June 9, 2023
What to take away from the Aces’ first loss and four-game road trip
"We’re starting to put the pieces together. I don’t think we are playing our best basketball. I think we’re growing on this road trip because we have been put on the ropes a little bit."
Coming off their first loss of the season to Connecticut and a four-game road trip, the Aces return home still leading the WNBA with a 7-1 record. Let’s take a quick look back at the road trip and see what we can gauge about the defending champs from those games.
Defense is still the key
It should come as no surprise to anyone, but Becky Hammon is still preaching defense as the key to the Aces’ success this season. Coming into the four-game trip, the Aces had only given up 80-plus points to an opponent once in their first four games. On the road trip, they proceeded to give up at least 80 in all four games. All four of their opponents had at least one quarter against the Aces scoring at least 28 points, with two teams putting up 30 in a quarter.
“Every time we made a run, they made another run,” Hammon said. “There’s only so many timeouts I can use to stop their runs. Eventually, we have to self-correct out there and buckle down and be the pros I know we are. That being said, it’s really hard to play a perfect game for 40 minutes.”
The Aces currently sit second in the WNBA in defensive net rating. But in each of their four games on the road trip, they had one opposing player kill them, and all in different ways. In their game at Atlanta, Cheyenne Parker went for 25. Kelsey Mitchell had 22 for Indiana. Rebecca Allen had 22 off the bench with six threes in their first game against the Sun. Then, on Thursday, DeWanna Bonner went for a career-high and franchise-record 41 after scoring just five two days prior.
The Aces weren’t killed by the same kind of player or in the same type of way in each game. Twice it was a forward and twice it was a guard. The one shared theme was that all four players knocked down multiple three-pointers against the Aces. The Aces’ defense showed some glaring holes on this road trip that will need to be shored up if they are to compete for another championship.
“In the first quarter like she got it going,” Chelsea Gray said of Bonner’s career night. “She got easy looks at the rim or in transition. I think four out of six of her shots that she made in the first quarter were in transition and we can’t get a player like that, a rhythm player, to get going that early and not see bodies. Once she gets it going, it’s really hard to stop, and then our reads in pick and roll, our communication was really slow.”
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The one part of the Aces’ defense that was strong on the road trip was their ability to take away the ball from their opponent. While Las Vegas only forces 14 turnovers a game, they are second in the league in steals, averaging almost nine a game. The Aces rank third in the league in total points scored off turnovers. The Aces forced double-digit turnovers and scored at least 16 points from those turnovers in all four games on the trip.
Lack of three-point shooting
The Aces were one of the best three-point shooting teams in the WNBA a season ago. They knocked down the second-most outside shots of any team and had the second-highest shooting percentage while attempting over 26 threes per game. This year, they lead the league in threes made and attempted. However, they rank eighth in the percentage of their points that come from the three, at just under 28%. On the road trip, the Aces made just 23 threes and shot under 30% from beyond the arc.
A lot of their outside shooting struggles start with Kelsey Plum, who was last year’s WNBA leader in threes and fourth in percentage at 42%. This year she is tied for 19th with 11 threes and is shooting sub-25% from beyond the arc. Plum’s ability to knock down the outside shot last season really opened up her game and made the whole team harder to guard. Last season, she made a three in every game and hit multiple in all but three. This year she already has three games where she hasn’t made a triple, including two on the road trip.
“Shootings like that, every time [Plum] lets it go, I think it’s going in,” Hammon said. “Shooting is like that, it’ll come back around. My emphasis to the team is just take good ones. You’re not going to shoot your way out of a slump shooting bad ones. Overall, we’ve struggled from three. If that’s my worst worry, I’m a happy camper because that worm will turn.”
Despite Plum’s struggles from beyond the arc, there are a few Aces who have been knocking down the three-ball well to start the season: Jackie Young, Chelsea Gray and Alysha Clark. All three sit in the top 11 in the league in threes made and all are shooting above 45% from beyond the arc. Clark hit three in the win over Atlanta and Chelsea Gray hit a pair in the wins against Indiana and Connecticut. Young struggled from beyond the arc on the road trip but contributed three games with 19 or more points.
“I think people tend to forget that Jackie is a No. 1 draft pick and she is playing like one,” A’ja Wilson said of her teammate. “She has done so much to expand her game. I think she took last year, where people were playing off of her and showed her different looks, she took that personal and made them guard her. I’m going to say this all the time, Jackie is an All-Star, she’s probably one of the best two-way players we have in our league.”
Inconsistency Starting and Finishing Games
While the Aces were 3-1 on the road trip, they didn’t win any of the games by more than six points. They struggled with either starting the game slowly or not putting their opponent away when they held a big lead in all four games.
In two of their games, against Atlanta and the first game against Connecticut, Las Vegas had huge leads and saw them completely disappear. Against the Dream, the Aces led by as many as 19 but gave up 57 points in the second half and saw their lead shrink to one possession multiple times before finally putting it away. Versus the Sun, the Aces led by 17 heading into the fourth, but Rebecca Allen got hot, scoring 14 points and the Aces had to hold on to squeak out the four-point win.
“Yes, we’re grinding out wins, but we’re putting ourselves in situations that I think we don’t need to do,” said Wilson. “It’s good to get a win, it’s good to see us grind out one but I don’t like us putting us in these situations. We gotta give Atlanta credit. They made us play on both sides of the basketball. We can’t be caught off guard in these situations. We’re gonna get everybody’s best, night in and night out. We can’t get caught off with the physicality of the game. We have to be ready for that and change up whatever we need to do to make sure that we’re being consistent on the defensive end.”
In their other two games, the Aces got off to slow starts against their opponents. Against Indiana, the Aces trailed by seven after the first quarter, 28-21. The Aces were able to make it a one-point game at the half but needed a fourth-quarter comeback to win the game. In their second game against Connecticut, it was much worse. Las Vegas scored just 28 points in the whole first half and was down 15 at the break.
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“I can tell you in the year-plus I’ve been here … that was the worst half of basketball I’ve seen us play,” Hammon said in regard to Thursday’s first half against Connecticut. “Scoring 28 points in a half, that’s about as bad as we’ve played, and it was really on both ends. I just thought they played… they just kicked our asses. No Xs and Os in the world tonight … we didn’t have it tonight. Just didn’t have it. And it’s really, like I said, for the most part, the first time that that’s really happened since I’ve been here.”
If the Aces want to repeat as champions, they need to be able to start fast and finish their opponents off when they have a big lead. Having to make comebacks and stop opponents’ comebacks take a lot of energy and can drain a team if they have to do it consistently. With the Aces’ current lack of depth, due to Riquana Williams’ injury, the less they have to play in close games, the better.
There is still room to grow and learn
Despite some struggles on the road trip, the Aces still went 3-1. They played some up-and-coming teams and two games that were a rematch of last year’s finals. The team isn’t playing its best basketball but that is okay with Hammon. She understands and hopes they aren’t playing their best basketball right now. She knows it will take time for them all to get on the same page with many of her players having not played since the end of last season. Winning games on the road is tough but she knows they can grow and learn from this trip and be better for it.
“We’re starting to put the pieces together,” Hammon said. “I don’t think we are playing our best basketball. Kinda happy we’re not playing our best basketball yet, but we always want to be improving and learning and building good habits. I think we’re growing on this road trip because we have been put on the ropes a little bit.”
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.