Kelsey Plum rejoined her team in Connecticut after helping USA Basketball’s three-on-three team qualify for the Olympics in Austria, but she wasn’t able to play yet due to WNBA protocols.

Plum’s quick pace, high energy and vet experience could have made a difference against Connecticut — in a game where her team looked disjointed and flustered at times.

Obviously, we have no way of knowing if the outcome would’ve been a W or an L with her in action, but Laimbeer would’ve liked the chance to see her impact.

“It’s not an excuse for us losing the game. We could have won this game had we played our game,” Laimbeer said Tuesday night. “Kelsey pushes the ball for us, gets us going. Very energetic out there … Across the board, she really could have helped us.”

Laimbeer also expressed frustration with the seemingly haphazard rules that kept Plum out of the game, saying he wasn’t really sure why the league blocked her Tuesday. The WNBA also prevented the Aces from paying Plum while she was abroad with USAB.

“There must have been a bad protocol or something from USAB or something,” Laimbeer said before the game Tuesday. “She was being tested overseas so I don’t understand, nobody understands. It’s really kind of embarrassing how they’re brutalizing and penalizing these Olympic athletes.”

The Aces hope to have Plum back on the court in Thursday’s game against the New York Liberty, which tips off at 4 p.m. PT.