Last year’s playoff semifinal between Las Vegas and Phoenix was the most dramatic series of the postseason, a five-game nail-biter that featured three lead changes and four ties in the pivotal fourth quarter, punctuated by a game-saving block from Brittney Griner. (We are BG, today and always.)
Unfortunately, this year’s quarterfinal matchup is likely to be the least exciting of the 2022 WNBA postseason. If the excitement of that semifinal was foreshadowed by a 2-1 regular-season series that was decided by six total possessions, then this year’s first round figures to be a snoozefest after the Aces routed the Mercury convincingly in all three regular-season meetings.
Then again, all three of those games were in May, and Phoenix was without Diamond DeShields and Brianna Turner in the first, while Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles played in all three. The Mercury will be without the latter two — plus Skylar Diggins-Smith — for this upcoming series, so throw out any predictive value from those May matchups.
First-round series schedule
Game 1: Phoenix at Las Vegas (minus-15.0), Wednesday, Aug. 17 (10 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Game 2: Phoenix at Las Vegas, Saturday, Aug. 20 (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Game 3 (if necessary): Las Vegas at Phoenix, Tuesday, Aug. 23 (TBD)
“I mean, they’re just a completely different team from across the board,” A’ja Wilson said about Phoenix Tuesday, “but I can say the same about us. “When it comes to schemes. when it comes to personnel, we’re a different look as well.... When it comes to playoffs, you got to pay attention to tendencies, you got to pay attention to just personnel as a whole. So that’s what we’ve been focusing on. We can’t really harp on anything that happened early in season because that doesn’t matter at this point. It’s over. It’s out the window. Now it’s the start of the new season.”
The main change for the Aces since then comes in the starting lineup. Las Vegas had been using the same starting five when healthy, for the first three months of the season, but made the surprising change to move Dearica Hamby to the bench during the final week in favor of Kiah Stokes at center. That theoretically would have added more pop to the Aces second unit, but Hamby has since been injured and ruled out for the first round of the playoffs, leaving a thinned out bench yet again. Becky Hammon only really seems to trust Riquna Williams and Iliana Rupert, but Theresa Plaisance and rookies Kierstan Bell and Aisha Sheppard are around.
That means Las Vegas will rely heavily on its starters, but that’s what they live for.
Kelsey Plum hated coming off the bench under Bill Laimbeer and showed exactly what she could do in expanded minutes, finishing second in the league in scoring and ninth in assists while stilling posting remarkable efficiency (50 percent on twos, 42 percent on threes, 84 percent on free throws). The 27-year-old has always been a plum playoff performer with a slash line of 50.6/43.8/93.1 in 31.9 minutes per game.
Plum’s other backcourt mates have more to prove in the postseason. Jackie Young has been something of a playoff nonfactor, with defenses ready to pack the paint against her; her regular-season 2-point percentage of 47.2 drops to 32.4 in the postseason. This is the fourth-year player’s chance to use her newfound 3-point jumper to open up some driving lanes and change the way opposing teams play her in series.
Chelsea Gray also ended her L.A. tenure with some uneven showings in the playoffs, particularly against Jasmine Thomas and the Connecticut Sun. That type of defense won’t be awaiting the Aces floor general this time around, and she acquitted herself fine against Phoenix a year ago. But if Gray really wants to assert herself as the best point guard in the league — a moniker that seems fair considering how she closed the regular season — and lead Las Vegas on a title run, there is another level for Gray to hit.
Then again, the player ultimately responsible for leading the Aces to a championship will be Wilson, and the MVP frontrunner is the first to admit that she did not play well enough in last year’s postseason. Her series averages of 14.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game against the Mercury look good on paper, but Las Vegas was outscored by 5.2 points per game with Wilson on the court. Considering that the Aces were essentially even with Phoenix when former center Liz Cambage played without Wilson, it was an unsatisfying performance for the Las Vegas leader.
Wilson has played the entire 2022 campaign with the fire a player who had a chip on her shoulder. A four-time player of the week and two-time player of the month this season, Wilson has improved her efficiency all over the floor. She put up the highest field-goal percentage of her career despite adding threes to her shot diet. She’s anchored the Aces defense as a first-time center, leading the league in blocks and finishing second in defensive rebounds.
At its peak, Las Vegas is brimming with All-Star performers, and the Aces finished the season pretty close to their best. Their opponents, on the other hand, are stumbling into the playoffs. Credit to Phoenix for winning enough down the stretch to hold off the likes of Minnesota and Atlanta, but this Mercury team is nowhere near the squad that won an elimination game in Las Vegas a year ago.
The offense will have to come from a heavy barrage of threes, which the Aces will surrender, and points in transition, which the Aces do not. If Las Vegas can stay in front of Diamond DeShields and any other attackers into the paint, that will shut off Phoenix’s drive-and-kick offense.
The Mercury defense might have even more struggles against the Aces. Phoenix has subsisted on a heavy diet of zone defense, playing zone on one-eighth of its possessions this year, while surrendering 0.875 points per possession, per Synergy Stats. (Per Her Hoop Stats, league average offense was about 0.91 PPP). The problem for the Mercury is that Las Vegas was exceptionally good against zone this year, obliterating junk defenses for 1.343 PPP. It’s unclear how Phoenix can possibly hold up in man-to-man considering its limited roster depth, but zone might not be the silver bullet.
As it stands, every advantage points to the Aces. A championship-winning point guard, playoff tested veterans, an MVP candidate — the Mercury have none. Even a potential weakness in a rookie head coach in Becky Hammon (who may just win Coach of the Year, but for argument’s sake) is mitigated by the fact that Phoenix is also led by first-timer Vanessa Nygaard. Las Vegas has a better offense, a better defense, rebounds the ball better, and commits fewer turnovers. This isn’t like last year when the Aces were heavy favorites but still succumbed to some star talent on the other side: there are no good reasons for the Las Vegas to fall short this time around.
It’s the postseason, so anything could happen, but if the Aces take themselves seriously as championship contenders, and potentially favorites given their status as the no. 1 seed, this series should be short work. Great teams don’t mess around. This matchup is a gift for Las Vegas, and this team needs to treat it as such.