Aces win a test of wills, advance to the WNBA Finals
Las Vegas arrives on the biggest stage in year three of Laimbeer’s three-year plan
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PALMETTO, FL - SEPTEMBER 27: A'ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces shoots free throws against the Connecticut Sun at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Las Vegas Aces found a way to punch their ticket to the 2020 WNBA Finals. But this was far from an easy trek for the No. 1 overall seed. The Aces trailed two games to one in this best-of-five semifinal series with the Connecticut Sun, and Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby was sidelined by a knee injury.
Fittingly, Tuesday’s winner-take-all Game 5 was a grind-it-out affair. The Aces prevailed, led by A’ja Wilson’s 11 points in the fourth quarter, after trailing by as many as 16 in the first half.
“As in any playoff series, especially when it comes to the deciding game with two teams that are just going at each other, it becomes a test of wills,” Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer told reporters postgame. “Tonight was no exception. You know, it wasn't the prettiest game, especially down the stretch, but both teams were getting stops. Both teams were getting rebounds. We dug out a lot of loose balls. The big plays were made by A’ja Wilson going to the free-throw line attacking the basket.”
Wilson single-handedly outscored the Sun 11-9 in the fourth quarter, including the final points on the game on back-to-back trips to the foul line in the final two minutes. Connecticut went cold, shooting just 4-for-17 from the field and 0-for-6 on 3-pointers. Carolyn Swords played all but 13 seconds in the fourth and was the only other member of the Aces to score in the final 10 minutes.
“When the fourth quarter came I just knew I had to flip the switch and just give it all I got,” Wilson said. “Leave it on the floor. I felt like I did that. The job’s still not done. I got a lot, a lot, a lot of help from Carolyn. Carolyn did a huge job for us, just a great job. So I can't credit it all for myself. It was a team effort for sure.”
The 2020 MVP delivered in crunch time of a Game 5 to carry the Aces across the finish line to close out a physical and intense five-game series with the Sun. Wilson drove left and got to the rim for her lone made field goal of the fourth. She drove right and missed on the following possession, but Swords was there for the putback. Wilson earned three more trips to the line on three of the team’s next four possessions to give the Aces a one-point lead: driving right, driving left, then running hard to post up in transition.
Neither team scored for nearly four straight minutes until Alyssa Thomas broke the silence with a floater approaching the 2:30 mark. After both teams traded missed jumpers, the Sun committed two costly fouls that sent Wilson to the line as the Aces were in the bonus by that point.
With both teams struggling mightily to score, Connecticut sent the league MVP to the line twice in the final two minutes for what ended up being the final points of the game. The floater by Thomas put the Sun up 63-62, and Wilson made all four of her free throws. Laimbeer praised Wilson postgame for how much she has grown just three seasons into her WNBA career.
“She has matured tremendously as a person and as a basketball player,” he said. “She is a professional basketball player and the reigning MVP of the WNBA. She gets it. In the first half, you watch them try to double or triple team her and she found the right people. She didn't have that the last two years; she has it now—her patience. The coaches or the players will say that the game slows down for you when you get it. She gets it. The game has slowed down for her. She understands her responsibilities. She knows when to make her mark and when to take over a game. And you can't say enough about her. Her growth in year three is phenomenal.”
Connecticut and Las Vegas certainly did not light up the scoreboard in this series. A Game 5 shaping up to be more of a defensive struggle is hardly a surprise. More broadly, this series featured two of the league’s top defenses.
Both offenses were working with a congested lane. Racking up points in the paint and trips to the foul line is a massive part of the Aces’ winning formula. Meanwhile, the Sun failed to loosen the Las Vegas defense up from the perimeter. After ranking 11th in 3-point percentage (31.2) in the regular season, the Sun shot just 29 percent from deep in this series.
“Both teams played defense, and no one could score,” Laimbeer said. “That's a test of wills. That's what happened today. I said it was an ugly basketball game but it was a pretty basketball game because our team learned a tremendous amount about themselves. We didn't give up when we were down early. We kept playing...We just grinded it out. And we learned a lot. Now it's on to the next series.”
With Hamby sidelined, late-season signing Emma Cannon has moved up a spot in the rotation. She logged a team-high 20 minutes off the bench in Games 4 and 5 combined as the third big behind Swords and Wilson. Swords must also consistently log more minutes because of Hamby’s absence, and the nine-year veteran came through, setting season-highs in minutes in back-to-back games: 27 in Game 4 and 31 in Game 5.
“Big shout out to Carolyn Swords,” Laimbeer said. “She came up big time. You won't see her name in the scoring stats. But rebounding and playing defense she was dead solid tonight, especially in the second half. I think it was just one of those games where both teams knew each other and you just had to figure out any way shape or form to win. I also think both teams were tired. There’s no question about that. Both teams played heavy, heavy starter minutes. I think that contributed to our holding them to 18 points [in the second half].”
With the 2020 WNBA Finals tipping on Friday, the Aces get two full days to recuperate and prepare for the matchup with the Seattle Storm, the No. 2 overall seed in these playoffs. The Aces won their two regular-season meetings to secure the No. 1 spot as both teams finished the regular season with 18-4 records.
