How do Las Vegas Aces, on the brink, rally from 2-0 down?
Some strategies and historical precedents for Bill Laimbeer's group
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PALMETTO, FL - OCTOBER 4: Natasha Howard #6 of the Seattle Storm shoots the ball against the Las Vegas Aces during Game Two of the WNBA Finals on October 4, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images)
The Las Vegas Aces are back in win-or-go-home territory after Sunday’s Game 2 loss to the Seattle Storm. The Aces had a much better day offensively after shooting just 30 percent on 2-pointers in Game 1. However, that progress was hindered by 15 turnovers, including 10 Seattle steals.
“Again, we're our own worst enemy sometimes,” Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer said postgame. “Our turnovers tonight really hurt us badly, unforced turnovers. We're in a good position. They're a very fine basketball team and you can't make those kind of blunders against them. I thought we hung in there for a long period of time, but our turnovers just kept wearing on us. I thought that they made the plays when they had to make the plays.”
In addition to the turnover count, Las Vegas attempting just five free throws in Game 2 was another glaring number in the box score. The Aces led the league with 19 free throw attempts per game in the regular season and 19.3 attempts through their first six playoff contests. Laimbeer expressed his displeasure with that number as part of his opening statement postgame on Sunday.
“But make no mistake, we had no favor from the referees today,” he said. “We only shoot five free throws and we're going to shoot more than any in the history of the league, and that doesn't make any sense to anybody. So that was a very determining factor in this ball game where we got fouled and didn't get calls and they got fouled and they got the call. They go to the free throw line more than us and they're jump shot shooters? Please. That makes no sense. So that was a big part of this basketball game, also. It's not the whole story, but just a part of it, and so was our turnovers.”
A’ja Wilson and Angel McCoughtry accounted for all five of those free throw attempts and combined for 37 points on 16-of-31 shooting inside the arc. Kayla McBride added 14 points on 4-for-6 shooting from deep. McCoughtry went 0-for-2 on 3-pointers after making five triples in Game 1. After shooting 10-of-21 on 3-pointers as a team in Game 1, the Aces managed to follow that up with 8-for-19 shooting in Game 2.
Sugar Rodgers gave the Aces a spark off the bench, shooting 3-of-7 from distance in 13 minutes. Emma Cannon was the lone member of the Aces beyond McBride and Rodgers to make a 3-pointer in Game 2. Cannon scored 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting as the center rotation essentially flipped for the Aces in Game 2. Carolyn Swords played just 14 minutes after logging 28 in Game 1; Cannon’s minutes rose from 12 to 28.
“I'm really just trying to do whatever it takes for my team to get a W,” Cannon said postgame. “It really doesn't matter about points or stats or anything of that sort. I'm just going out there and doing what I can in order to put my team in a better situation to get a win.”
“We needed a physical presence and that's what she is,” Laimbeer added. “A little undersized, but at the same time she's not afraid. We knew that in the first two days we had her. She's not afraid to go out there and do her thing. That's what she did. She stays within herself, a physical player, and you saw some good post moves today, which we really needed. It was a big boost for us today, no question about it.”
Trailing 2-0 in these best-of-five Finals, Las Vegas now must win three games in a row. No team has overcome a 2-0 Finals deficit since the WNBA adopted the best-of-five format in 2005. This is now the seventh time that a team has taken a 2-0 Finals lead. The prior six instances ended as sweeps.
Laimbeer’s Detroit Shock swept current Storm head coach Dan Hughes and the San Antonio Stars back in 2008. (Gary Kloppenburg has stepped in as Seattle’s head coach this season after a medical evaluation determined Hughes was at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.) McCoughtry was on the losing end of three of those, starting with a sweep in 2010 at the hands of the Storm. Current Seattle reserve Epiphanny Prince was the starting shooting guard on the 2014 Chicago Sky team that was swept by Phoenix, and the 2018 Storm swept the Washington Mystics—the last time this current Seattle starting five was healthy and playing together.
