September 13, 2023 

Aces vs. Sky first-round preview: A high-scoring 1-8 matchup

Beat reporters Matthew and Monique dive into the key matchups for the series

By Monique Newton and Matthew Walter

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The Las Vegas Aces enter the 2023 WNBA Playoffs with four consecutive victories after losing back-to-back games for the first time all season. They finished with five of their final eight games on the road, beating Washington, Seattle, and Phoenix twice in their last four, and scoring at least 94 points in their final three games. The defending champion Aces also set a new WNBA single-season record of 34 wins.

A’ja Wilson has played particularly well over the last few games, garnering the final Western Conference WNBA Player of the Week award of the season. She scored at least 26 points in the Aces’ last four games, including three 30-point performances. She has also been getting it done on the defensive end with at least three blocks in three of those final four games.

At the conclusion of a whirlwind season, the Chicago Sky find themselves in the playoffs as the eighth seed. The Sky returned just one starter from last year’s playoff team and experienced an abrupt mid-season coaching change. The Sky had three separate losing streaks this season of at least four games, including one of six games in June. The Sky ended the season on a high note though, and enter the first-round series against the top-seeded Aces as winners of five of their last six games.

Ahead of this best-of-three opening-round series, Las Vegas beat reporter Matthew Walter and Chicago beat reporter Monique Newton share their predictions:

Chicago Sky guard Kahleah Copper (2) shoots during the WNBA game between the Chicago Sky and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 25, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Which 1 on 1 matchup excites you most?

Matthew: Jackie Young vs Kahleah Copper. Young and Copper are two of the best dynamic guards in the WNBA and both have really exploded onto the scene over the last few years. For the Aces to be successful in the series, they will need to slow Copper down and that is where Young comes in. Young is one of
the better guard defenders in the league, finishing in the top 17 in both defensive rating and defensive win shares this season. Meanwhile, Copper finished the season 7th in the league in scoring.

Young’s ability to limit Copper in getting to her spots will be so important. Copper loves to shoot in the 15 to 19-foot area as she was third in the league in shots attempted in that range on the floor. Young will need to try and keep Copper out of that area and make all her looks difficult. In two of the three regular-season games between them, the Aces limited Copper to under 19 points, but Copper went off for 37 in the second meeting, so stopping her is crucial.

Monique: Aj’a Wilson and Elizabeth Williams might be the most important matchup in the series, but I am with you, Kahleah Copper and Jackie Young excite me the most. Both are multiple-time All-stars who have had career years. Copper has done a masterful job leading this team to the playoffs when asked to carry the Sky offensively and defensively. The Aces have an all-time great trio of guards, and Copper is the Sky’s best guard defender.

Complete the sentence: If the Sky pull off the upset it will be because of _____

Monique: Marina Mabrey. The Sky’s prized offseason acquisition ended the season playing the best basketball of her young career. Mabrey has tallied at least 15 points and five assists in six games this season, including in two of her last three outings. Mabrey shot a career-high 39.1% from three this season. Copper will need extensive help on the offensive end from Mabrey as well as starting point guard Courtney Williams if the Sky want to keep up with the Aces.

Matthew: They dominate the glass and hit threes at a high percentage. The Sky were fourth in the WNBA in offensive rebounds per game during the regular season. In the three games the teams played against each other, Chicago grabbed at least nine offensive rebounds in all of them. The Aces won each game by an average of 9.3 points but only outrebounded the Sky by an average of 2.7 per game. In four of the Aces’ six losses, they were outrebounded by their opponent. If the Sky can win the battle of the boards and dominate on the offensive glass, it will give them a shot to win the series.

If they can dominate the offensive glass, the Sky should be able to kick out to their bevy of shooters to knock down second-chance threes. The Sky were third in the league in three-point percentage and fourth in made threes this season, led by Marina Mabrey and her 89 made threes. That was tied for seventh in the league. The Sky knocked down at least seven threes in all three matchups with the Aces this season. Their ability to grab offensive rebounds and knock down threes from those extra possessions could cause serious problems for the Aces.

Chicago Sky guard Marina Mabrey (4) shoots during the WNBA game between the Chicago Sky and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 25, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Key team stat to watch in the series?

Monique: Keep an eye out for the 3-point percentage and attempts. Both teams love to shoot the three-ball and do it at an efficient clip. The Aces finished second in the league in both 3-point attempts per game at 24.9 and 3-point percentage at 37.2, but the Sky finished fifth in attempts with 22.2 and slightly ahead of the Aces in 3-point percentage at 37.4. Chicago scored 30.3% of their points from 3-point land, while the Aces scored 30.0% from beyond the arc. Expect the 3-point shot to go up often in this one.

Matthew: Rebounding. As I explained, in the way the Sky could beat the Aces, Las Vegas has struggled in grabbing rebounds this year in their losses. The Aces are only out-rebounding their opponents by an average of .5 rebounds per game. The Sky were fourth in the WNBA in offensive rebounding, led by
Elizabeth Williams with 2.3 ORBs per game, which was fifth in the league.

Without Candace Parker, the Aces have been playing with a lot smaller lineups so rebounding has become even more difficult for the Aces. In four of the six Aces losses this year, they were outrebounded. For the Aces to beat the Sky, they will need to control the glass and not give Chicago extra

Who is the X-factor?

