October 16, 2023
Barclays Center has not been kind to the Aces in 2023
Chelsea Gray injury is major concern for Las Vegas
Through the first two games of the WNBA finals, the Las Vegas Aces had looked like a juggernaut, dominating their fellow “super team” — the New York Liberty. Neither game had been close, with the Aces playing their best basketball of the season in the finals. Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center brought yet another game that wasn’t close, but this time not only did it not go in favor of the Aces, it may have caused an even bigger issue for Las Vegas.
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The Aces fell in Game 3 to the Liberty 87-73, losing their first playoff game of the year. They also saw their leader Chelsea Gray exit the game with what looked to be a serious left foot injury midway through the fourth quarter. She could be seen on the ABC broadcast appearing to mouth the words, “something in my foot popped,” and later was seen struggling to hobble to the Aces locker room, unable to put any pressure on said left foot.
“She’s our point guard,” said Wilson of Gray. “She’s our leader. Chelsea is very important to us.”
Obviously losing Gray was a big blow but the Aces were struggling in Game 3 before their All-Star point guard got hurt. Coming into Sunday afternoon, the Aces were 0-2 at Barclays Center, losing their other two games in Brooklyn by an average of 23.5 points. In the first two games in New York, the Aces couldn’t limit New York’s three-point shooting and struggled to score themselves. That happened again in Game 3.
The biggest issue for the Aces in their two regular season losses in New York was the Liberty’s ability to knock down the outside shot. The Liberty were the number one team in three-point shooting during the regular season and in the two previous games in New York, had knocked down 27 triples. On Sunday afternoon, the Liberty knocked down 13 threes, coming from a variety of New York players.
The leader in threes made for the Liberty on Sunday was an unexpected candidate, Jonquel Jones. Jones had been playing very well in the series, but she had been doing most of her damage inside. In Game 3 however, she knocked down four threes for New York which made her extremely difficult for the Aces to contain.
Jones finished with 27 points on 10-15 shooting from the floor. The Aces once again struggled with her size and a few times didn’t communicate well on her screens, causing them to lose her for easy looks. She continued to punish the Aces in the paint and really made them pay for trying to switch any ball screen. Becky Hammon said the Aces messed up every ball screen scheme they had on Sunday afternoon and Jones took advantage.
She also was a huge deterrent on the defensive end, changing a ton of Aces shots and blocking three shots. The Aces in the first two games were being aggressive and attacking the New York bigs but Jones responded and ratcheted up her defensive intensity in Game 3. Jones had been the best Liberty player so far, but she took it to another level on Sunday.
“She hit threes on a consistent clip,” said Hammon. “She obviously was very efficient down there. There are some things I think we can do better but give her credit. I don’t know what her career high is in threes made, what I do know is when we can do a better job, mixing up our looks, more sense of urgency getting out to shooters, better job of keeping the ball in front. There’s things that we can do better, for sure. But she’s taking what the defense is giving. And, you know, in the scheme of things, if you want somebody shooting threes out there, it’s probably her. I don’t want [Betnijah] Laney or Sabrina Ionescu [Breanna Stewart], and she made them. So kudos for her”
On top of the great game Jones had, the Aces also struggled with containing Sabrina Ionescu. Ionescu had killed the Aces in the regular season, but Las Vegas had completely bottled her up in the first two games. However, back home at Barclays, she came alive. While she only scored nine points, her biggest strength was her passing.
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Ionescu had 11 assists on Sunday and knocked down some big threes in the first half. The Aces had done a good job of scoring to limit the Liberty’s transition opportunities in the first two games; however, New York got out and ran early in Game 3 and Ionescu was a big part of that, both knocking down threes and finding open teammates on the fast break. She had a few big assists to Jones and Breanna Stewart early in the game in transition. Her passing made her very dangerous, especially coming off ball screens with Jones throughout the game.
“100% and that was to be expected,” said Wilson on New York’s scoring punch early. “This is a good team we’re talking about so we weren’t coming in thinking that it was gonna be like Game 2. So yeah, it was obviously a different feeling. You’re in their place. So of course, they’re gonna have a different vibe, but we still got a chance to take care of business.”
On top of the Aces’ struggles defensively, New York did an excellent job of making the Aces’ life difficult offensively the entire game. The Liberty changed their matchups going into Game 3, putting a guard on Kiah Stokes and having Stewart guard one of the Aces guards. This allowed New York to use Stewart’s length on a player who plays a more active role for Las Vegas, making her more of an involved defender than if she was guarding Kiah Stokes.
Throughout the game, the Aces struggled to consistently get quality looks at the basket. The Liberty made every Las Vegas shot difficult as the majority of the Aces shots were taken with a New York hand or two in the player’s face. The changes worked as not a single Aces player shot better than 45%. In fact, A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray shot a combined 10 for 37, scoring just 35 points.
The only Aces player who was able to get any consistent traction against New York on Sunday was Kelsey Plum. She scored 29 points and kept the Aces afloat many times during the game. New York did a great job of clogging lanes and the paint and making the Aces take uncomfortable shots, something that hadn’t happened in either Game 1 or 2.
In the third quarter alone, New York had a block party with the Aces taking a lot of shots the Liberty knocked to different boroughs. The shot that seemed to culminate Las Vegas’ day offensively was early in the fourth quarter when Jackie Young got a steal and had a one-on-one fast break with Betnijah Laney. In Games 1 and 2, Young would have scored easily and possibly even got an and-one. However, on Sunday, the shot missed off the side of the rim and there was no foul called. All the shots the Aces had knocked down at home wouldn’t fall at Barclays.
“I think that we were stagnant,” said Plum. “Similar to [what] coach said, the first couple of times we played here this season — when they’re able to like load up and kind of swarm the ball, it’s really hard to get good looks. So, I felt like we didn’t do a great job of moving the ball, moving our player and playing off of close outs which is what has given success the first two games.”
Now as the Aces look forward to Game 4 on Wednesday, the question that is on everyone’s mind is what will they do if Chelsea Gray can’t play? Gray is the head of the snake for this Aces team. Everything runs through her on both sides of the ball. Without her, the Aces will need some unlikely heroes to step forward.
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The most likely scenario if Gray doesn’t play is that Alysha Clark steps into the starting lineup. However, with Clark being the only player who had been coming off the bench for the Aces to play significant minutes, they will need others to play off the bench. Who Becky Hammon trusts to fill that role is a mystery but with Gray being out, it wouldn’t be surprising if fellow point guard Sydney Colson gets some minutes. Whomever it is, they will need to give the Aces all they can because Gray is so much more valuable than just the numbers she puts up.
“Just shuffle KP over and Jackie will get some duties,” Hammon said. “Maybe we see Syd; Syd likes to get in there mix it up every now and then. But we do it by committee. I don’t think there’s any one person that’s going to step up and fill [Gray’s] shoes. It’s going to be a next man up type of scenario, next woman. But no one person is going to replace her. You know, just everybody steps up and does a little bit more.”
On Sunday, the Aces not only saw their struggles from the regular season in Brooklyn rear their ugly head again but may have lost their ‘Point Gawd’ in the process. The next 72 hours will be filled with a lot of nerves in the Las Vegas camp as they wait to see whether Gray plays or not. No matter her status, the Aces will have their hands full trying to fix the issues that reappeared on Sunday and try to win their first game at Barclays this season.
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.