Las Vegas will hope for an outcome more like the one we saw in the 2018 semifinals as the Mercury won Games 3 and 4 after Seattle had taken a 2-0 lead, setting up a highly entertaining winner-take-all Game 5. Laimbeer can also draw from his 2006 title run as Detroit trailed 2-1 to Sacramento and won the final two games, or the back-to-back wins by Detroit in 2003 after Los Angeles took a 1-0 lead in that best-of-three Finals series.
The 2020 Storm won by 13 points in Games 1 and 2. Although the Aces shot much better in Game 2, both games followed a similar trajectory with Seattle pulling away in the fourth quarter. Expect the Aces to come out aggressive in Game 3 looking to set the tone by getting to the foul line.
Las Vegas also needs to cut down on the turnovers. The final tally of 15 included two missed connections with Cannon rolling to the basket; on-target passes likely would have led to two layups for Cannon. Three Las Vegas turnovers also led directly to early scores (two baskets and a pair of free throws) for Seattle, and that number easily could have been even higher.
Overall, the Aces did a much better job of getting back to limit Seattle’s transition and early-offense opportunities. Following the same method used to track Seattle’s scoring in Game 1, the difference on Sunday was quite jarring. The Storm got just 17 percent of their 104 points in those situations in Game 2 compared to a whopping 36 percent in Game 1.
However, Seattle did just fine offensively by getting to that final tally of 104 points and posting a robust 131.6 offensive rating on Sunday. The Storm scored 27 points in the halfcourt in each of the first and fourth quarters. Even without getting more from their running game, Seattle shot 64 percent on 2-pointers in Game 2, compared to 57 percent in Game 1.
Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Alysha Clark also combined for 12 3-pointers in Game 2 after Seattle made nine of them in Game 1. The Storm shot 39.4 percent on 3-pointers in the regular season, up from their league-leading mark of 37.6 in 2018. There are still possessions the Aces can point to from Game 2 where they’ll need to do a better job of forcing Seattle into some tougher looks. The Storm got three of their makes via miscommunications by the Aces, another as Cannon took one step too far off of Stewart in the ball-side corner, and three more in the fourth throwing the ball into the post and quickly relocating for catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.
Unless the Aces manage to limit Seattle more in at least one of those areas, the Storm will be well on their way to celebrating a second championship in three seasons. Kloppenburg was asked on Sunday if his team is peaking at the right time.
“I do,” he said. “You know, Sue and Stewie missed right at the end there a couple games, and then it took a little while to get them back in the flow. I felt like the last Minnesota game [in the semifinals], we kind of got back to how we want to play, both ends of the floor, good pressure defense, the running game on makes, misses and turnovers, puts so much -- we call it pressure offense, and really trying to put pressure on the defense to guard. We felt like tonight we really put together a 40-minute game.”
Dearica Hamby spoke with reporters on Monday, providing an update after being sidelined late in these playoffs by a knee injury. The back-to-back WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year confirmed that she will not need surgery, which was first reported by Khristina Williams. “I’m feeling okay; I’m optimistic just ‘cause I don’t have to have surgery,” Hamby said. “But I’m not gonna lie. It kinda sucks not being out there, being able to compete in the Finals.”
Without Hamby once again, expect more of Swords and Cannon filling those minutes in the frontcourt next to Wilson, with smaller lineups featuring McCoughtry at the 4 as the other possibility for Laimbeer.
The 2020 All-WNBA teams were announced at halftime of Sunday’s game. Wilson earned a First Team nod along with Stewart, Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot, Wings shooting guard Arike Ogunbowale, and Sparks forward/center Candace Parker. Phoenix guards Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, Lynx forward Napheesa Collier, Sun forward DeWanna Bonner, and Mystics center Myisha Hines-Allen formed the Second Team.
Will these Finals be extended to a Game 4 on Thursday, or even into the weekend for a Game 5? Time will tell. Laimbeer certainly knows what it’s like to win two in a row in the Finals with your backs against the wall; three would be quite an accomplishment.
“You have to win one game before you can win three,” he said. “And that's our task. Win the next game and then make it a series.”