September 28, 2021 

Liz Cambage returns just in time to help Aces’ push for ring

Another year, another chance at championship glory for the Las Vegas Aces

Another year, another chance at championship glory for the Las Vegas Aces, and luckily for them a major piece is back in place.

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The Aces will take on a strong Phoenix Mercury squad tonight in the first game of the 2021 WNBA Semifinals, and 6’8 center Liz Cambage will be suiting up for just the second time since she’s been out due to COVID health and safety protocols. Cambage logged her first nine and a half minutes back against the very same Mercury in the last game of the regular season, scoring four points and hauling in four rebounds.

Despite that setback, Liz is all smiles and can’t wait to get back to her larger role and help her team compete for the trophy.

Cambage’s back, alright

This season has been one of twists and turns for Liz, from adjusting to her role on the floor to opting out of the Olympics to coming down with COVID. One thing has remained constant: her dedication to the Aces.

Now is the time for that dedication to pay off. Though her minutes will likely be limited early in the playoffs as she continues to recover, head coach Bill Laimbeer plans to take advantage of the overall impact Liz has on the game.

“This series is going to be a working process for us and for her. I expect her to play as hard as she can, but she’s not going to be able to play extended minutes at this time. I have to get her in and out of the game quickly, but we’re both on the same page.”

Cambage’s impact on the Aces’ playstyle could not be understated. The dynamic duo of her and A’ja Wilson has been damn-near unstoppable throughout the season. Her dominance in the paint, not just swatting away enemy shots, but putting up points of her own, will be crucial for Vegas as they seek out their ring.

When it comes to facing fellow big and Olympian Brittney Griner in the best-of-five series — a match-up that has been fun to watch in the regular season, Liz is looking forward to it. “It’ll be fun,” she says through a wide smile.

While it will be fun, it’ll also be a challenge.

“You’ve got a team with three Olympians,” Laimbeer said of the Mercury. “Griner is a very talented post player who is very motivated this year. Diana Taurasi is Taurasi — it’s just three-balls all over the place. Skylar Diggins-Smith penetrates and creates all over. The rest of them are role players who do a very solid job. They’re a quality basketball team.”

Gray matter

Nearly all of the Aces have seen playoff action, including 2016 WNBA Champion Chelsea Gray, who Vegas bolstered their roster with this past offseason.

Needless to say, that move has paid off well for them, with Gray putting up some of the best passing numbers in franchise history. Her 5.91 assists per game are second only behind Danielle Robinson‘s 6.74 in 2013.

Gray also came up just three assists shy of the team’s record for assists in a season at 189 (Becky Hammon has the most with 192). The point gawd did make some records of her own, notably most assists in a game (14 on Sept. 8 against the Minnesota Lynx).

Numbers are great and all. But more importantly, Gray’s court vision and ability to sink clutch shots have helped reshape this Aces squad.

“We had a fine team, but we were short-handed across the board,” Laimbeer said about going after Gray in the off-season. “We got her for an extra guard and she passes well and leads well. She’s been there and done that so she’s got the experience… She’s a big shot player, and she’s made big shots her whole career. You know she can get her own if necessary and also set people up and find the right scenes to make passes.”

Gray’s veteran status and leadership qualities have been huge in the locker room, too; as she’s helped the younger players find their footing and elevate their game throughout the season. She’s selfless and loves watering the garden that is her teammates.

Gray’s uncanny ability to figure out who is hot and get the ball into that player’s hands has helped push players like Jackie Young to have career nights this season. The point gawd has also drained a couple of game-winners of her own. The momentum she’s brought to this team isn’t going to slow down any time soon.

The young and the ringless

Only one current Ace has zero WNBA playoff experience at all-rookie Destiny Slocum. Otherwise, Laimbeer is working with an experienced and talented group of players.

After being swept by the Seattle Storm in last year’s Finals, the Aces are out for revenge this season. They’re playing with something to prove. Especially Wilson, who has said on a couple of occasions throughout the season that she “never wants to get swept again.” She’s using that feeling as fuel to spark this year’s run for the ring.

It’s just about the only thing left for her to do. She’s already a college superstar with a statue on her campus, 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year, 2020 WNBA MVP, just to name a few accolades. And her numbers this season have been nothing short of impressive, averaging 18.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.3 bpg and 87.6 FT%. Some of these numbers are actually improvements over her MVP season, notably rebounds, assists and free throw percentage.

Now, her eyes are set on that elusive championship ring and she wants to bring younger players along for the ride.

“A lot of people wish they were in your spot,” A’ja said when asked what advice she’d give to newer hoopers in the playoffs. “Take it all in and understand that your role can change at any minute. Destiny could come in and people get into foul trouble and she comes in and has the best game of her life. So just be ready when your name is called and never lose sight of being in the playoffs.”

The quest begins tonight at 7 p.m. PT as the Aces take on the Mercury in game one of the WNBA Semifinals.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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