September 30, 2023
How offensive juggernaut Aces won a defensive slugfest and advanced to WNBA Finals
'That's how you win championships is taking care of those kind of things'
Defense wins championships. It’s a phrase coaches and players in every sport have been saying since the first games were played. But if you’ve watched the Las Vegas Aces play this season, you might not be thinking that with how effectively they have scored the basketball.
However, it has been the defense that has risen to the occasion in the postseason. That was especially true on Friday in Game 3 of the WNBA semifinals, as defense helped seal the Aces’ trip to another WNBA Finals.
The Aces finished the regular season as the No. 2 team in opponent points per game and No. 1 in defensive rating. Head coach Becky Hammon has preached all season that if they played defense, they would be successful, and it showed as they finished the regular season with the best record in the WNBA at 34-6.
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Despite their overall success, there was a time where the Aces’ defense slipped. Four of the Aces’ six losses this season came in August. During that month, the Aces’ defensive rating was only fifth in the WNBA, and they allowed 83 points per game, three points higher than their regular-season average. The Aces played 12 games in August and didn’t have much time that month to practice and fix some of the defensive issues that had arisen.
However, after a stretch of 13 games in 27 days, the Aces got a six-day break at the beginning of September and were able to practice. They focused heavily on defense, trying to get back to the basics. The time in the practice gym worked, as they allowed just 79 points per game in their final two regular-season games and only 71.4 points per game in the playoffs.
“Yeah, I think we can see it,” guard Sydney Colson said of working on their defense towards the end of the season. “The physicality has just increased. We had time during the period to practice more, be with our practice guys. And really that last month of the regular season, we were having games every other day, and so there just wasn’t time to work on things that you really need to improve on. I think that we have seen improvement, but it still can be better.”
In the playoffs, the Aces haven’t allowed more than 84 points to an opponent so far. They have held both the Dallas Wings and Chicago Sky under their season average in every single game. Also, Las Vegas’ playoff opponents have shot over 40% in only one of five games, and just three individual players have scored 20-plus points.
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The importance and improvement of that defense hasn’t shined brighter than it did in the 64-61 win at Dallas on Friday night. Throughout the game, the Aces’ normally outstanding offense struggled mightily. They struggled to score around the Wings’ length inside and couldn’t knock down outside shots to stretch out Dallas’ defense. The ball also was getting stuck a lot; they weren’t moving it from one side to another to create openings to attack. So, when the offense wasn’t working, the Aces turned to the other side of the ball.
“This was a real gut-check type of win. Hard to beat a team as talented as them in a close-out game,” said Hammon. “And so just real kudos to our defense down the stretch, just holding it down and giving us a chance to crawl back in that game and opportunity to win it at the end. Not the prettiest of games. But we’re happy to be walking out of here with a win …
“I’ve been challenging them to finish our quarters against this team. This team can score a lot quickly. And I can’t sit here and say we were doing anything different. We were switching defenses when we could, basically between a two-three [zone] and a man, and just trying to clog it up and make them think.”
The Aces were locked in defensively from the opening tip. They held Dallas to just 31.6% shooting from the floor, never allowed more than 18 points in a quarter and forced 13 turnovers. They held Wings stars Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally to a combined 10-for-39 shooting from the floor, or just over 25%.
Even when Dallas was able to score and put together runs, those runs weren’t extended. The Aces made the Wings work for every basket and never allowed them to push their lead beyond two possessions in the first half. The Aces’ defense continued to keep them in the game as the offense stayed cold.
“This is [a] special group that’s banded together,” Aces guard Chelsea Gray said. “We were down. We were just like, ‘It’s fine,’ [with] our composure in our huddles and how tight and how locked in we were with each and every person. Whether you’re in the game or out of the game, anybody that came in knew what we were doing, especially on the defensive end, so I wouldn’t want to go to war with anybody else.”
As the teams headed to the fourth quarter, it was a two-point game. Then, after the Aces tied it, Dallas went on a 10-2 run to take its largest lead of the game at eight. It seemed like the Aces were headed for Game 4 on Sunday. Then the defense sparked to life, holding Dallas scoreless for the final five minutes, and the Aces found enough offense to complete the comeback.
The defense was stout in those closing minutes of the fourth. Dallas had been dominating the glass all night, as is its strength, but in those final five minutes, the Aces outrebounded the Wings 10-5 and only gave up two offensive rebounds. They switched up the looks, going from man to zone and back, confusing the Wings and making them think on offense. They made Ogunbowale and Sabally’s shots incredibly difficult and dared others on the Wings to beat them.
Aces forward A’ja Wilson didn’t have her best night scoring, but her rebounding and defense were key in the second half. She used her length to alter shots and blocked two shots, making Dallas’ life difficult around the basket. She also grabbed 10 rebounds in the second half alone. Though she did not win WNBA MVP this season, she showed why she won Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row.
“That’s what this group has worked the whole offseason toward, maintaining the type of shape to lock in mentally and get it done,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said. “When you’re in shape … you’re able to lock in mentally and not think about being tired. This group has a lot of experience together. So like [Gray] said, there’s a trust factor. And it was like, [Alysha Clark] was in there rebounding, Kiah [Stokes], A’ja — it was a complete team effort. It was really cool to be in there as a unit. It just says a lot about this team, says a lot about that character.”
The Aces dug deep on the defensive side of the ball and refused to quit in those final five minutes. They knew what it took because they had been through situations like that together before. Their experience as a group and in the postseason showed against a Wings team that lacked postseason experience.
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The Aces now wait to see who they will play in their third WNBA Finals appearance in four years. No matter who their next opponent is, Hammon will continue to preach defense. That side of the ball will decide whether the Aces repeat as WNBA champions.
“It just shows you that we can win with our defense,” said Hammon. “Because [it] certainly really wasn’t our offense tonight. But at the end of the day, it’s not always going to be a pretty one. These are the ones you actually have to find ways to win. When the ball’s popping and we’re scoring 90 and 100 points, those are easy ones for us. When we have to win like this and really prove to ourselves that we can win like this, that it’s not about the offense all the time, it’s about rebounding and defense, which we did very well down the stretch.
“That’s how you win championships is taking care of those kind of things. So we’re gonna learn from this, but I didn’t see panic. I saw a lot of composure out there late game, especially defensively.”
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.