September 4, 2021 

The Las Vegas Aces have big shoes to fill down the stretch

How the Aces can make up for Liz Cambage and Dearica Hamby's absences with just five games left in the regular season

The last thing a team wants as the playoff hunt closes in is to lose two big pieces, yet the Las Vegas Aces (20-7) are using it as an opportunity to improve the way they play together. That mentality was put to the test when they faced the Chicago Sky (14-14) on Thursday night.

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The Aces jumped out to a quick lead in the first half, but struggled to play a strong full 40 minute, which has actually been surprisingly common for them this season. They faltered in the third quarter, putting forth what A’ja Wilson called “piss-poor play” and allowing the Sky to launch themselves back into the game thanks to five Aces turnovers and some sharp shooting from Kahleah Copper (11 points) and Candace Parker (10).

Without Liz Cambage‘s (health and safety protocols) power in the paint and Dearica Hamby‘s (ankle) high-octane intensity off the bench, the rest of the Vegas squad is left to fill in the gaps. Offensively, they typically do a pretty good job (to put it lightly), with Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Riquna Williams posting 21 points apiece in Thursday’s matchup. It’s the first time in WNBA history that three players from the same team each hit that mark in the same game.

But offense hasn’t ever really been a problem for Vegas. Sure, at times, it’s been slow to get going, but it seems that, whenever there’s a bigger issue at hand, defense is at the root of it. Now, heading into the final five games of the regular season, they’ll have to stay even more locked in on that end of the court without Cambage and Hamby in the mix.

Wilson said it comes down to each Ace doing their part — understanding their assignments and executing them perfectly all game long.

“We have to play hard for 40 minutes or you’re going to let teams back in,” she said. “It’s a dog fight, and yes, they’re fun to watch, but it’s hell to play. So we have to lock in and continue to execute … When we want to be a defensive team, we’re pretty good at what we do. We have to communicate and trust each other.”

Stoking the flames

None of this is meant to say the Aces will have an easy time filling Cambage and Hamby’s shoes, but they are up to the challenge. So far this season, Cambage is averaging 14.7 points and 8.4 rebounds in 24.4 minutes per game. Kiah Stokes took over as the starting center Thursday and will likely be Cambage’s replacement until her return. She put on an impressive show on the boards with a season-high-tying 13 rebounds, but it’s unlikely we’ll see the same kind of offensive production out of her as we do from Cambage.

“You’d like to see Stokes score more, but she’s not offensive-minded anymore,” head coach Bill Laimbeer said of Stokes after the game. “She’s an outstanding defender, she understands the schemes and plays well offensively and defensively. I trust her out there; she fits right into who we are and what we do.”

Meanwhile, Hamby, a two-time Sixth Woman of the Year (2019 and 2020), is averaging 11.7 points and 6.9 rebounds in 21.7 minutes per game this season. Not to mention that extra kick she provides off the bench, especially when she comes in alongside Plum. The two of them set a whole new pace whenever they step onto the floor.

Plum held her own on Thursday, though, scoring in double figures for the 15th time this season and also picking up a career-high five steals. The second half of the dynamic bench duo shouldn’t be out for too long — Laimbeer expects to see Hamby back before Cambage.

“There are no easy games heading into the playoffs, and being shorthanded means we have to focus and concentrate,” he said. “It’s simple: Just go out and execute.”

Stacking the deck

The newest Ace, Bria Holmes, could also help round out the bench down the stretch. Prior to joining Vegas, she was averaging 4.9 points and 2.8 rebounds in 18.4 minutes per game for the Los Angeles Sparks. Having her as an option will take some pressure off the starters feeling like they have to do it all.

“She brings big energy. I remember competing against her — she constantly gets the rebound, she’s everywhere doing the little things for her team,” Wilson said. “We’re excited to have her and have her soak in all the energy we have and keep rocking and rolling. We’re down a couple, but we can bring someone like Bria in to do those little things and that’s always good to have.”

Wilson also emphasized how much of a team effort winning a championship will be, with or without all of the puzzle pieces. No one can do it alone, and now it will just take some extra gelling from everyone to get the job done. There is still the reliability of players like Wilson, who has had maybe one bad game all season; Williams, who remains a threat on both sides of the ball; Plum, who’s bouncing back from her injury season in 2020 in a big way; and Chelsea Gray, who is just as impressive with her filthy assists as she is hitting clutch shots.

High-low no mo’?

Part of what has made the Aces such a threat this season has been the deadly efficiency of Cambage and Wilson sharing the floor. Cambage is a beast in the paint and Wilson has worked hard to improve her range this season, in terms of both shooting and skillset. In fact, Wilson has dished out a staggering 85 assists so far — a career high — and 24 of those went to Cambage.

The dual threat of Cambage and Wilson has been unstoppable, but for now the Aces don’t have that page in their playbook. As I mentioned before, Stokes won’t really provide the same offensive potential.

Instead, the squad will fall back on bolstered defense, well-rounded shooting and, of course, getting to that foul line. The Aces are known for driving to the basket and forcing opponents to foul. In fact, on Thursday they made 20 of 25 free throws, 14 of which came in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Sky shot 15 for 17. As a team, Vegas is shooting 81.5 percent from the charity stripe.

In Wilson’s own words, one of the hardest and easiest things about her team is having so much talent on the floor and executing together. Any Ace can go off on any given night. Missing major pieces will hurt, but the squad has to come together and play to the strengths that are available to them.

Up next, the Aces head to Chicago on Sunday for a 12 p.m. PT tip-off.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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