September 24, 2023 

What to watch for in the Las Vegas Aces’ semifinal series against the Dallas Wings

Key matchups on the perimeter and in the paint, plus an X-factor for the Aces

After a 2-0 sweep of the Chicago Sky in the first round of the playoffs, the Las Vegas Aces advanced to their fifth straight WNBA semifinals. The Aces defeated the Sky by an average margin of 25 points and held Chicago to an average of 64.5 points per game. Now they advance to play the Dallas Wings, one of five teams that beat the Aces during the regular season.

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How the Aces won the regular-season series

The Aces beat the Wings in three of four matchups during the regular season, winning by an average margin of 9.5 points. The Aces averaged 93.8 points over the four games against Dallas, slightly above their overall average of 92.8 points per game during the regular season. They held the Wings to an average of 84.3 points per game, a few points below Dallas’ season average.

The Aces’ lone loss to Dallas came by only by two points, but Las Vegas was outrebounded by 11 and got outscored in the paint by 24, two key stats for this playoff series.

The Aces also averaged 14 made 3-pointers per game in the four matchups against Dallas, which is well above their regular-season average of 9.3 per game.

The Aces had starting forward/center Candace Parker for the first two games against the Wings, including the one they lost in Dallas. In the four games, MVP candidate A’ja Wilson averaged 22.5 points and 9.8 rebounds, including two games where she scored 28 points and two games with double-doubles. Starting guard Kelsey Plum averaged 23 points during the series and knocked down 11 threes in the three games she played. (She missed the first matchup with a non-covid illness.)

Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young dribbles the ball just inside the 3-point line with her right hand.
Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young (0) drives to the basket against the Washington Mystics during the 2022 season. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Matchups to watch

The key matchup to watch on the perimeter in the semifinals will be Las Vegas’ Jackie Young versus Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale. The former Notre Dame teammates will match up against one another a lot, and it will be key for the Aces to slow down Ogunbowale. Ogunbowale was the WNBA’s fifth-leading scorer in the regular season, averaging 21.2 points per game. However, in four games against the Aces, she averaged just 14.8 points, scoring over 20 just once. That came in the game the Wings won.

“I think our offense has to kind of help with our defense and not let those long outlets or rebounds [or] turnovers … get a flow going for them offensively,” Aces guard Chelsea Gray said about containing Ogunbowale. “But just make her touches and her looks difficult. When you talk about scorers, it’s gonna be hard to stop them, but containing, making their looks difficult, I think that’s a separating factor.”

Ogunbowale can score from anywhere on the floor and will shoot almost any shot, as shown by the fact that she was second in the league in field goals attempted on the season. But she can be inefficient, shooting just under 40% on the season. The Aces know she will score, but they will need Young to keep her from scoring efficiently.

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The frontcourt matchup to watch is Wilson versus Dallas’ Teaira McCowan. The Wings are dominant in two areas: rebounding and points in the paint. A lot of that is thanks to McCowan, who averaged 11.9 points and 9.1 rebounds per game in the regular season. She was fifth in the league in rebounds per game and fourth in field goal percentage at 55.1%.

McCowan played only 10 minutes in one game against the Aces, but in the other three, she averaged 17.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game. To say she has enjoyed playing the Aces this year is an understatement.

“The growth that I’ve seen in Teaira has been crazy nice,” Wilson said. “She’s finally in a system that utilizes her. I mean, they work around her, they move her in pick-and-rolls, different things. … They seem happy. That’s a big key: When you’re happy and you’re playing in a system that is good, I mean, you’re going to shine no matter what. And that’s what they’ve been doing. So it’s gonna be a good matchup.”

While the Aces have some size, they don’t have enough to consistently deal with McCowan. 6’3 Aces center Kiah Stokes will guard her at times, but the majority of the defense will fall on the reigning two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year in Wilson. The 6’4 Wilson will need to do her best to not get sealed, push McCowan out of the paint when shots go up, and let her teammates grab the rebounds. The more the Aces can neutralize McCowan’s size, the better chance they have of winning the series.

Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson shoots a left-handed layup as Minnesota Lynx forward Nikolina Milic arrives too late to contest.
Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson shoots a layup over Minnesota Lynx forward Nikolina Milic in a game at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

Stats that will decide the series

The main stats that will decide the semifinals go hand in hand: rebounding and points in the paint. The Wings ranked first in the WNBA in total rebounds, offensive rebounds and points in the paint during the regular season. In their four regular-season matchups, the Wings outrebounded the Aces by seven and outscored them in the paint by 40 points.

The Wings are a team full of size. Their starting lineup includes McCowan, Natasha Howard and Satou Sabally, all of whom are 6’2 or taller. On top of that, they have have two players who are 6’6 or taller coming off the bench in Kalani Brown and Awak Kuier. The Aces will need to battle in the paint and try to limit the Wings down low as much as possible. Aces head coach Becky Hammon has used some zone before against Dallas, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see it again.

