October 6, 2021 

Aces need to reshuffle the deck to stay alive

Wednesday's Game 4 is a must-win for Las Vegas

It’s win or go home for the Las Vegas Aces.

Down 2-1 to the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA semifinals, a win is required in Game 4 on Wednesday night to stay alive. It’s a spot the Aces aren’t unfamiliar with, having climbed out of a 2-1 hole against the Connecticut Sun last season to make it to the Finals.

That being said, this isn’t quite how many envisioned Las Vegas’ playoff journey would unfold. From the jump, they’ve been a star-studded team on paper and have been able to translate that to the court for the most part.

But the last two games have exposed some holes in the Aces’ game and have shown that it may be time to shake things up — before it’s too late.

For a majority of the season, Aces coach Bill Laimbeer has stuck with the same starting five of Riquna Williams, Liz Cambage, A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young, relying on the energy and aggression that Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby can bring off the bench. This approach has largely proven effective — the Aces have had a season sprinkled with dominant performances, broken records and career nights.

But sometimes even the best teams need to shift their game plan. Championship teams are those that are able to adapt to the wrenches thrown at them and still come out on top.

Whether it’s shifting the starting lineup, bolstering the defense or kick-starting some offense — or maybe even all of the above — something has to change in Game 4.

Laimbeer points especially to the defense, which has lacked intensity against the Mercury. Las Vegas allowed Phoenix to score a playoff regulation record 117 points in the 117-91 loss on Thursday, and then let the Mercury build a 46-31 halftime lead in Sunday’s game.

The deadly combo of Brittney Griner and Brianna Turner under the rim threw off the mojo of Cambage and Wilson in the paint, which eventually led to a stagnant Vegas offense. Scrambling, the Aces missed shot after shot (21-68, 2-14 from deep), helping the Mercury to a playoff-record 58 rebounds against a team that topped the league in rebounding during the regular season.

“We’re going to have to make some adjustments defensive-wise,” Laimbeer said after Sunday’s game. “Try to figure out what’s the best way for us to play them. Offensive-wise, we’re going to have to do a better job.”

Offense hasn’t been a consistent struggle for the Aces this season, though they have had intermittent issues with energy. Slow starts and a lack of urgency are at the root of the Aces’ most recent losses. They’ll have to come out hungrier than ever to stay in the fight against a Mercury team that is playing its peak basketball right now.

More importantly, though, Las Vegas needs to be able to adapt if its game plan isn’t working. They can’t fold if they aren’t finding their rhythm or aren’t able to play their ideal style of basketball. In Game 4 especially, the team needs to be ready to fight in whatever way they have to using all the weapons they have.

Unfortunately, some of those weapons are more limited than others right now, with Laimbeer making it clear not to expect Cambage to return in full capacity for the rest of playoffs. Cambage did lead the Aces Sunday with 13 points, but Laimbeer says it’s a challenge to figure out how to get her on the court without overworking her.

Meanwhile, other pieces need to step up and fill in that Cambage-sized gap — namely whoever is in at center, but also Plum and Hamby who have thrown extra fuel on the Aces’ fire all season long.

“We’re lacking. I don’t feel like this is our team right now,” Cambage said after Sunday’s loss. “I think it comes from the jump. We’re a team that plays a lot better with pressure on us.”

There’s no question that the pressure is on for Game 4.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

2 Comments

  1. Jimmy on October 6, 2021 at 7:05 pm

    Up to this point only 3 of the 4 teams left have shown grit and toughness worthy of being in a championship series. I’m hoping my Aces can stop getting hit by wrenches and start showing that same grit and toughness of the other teams! GO ACES!

    • Jimmy on October 7, 2021 at 5:33 pm

      Looks like wrenches are a major part of this series. Whoever establishes their play early is taking over. I hope the Aces have the biggest wrench Friday. Though it would be a lot of fun seeing these two teams playing at peak at the same time…..

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