Las Vegas Aces’ sweep for trip to WNBA Finals proves their mettle

A’ja Wilson has been a destroyer of worlds over the past month. She ended the regular season by scoring at least 30 points in each of the final three games while shooting 68 percent from the field. She followed that up by becoming the first player in WNBA history to score 30 points in three consecutive playoff contests, adding two steals and 3.3 blocks per game, as the Las Vegas Aces swept the Chicago Sky in the first round and had the Dallas Wings on the brink of elimination entering Friday night.

Given the September that Wilson has put together, the expectation was that she would be Las Vegas’ most dominant offensive force as the Aces attempted to close out Dallas in Game 3. But she wasn’t; the Wings wouldn’t let her. Ultimately, the totality of the contributions up and down the roster resulted in a 64-61 victory for Las Vegas as the Aces advanced to the WNBA Finals for a second straight season and showcased their mettle in their chase for a repeat championship.

“That’s what this group has worked the offseason for, being in the type of shape to lock in mentally and get it done,” Kelsey Plum said. “It was a complete team effort. It was really cool to be in there as a unit, it says a lot about this team, and it says a lot about the character.”

It became clear early in the game that Dallas would be devoting more attention to shutting down Wilson after her dominant start to the series. Natasha Howard got the primary assignment on the two-time MVP, but the Wings consistently sent another body at Wilson. They elected not to guard Kiah Stokes, or Alysha Clark when she was the fifth player on the court, and essentially zoned off Wilson to force the rest of the Aces to beat them.

Las Vegas doesn’t have much experience winning when Wilson has a bad offensive night, because she simply doesn’t struggle to score very often. As a result, the Aces initially struggled to break through that defense in the halfcourt. When they tried to force the ball to their best player, she struggled to control possession, resulting in nine turnovers — her previous high in a playoff game was four giveaways — and Dallas scored 15 points off of the No. 1 seed’s 20 miscues. The paint was clogged for most of the evening, and even when Las Vegas tried to drive and kick, the kick-outs were intercepted or went to the shooters that the Wings were deliberately leaving open.

What helped was a greater commitment to cutting. Sometimes, that was Kiah Stokes flashing her way to the rim unimpeded because no one was matching up with her on the perimeter, and she caught a dump-off pass or was in position for an offensive rebound. She had only four points, but the Aces are 23-2 when Stokes scores this season. Jackie Young had some timely cuts to the basket that didn’t necessarily result in baskets at the rim but did shift the defense enough so that the next pass created an open jumper.

The Aces used Stokes as a handoff hub at the 3-point line, exploiting the space created by her defender sagging into the lane. They deployed Wilson more as a screener if they couldn’t feed her the ball, whether that was stagger screens to open a driving lane for Chelsea Gray or back screens to free Young for a 3-pointer, which worked to great effect during the game-ending 11-0 run.

“When we’re able to get the ball side to side and do our second action, our secondary movement, it spread the floor for us a little bit,” Gray said.

It helped that Gray hit a series of tough shots to keep Las Vegas in contact. Of her seven made field goals for a team-high 15 points — a highlight reel of pull-up jumpers, fadeaways and high-arcing runners — all of them came with a hand in her face.

The Aces also buckled down on the other end of the floor. Young shot 3 of 10 from the field, but she hassled Arike Ogunbowale into an 8-of-24 performance as her primary defender. Gray was strong on Satou Sabally and picked her spots to double in the post, collecting two steals. Plum had a critical defensive possession in the final five minutes, standing up Veronica Burton on a drive. Clark did the same on an ensuing possession, getting back in transition despite missing a 3-pointer to contest an Ogunbowale shot at the rim and preserve what was then a tie game.

And Wilson lived up to her billing as the back-to-back defensive player of the year. Her presence helped limit Dallas to 50 percent shooting in the restricted area. She posted 13 rebounds, two steals, two blocks and numerous more contests, including recovering to Natasha Howard on a wing 3-pointer that could have given the Wings a two-point lead with less than four seconds to play.

“At the end of the day, there’s defenses that, when they’re just totally committed to taking something away, it’s the rest of the group too that has to come along to help and loosen it up,” Becky Hammon said. “I suspected they were going to do something because she’s been on an absolute tear. And they made their adjustment. And like I said, luckily for us our defense — which she is always the anchor of — won us that game.”

Hammon and the Aces would prefer to put together prettier stretches of basketball. As she said postgame, this is an entertainment product, and people don’t want to see games in the 60s. But if winning ugly is what it takes to win championships, that’s obviously what Las Vegas will do.

“This is a special group,” Gray said. “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 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.”

(Photo of Chelsea Gray: Cooper Neill / NBAE via Getty Images)

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