“The biggest thing about Dallas is that you would think that they get a three-second call, but no, they’re actually just a big team,” said Wilson. “… They’re gonna clog the paint up. I mean, that’s their bread and butter. And then on the opposite side, they’re running in transition. They’re crashing the boards. And I think it’s rare that you see all five [players on a team] crash … But when it comes to Dallas, they’re all crashing.”

Another stat that will help decide the semifinals is 3-point shooting. Las Vegas averaged 9.3 triples per game this year while the Wings only averaged 6.8. That disparity is going to be big as the Aces will need to try to counter Dallas’ size with some perimeter shots. The Aces have a speed advantage, and if they can make the Wings defense consistently have to move, it should create open looks from the perimeter for the Aces.

Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner attempts to shoot the ball, but Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes reaches over and gets her left hand on the ball.
Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner (24) shoots as Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes (41) defends during a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on June 6, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

X-factor for the Aces

The X-factor in the semifinals for the Aces is Stokes. She doesn’t score a lot, but the Aces will need her to play to her strengths in this series: defense and rebounding. Stokes will often guard either McCowan or Howard. She will need to limit their touches in the paint and push them out when the shot goes up so her teammates can grab the board.

“She’s been important for us all year long, being that backbone for our defensive intensity,” Gray said. “She’s always engaged, always knows the scout. She does so many things that it would take pulling out [the] film to show what she does for us that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet or [to] the casual viewer. But she’s there to have our back. And so in those moments, she’s key for us and she’s been doing that all year long.

“This series, I’m not expecting anything different. She’s going to be the backbone for us — defense, rebound, run the floor — but I know she’s going to have her hands full. But I credit her a lot for those rebounds and those outlets that I’m able to get it because of how hard she’s playing defensively.”

The Wings want to play inside-out, so Stokes is going to need to make those inside looks as difficult as possible. If she can add a few points on offense as well, that would be a bonus for the Aces.

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Who has the offensive and defensive advantage?

The Aces have both the offensive and defensive advantage in this series, but offensively, it’s not by a very large margin. The Wings were the third-highest-scoring offense during the regular season, averaging 87.8 points per game. They also had three players rank in the top 20 leaguewide in points per game. Ogunbowale, Sabally and Howard are a dangerous trio who score in very different ways.

However, the Aces had four players averaging at least 15 points, and they scored over 100 in the last two matchups against the Wings, both of which came without Parker. Las Vegas wasn’t its best self offensively during their first-round playoff series against Chicago, but the Aces have shown they can score almost whenever they want. Their ability to knock down the outside shot consistently is what separates them from Dallas on the offensive end.

“You really can’t take any plays off on any team in the league, but particularly Dallas,” Wilson said. “They look really traditional when they go Kalani and Teaira. I think the biggest thing is just playing to our strengths and finding those throughout the series, and they could change per possession. But I think … [it] looks like, dang, it’s really clogged because they’re just an overall big team, even from the guard position. For us, we just got to play to our strengths and figure that out.”

Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum shoots an open left-handed layup.
Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum (10) shoots during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on June 6, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

The Aces have a bigger advantage defensively. They were the No. 2 defensive team in opponent points per game while Dallas was ninth. Despite all their size, the Wings were only sixth in blocks per game, whereas the Aces were first. Dallas was also third-worst in personal fouls committed and opponent free throw attempts. One area Dallas succeeded on the defensive end was the glass: The Wings were fourth in defensive rebounds and defensive rebound percentage.

The Aces defense stepped it up a notch in the two-game series against Chicago, holding the Sky to 64.5 points per game. The Aces finally had time to work on their defense and fine-tune some things after nonstop games in August, and it showed against Chicago. If they bring that defensive effort and intensity against Dallas, the Aces will have a large advantage on that side of the ball.

The Aces will lose the series if they …

Get dominated in the paint and on the glass. This is the biggest deficit for the Aces going into the semifinals. In their loss to the Wings in the regular season, Dallas outrebounded them by 11 and outscored them in the paint by 20.

The Aces have a lot less size than the Wings across the board, and they like to play small ball with 5’11 wing Alysha Clark as their four. If they can neutralize or even win these battles, they will win the series. However, the paint and the boards have been Dallas’ bread and butter all season long and are their path to pulling the upset over the reigning champs.

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Semifinals prediction

Aces in four. The Aces and Wings are opposites in how they want to win games. Dallas wants to use its size and pound the ball inside. The Aces play efficiently and can score inside and out consistently.

The Aces also have more playoff experience than the Wings. The Wings only have two players who have played more than five years in the WNBA contributing right now and haven’t made it to the second round of the playoffs since 2009. Meanwhile, the Aces have a lot of veterans and are making their fifth straight second-round appearance. That experience and understanding of the moment is what is going to give Las Vegas the edge and allow them to win the series.

Dallas will win one game, probably at home, but the Aces’ experience will help them advance to their second straight WNBA Finals.

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.

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