The Storm were popular preseason Finals picks as they entered the season healthy after 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart (Achilles) and starting point guard Sue Bird (knee) each missed the entire 2019 season. Their hopes of defending their 2018 championship took a fatal blow with those absences, but they’re back on that stage now.
Bird (knee) did not play in either regular-season meeting between the two teams, and Stewart (foot) missed the second. Both teams were locked into the top two spots heading into that second meeting. To their credit, the Aces still won that second tilt even as Laimbeer opted to rest Angel McCoughtry, who did not return after playing a five-minute stint to start that game.
In a sense, this Finals matchup should feel new. It will look much different than the regular season matchups because of who is (and isn’t) available. Sami Whitcomb, one of Seattle’s top reserves, will not play in these Finals. The Storm announced earlier this week that Whitcomb has left IMG Academy to return to Australia to be with her wife for the birth of their first child.
Laimbeer noted postgame on Tuesday that he expects to rely more on Cannon or on the combination of McCoughtry and Jackie Young at the 4 in some smaller lineups to account for Hamby’s absence.
“We know them, they know us,” Laimbeer said. “Dearica won’t be here. Gonna hurt us a little bit. Gives us an extra body to put on [Stewart]. But at the same time, we have what we have. Put Cannon in the game and play small ball—put Angel at the 4 or Jackie at the 4, or pick any of the above. We've just gotta find a way to be competitive and win games. You saw we’re a competitive bunch. The mental toughness of this ballclub this year compared to—last year we started to get it, we learned. The mental toughness of this ballclub is outstanding. And a large part of that I attribute to Angel McCoughtry.”
McCoughtry was sensational in Game 4, scoring a game-high 29 points on 13-of-22 shooting, including 7-of-7 shooting in the third quarter to help the Aces separate and take an 11-point into the fourth quarter. After signing with the Aces this past offseason as an unrestricted free agent, McCoughtry will return to the Finals for a fourth time—10 years after her first trip where she squared off with, you guessed it, Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm.
“You just don't know what I've been through when I was out [with an ACL tear suffered late in the 2018 season],” McCoughtry said. “It was tough. And to come back to be able to contend for a championship. It's emotional for me. It's amazing. And I really thank the Aces organization for believing in me because I had never been through an injury.”
Laimbeer has constantly referred to his three-year plan for the franchise since moving on from his role as head coach of the New York Liberty to begin in his current role with the Aces back in the fall of 2017. Three years later, here he is, with the Aces in the WNBA Finals.
The franchise, then known as the San Antonio Stars, relocated after the 2017 season. The current team includes several San Antonio holdovers: Hamby, assistant coach Vickie Johnson, Kayla McBride, and Kelsey Plum. (Plum has missed the 2020 season due to an Achilles tear.) Danielle Robinson also played for the Stars (2011-2015).
The Stars made the playoffs in McBride’s rookie year back in 2014. The All-Star shooting guard had to wait five years to return to the playoffs—the Aces’ first appearance since arriving in Las Vegas as they were upended in last year’s semifinals by the eventual champion Washington Mystics. Now McBride has a chance to win her first championship with those familiar faces by her side.
“We have the best organization in the league top to bottom,” McBride said. “And we know that. We wish we were playing at home at Mandalay Bay: best fans, best arena in the WNBA. But we’re here, and we’re representing that every single day. And Bill just knows how to win. He won as a player, he won as a coach in Detroit. I just can’t explain it. We just continue to find a way. And like I said, this is a special group, adding Angel and DRob and having that experience. Bill knew what he was doing bringing them here and then letting A’ja be A’ja.”
The Aces have proven that they are ready to compete at the highest level both now and for years to come. But this 2020 season has been about so much more than the 40 minutes between the lines each night for the players. Even in the afterglow of a Game 5 victory, McCoughtry spoke from the heart, sharing a clear and thoughtful reminder of what she and her peers are really playing for this season.
“This is for Breonna Taylor; this is for Sandra Bland,” McCoughtry said. “A lot of people that have gone through these issues, their families—these championships that we win, they’re not just for us. We’re fighting and showing that Black Lives Matter. Black people do a lot in this country where we need to be respected. Our culture needs to be respected. Us winning these championships, it’s not just for us. Just to deal with all those things this season outside of playing in the WNBA is tough. It's much more added stress that we're dealing with. We're trying to play and then you’ve got this, this, and this—it’s just a lot.
“That's why I said this is the hardest championship anyone has to win. It's the hardest because you don't have fans. You don't have the energy from the fans. You’re living in a bubble. I mean, what's the world like outside? Who knows? You see social injustice every day; you see the state of our country. It's a mess. It's a lot. And to be able to play in this kind of environment, still fight, and still just try to do what's right. And then you have all these negative comments. You know how many negative comments we get on social media when we try to fight for what’s right? And once again, we don't say Black Lives Matter means no lives matter. We’re just saying we want to be equal. It's a lot. So, to be able to do that, this season. Whew. I don’t even know.”