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Four takeaways from the Aces’ first-round win

Las Vegas comfortably advanced to the WNBA semifinals with two easy wins over the depleted Phoenix Mercury.

Phoenix Mercury v Las Vegas Aces - Game One Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Las Vegas Aces advanced to the second round of the WNBA playoffs with a two-game sweep over the Phoenix Mercury. After pulling away in the fourth quarter of Game 1 to win 79-63, the Aces were dominant throughout in Game 2 to win 117-80, the second-largest margin of victory in WNBA postseason history.

Here’s how Las Vegas took the first step in its pursuit of the franchise’s first WNBA title.

Kelsey Plum just keeps getting buckets

Kelsey Plum has always been an outstanding playoff performer. She scored 15.2 points per game in her postseason debut in 2019, finishing second on the Aces after being the team’s fifth-leading scorer (8.6 ppg) during the regular season. It’s impossible to forget her using ESPN’s LaChina Robinson to amp herself up during those WNBA semifinals.

In 2021, Plum was the team’s leading scorer during the postseason, dropping 19.6 points per game against the Mercury. Entering this season, Plum has raised her regular-season scoring average of 10.1 points per game to 17.4 in the playoffs. Per Las Vegas PR, prior to this season, only player had ever made a bigger jump than Plum in at least 10 playoff games: Kahleah Copper, the 2021 Finals MVP.

It would be hard for Plum to maintain that same level of increase this year after scoring 20.2 points per game during the regular season, but she’s still lifted her game, ever so slightly, for the Aces during these playoffs. More importantly, Plum was a consistent source of offense for Las Vegas during the opening round. As the rest of her Aces teammates took a while to find their footing, check out Plum’s points through the first seven quarters against Phoenix (she didn’t play in the fourth of Game 2 due to the blowout): 4, 7, 5, 6, 6, 5, 11.

It also doesn’t hurt that Plum does a lot of her own work. The beauty of the Las Vegas offense is that all the ball movement results in mostly assisted shots: 16-of-26 in Game 1 and 31-of-41, a number that even pleased Becky “I only talk about defense” Hammon. But Plum was assisted on less than half of her makes over the two games, using a diet of pull-up threes and knifing attacks to the basket to create her own looks. When things get stagnant in the half court, it helps to have a bucket getter who can score no matter what the defense is doing. That’s who Kelsey Plum has always been, and the player she was once again in the first round against the Mercury.

The M’VP made her mark on defense

A’ja Wilson didn’t have the strongest offensive performance in Game 1, though she rebounded nicely in Game 2. She seemed almost too overexcited at times, resulting in some uncharacteristic offensive fouls and turnovers, and she didn’t have her touch at the rim, perhaps in part because of the defense from Brianna Turner.

But Wilson always makes a positive impact, whether it’s with the defensive attention she draws, her rebounding, or with her defensive player of the year-worthy defense.

Wilson has a knack for disrespectful blocks, totaling five over the two wins against Phoenix. Her recoveries at the basket were critical for the Aces to get stops because the guards kept letting the Mercury drive right into the paint. She was capable of staying with Phoenix perimeter attackers on switches and did an excellent job of cleaning the glass, particularly in the first game when her shot wasn’t falling.

Chelsea Gray has a sense of the moment

The Aces didn’t look like the best team in the WNBA for large stretches of the first game, and were only up one with 8:48 to play despite Phoenix dealing with severe personnel shortages. Two minutes later, Megan Gustafson hit Gray with a flagrant foul on the way to the basket, and that’s when the Point Gawd took over.

Gray hit both free throws for the flagrant and followed that up with a pull-up three thanks to a Kiah Stokes screen since Las Vegas maintained possession. On the next play, she got to her trademark elbow middy and splashed a jumper. The Aces were up nine and would never look back.

Plum’s scoring kept Las Vegas afloat, as did Wilson’s defense; but when the Aces needed a finishing kick, they turned to their floor general, their coach on the floor, and Chelsea Gray brought them home.

Gray had a similar sense of theatrics in Game 2, but brought them earlier in the contest. She had some ridiculous hesitations to throw her defender off balance in the paint, gorgeous dimes — including a wrap-around to Wilson on a pick-and-roll, and borderline unfair jumpers in transition. That last banked three was just rude. It all resulted in a stat line that defies belief: 27 points on 9-of-11 shooting, 7-of-8 on threes, and 8 assists to 1 turnover.

The last time Las Vegas the no. 1 seed in the postseason, the team didn’t have a real point guard. That couldn’t be further from the truth now.

What version of the Aces will show up?

The Aces kind of played with their food against the Mercury, knowing that a team without Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and then Shey Peddy didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep up. That resulted in some stilted offensive execution in Game 1, when Las Vegas aimlessly moved the ball side-to-side against the zone and settled for bailout jumpers. It also resulted in some disinterested defense at the beginning of Game 2, when Diamond DeShields told the ESPN broadcast that she saw open lanes on the way to the hoop.

Las Vegas was able to coast to a win in the first game thanks to one good quarter, and then doubled that output in the second game. Still, there was no good reason for the Mercury to be within four after 10 minutes in Game 2, or to have put up 30 points in a quarter with a starting lineup of DeShields, Jennie Simms, Yvonne Turner, Sophie Cunningham and Brianna Turner.

The Aces deserve credit for being disciplined on defense in the first contest and sharing the ball so well in the second, but they need to put both sides of the ball together for more consistent stretches against whoever emerges as their opponent in the second round. Phoenix didn’t have the juice to threaten Las Vegas, but Seattle or Washington will. The basketball gods won’t be so kind if Las Vegas puts forth this type of effort in round two.