Matthew: Alysha Clark. Clark has been the main player off the Aces bench since the team lost Parker to her foot injury and Kiah Stokes moved into the starting lineup. Clark has been up and down during the year but has found a grove as we head to the playoffs. During the Aces’ four-game winning streak, Clark is averaging 8.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Both of those are above what she averaged for the season.

Clark has brought it on the defensive end all year, guarding a wide array of star offensive players. Also, her ability to play the four has allowed the Aces to go to a strong small ball lineup which has given A’ja Wilson space to dominate down low. The Aces aren’t a super deep team and in facing a Chicago team that loves to play eight or nine deep, Clark will need to provide production off the bench to try to match what the Sky bring from their reserves.

Monique: Dana Evans. The final few games of the Sky season were the Dana Evans show. When the Sky were battling to secure a playoff spot, Evans kicked it up a notch and set the tone at both ends of the floor. Evans plays a key role as one of the three remaining players from the Sky Championship squad. If the Sky are going to shock the world and pull off the upset, Dana Evans will have to keep up her stellar play.

Jackie Young drives to the basket against the Washington Mystics. Photo Credit: Dominic Allegra

Team with the defensive advantage?

Matthew: Aces. The Aces have struggled at times on defense, but over their four-game win streak leading into the playoffs, they gave up an average of just 77.5 points per game. This coincides with a long layoff after they had played 13 games in 27 days. This time off allowed them to practice and reinforce some things on the defensive side of the ball that had slipped during the month of August. The Aces were the second-best defensive team in the league, giving up just 80.3 points per game. With reigning defensive player of the year in Wilson protecting the paint, the Aces have been stout on defense and have
the advantage on that side of the ball against the Sky.

Monique: Defensively, having the reigning defensive player of the year and the league leader in blocks gives the Aces the advantage. The Aces also have three players that rank in the top 15 in the league in steals. These Aces get after it on the defensive end. However, Elizabeth Williams and Alanna Smith have performed extremely well at the defensive end all season. They will be vital to slowing down the Aces’ offensive machine. The Sky rank middle of the pack in defensive rating and have a tall task ahead of them in this series.

Team with the offensive advantage?

Monique: Aces have the offensive advantage, having led the league in points scored per game, but it is not by as much as you think. The Sky offense this year ranked sixth in points per game, respectively. The Sky also set a team record, scoring more than 100 points in seven games. Expect these games to be an offensive shootout.

Matthew: Aces. This Aces squad had one of the best offenses in the history of the WNBA. They averaged 92.8 points per game this year and were the first team to have four players average at least 15 points per game. With Wilson, Young and Kelsey Plum, the Aces had three players in the top 11 of the WNBA in scoring. Copper may be 7th in the league in scoring, but Mabrey ranks 22nd and the Sky’s third-leading scorer, Courtney Williams, ranks 38th. All four of the Aces’ All-Stars can score at all three levels and the team is dynamic as they come on the offensive end.

Team with the bench advantage?

Matthew: Sky. This is the one area the Sky have an advantage over the Aces. Alysha Clark has been great as a sixth woman, but the rest of the Aces bench has been inconsistent. Kierstan Bell and Cayla George have had some big games off the bench but also had a lot of quiet games. Sydney Colson has been giving Las Vegas big minutes off the bench recently, but that has only come the last five games.

The Aces only have seven players who average double-digit minutes per game with Bell only averaging 11. The Sky, meanwhile, have eight players who average double-digit minutes, and the three main bench contributors average 13 or more minutes a game. Dana Evans has been a sixth woman of the year candidate, averaging nine points a game coming off the bench. Morgan Bertsch and Robyn Parks have been surprising contributors for the Sky off the bench and helped get them to the playoffs. If the Sky bench can outplay the Aces, it could go a long way to Chicago pulling off an upset.

Monique: I am giving the bench advantage to the Sky. Alysha Clark and Dana Evans essentially cancel each other out as both are leading candidates for Sixth Woman of the Year. I give the Sky the slight edge in bench depth as five active bench players average at least nine minutes a game. Keep an eye out for the first big that comes off the bench for the Sky. Coach Emre Vatansever went with Ruthy Hebard and Sika Kone over rookie Morgan Bertsch to close the season. The physicality and depth of the Sky’s bigs in this series will be tested against Wilson. 

Series prediction?

Matthew: Aces in 2. The Aces have too much offensive talent and have been in this situation before with this group to lose to the Sky. With Wilson, Plum, Young, and Chelsea Gray, it will take a lot for Chicago to upset them. Chicago has a lot of new faces on this team compared to their championship roster from
two years ago, with a lot of their new faces getting their first taste of the postseason. The Aces have talked all season about how they learned from their championship run last season and want to create a dynasty. That starts with defeating the Sky first, which the Aces should be able to do.

Monique: In this series, the Sky face one of the best regular-season teams ever. The Aces are the defending champs and have valuable playoff experience with their current unit. Truth is, many folks didn’t believe the Sky would make the playoffs at the beginning of the season. That said, I’ve got the Sky shocking some folks and stealing a game in Vegas. The fight for a playoff spot awoke the beast. The Sky have been playing really well the past few weeks and have been clicking offensively. I predict the Sky will bring the series back to Chicago before ultimately falling to the Aces in Game 3. I also predict that both teams will score over 100 points in each game of the series. This one is going to be a shootout.

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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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