October 9, 2023
How the Aces backcourt stole the show in WNBA Finals Game 1
"The three of them, our trio of guards I thought were pretty ridiculous overall," -Becky Hammon
Coming into the WNBA Finals, a lot was made of the individual matchups between the starting lineups for the New York Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces. One of the main talking points was the backcourts and which one would have the advantage over the other.
In the three of the four regular season matchups, Sabrina Ionescu had killed the Las Vegas Aces. Meanwhile, Betnijah Laney had made Chelsea Gray’s life difficult during their previous matchups. The one Aces guard that’d had success against New York during the regular season was Jackie Young, who averaged 17.8 points a game in the four regular season matchups.
And on Sunday, in Game 1 of this highly-anticipated matchup, Young was even better and helped the Aces backcourt dominate the Liberty. The three Aces guards outscored New York’s backcourt 72-38 and were the difference for Las Vegas in a 99-82 win to take a 1-0 lead in the series.
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“She’s somebody who going into this season, you know, I wanted her, kind of baby Bron mode,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “She’s really taking the challenge of getting downhill. She’s strong. She absorbs a lot of contact. Like Bron. She doesn’t look like she’s getting hit and she’s getting hit, but she just absorbs it. But I thought our guard play especially, you know, it’s kind of like Jackie and KP are doing this really hard work and then the ball goes into Chelsea and then it’s just dicing everything. It was a really nice combination. The three of them, our trio of guards I thought were pretty ridiculous overall.”
Coming into the series, Hammon had told Young that these Finals could be a coming out party for her. Hammon looked prescient in Game 1 after Young’s playoff career-high 26 points. She also tied her career high knocking down five 3-pointers. Young did a little bit of everything in addition to her scoring, adding five rebounds, four assists and three steals to cap off her stellar game.
Young was all over the floor on offense in Game 1, showing her ability to score at all three levels. Much has been made about her improvement from beyond the arc, but she also was able to knock down a few midrange baskets and got to the rim as well. Young has always been strong and shown a great ability to bully her way to the basket and with the addition of her three ball has become a very difficult guard for opponents. Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said after the game she has evolved from a driver during her first few years in the league to a true three level scorer.
An interesting change for Young on Sunday was her shot volume, as her 15 attempts on Sunday was the second-most for the Aces — she attempted 15 or more shots just six times in the regular season. A’ja Wilson talked about how she has to remind Young how she was the No. 1 overall pick a few years back and instill confidence in her. That confidence showed in Game 1, and even though Young plays with a quiet confidence, her frequently appearing style was as as apparent as aggressive from the jump.
“I think we’re just trying to play out of our defense,” said Young. “Get defensive stops and get going and transition. I thought I had an opportunity there to get downhill you know, and so I just try to be aggressive the whole game. Kind of take what the defense was giving me I was able to make the bucket but I mean at the end of the day, I think it comes from our defense and getting stops…we knew we just had to be aggressive and kind of take what the defense was giving us. Just make shots, get downhill, whether that was scoring or kicking it out for our teammates to score, but I think just being aggressive and not getting down because they weren’t guarding us, they have to take something away and so we just have to stay ready.”
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On top of Young’s strong playoff performance, Kelsey Plum, and Chelsea Gray both had big games for the Aces. Plum tied Young with 26 points, which was a career playoff high for her too. Plum struggled to knock down her outside shot but was very effective at turning the corner and getting to the rim. Multiple times, the Aces set a ball screen for Plum and she was able to burn by whoever was guarding her, usually Courtney Vandersloot, getting to the rim with ease. She also did a great job of cutting off her teammates and getting the ball of handoffs to get downhill.
Gray went out and did what she usually does, a little bit of everything. She scored 20 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out nine assists. The three Las Vegas guards were the first trio of teammates to score 20 points and grab five rebounds in a Finals game in WNBA history. Gray was excellent at finding her teammates. She had a couple of full court assists where she found teammates on the run and dropping dimes in transition. She also did a great job of settling the Aces down when things weren’t going well at times, especially in the first half.
“I think that our ball movement was really helpful,” said Plum. “I think that you know me, just trying to move without the ball. And then obviously when we get stops so we’re able to run, the defense can’t get set. And so, lanes open up right. I also just think that sometimes mentally just, it’s me and you and it’s a foot race to the block and that’s what I train for, you know, I’m trying to win. I know that game two they are not going to let me get there. But that’s what Sandy is. She’s a great coach and there’ll be adjustments made and they’re great players. And, you know, we’re in a war.”
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On top of the Aces guards playing at a high level offensively, they also did a phenomenal job of almost completely stopping the Liberty guards. Coming into the series, Sabrina Ionescu had been an Aces killer during the regular season but in Game 1, Young dominated the matchup. She led the charge to hold Ionescu to just seven points on two of seven shooting from the floor. Her seven shot attempts is tied for the second fewest she’d taken all season.
Their seemed to be an Aces player there every time Ionescu caught the ball, never giving her any good open looks. They did a great job of switching up on ball screens and not allowing her to see many open looks. They also crowded her on drives and tried to make others beat them. They seemed to wear her down because as the game progressed, she seemed to be less aggressive in looking for her shot and became more passive. A lot of the credit for that defensive success goes to the play of Young.
“She’s been impressive all year defensively,” said Hammon on Young’s defense of Ionescu. “Just locked in, you know, I just kind of challenged her because I thought Sab(rina Ionescu) over the course of the five games that we had played them, she’s been ridiculous. So just challenged her to take that head on and they like challenges.”
On top of the job the Aces did on Ionescu, they also made Vandersloot and Laney non-factors as well. The Aces seemed okay with making Vandersloot a shooter and gave her many open looks. Sometimes she burned them but for the most the strategy worked. At times, it looked like the Aces were treating her the way the Liberty were treating Kiah Stokes.
Multiple times during the game, they using the person guarding Vandersloot to double Jonquel Jones or Breanna Stewart and dared Vandersloot to beat them. It worked as she only scored 10 points on four of 11 shooting. On top of that, she only had six assists, which is two less than she averaged during the regular season. She seemed hesitant as the game progressed, not wanting to shoot even when she was open.
Laney meanwhile had come into the final after scoring at least 20 in the last three games of New York’s semifinals series. She had stepped her game up, knocking down open shots and attacking the basket with authority against Connecticut.
Sunday afternoon though, she was five for eight but didn’t knock down a single one of her three shots from deep. She also had caused Gray some issues offensively during the regular season matchups, using her strength and length to bother the Aces point guard. However, on Sunday, Gray found ways to not only get herself open but also her Aces teammates as well.
“We’ve been playing together for a while now,” said Young. “We kind of you know what each other are gonna do, just kind of play off of each other and whenever somebody is rolling, we just keep going with them. We knew they were gonna be focused on A(‘ja) a lot tonight and that gave the guards opportunity to go off.”
All in all, it was the play of the Aces guards that helped to separate themselves from the Liberty in game one. The Aces backcourt has shown itself to be potent, but they took the challenge of outplaying New York’s personally and showed why they were the reigning champs in Game 1.
There is a lot of series left between these two teams but Gray, Young, and Plum put the Liberty on notice that they aren’t going to back down. If the Aces get performances like that from their starting backcourt, there is a strong chance they will be lifting their second straight WNBA championship trophy.
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.