The Las Vegas Aces got an early opportunity for playoff revenge in the first round of the playoffs, facing off against the team that knocked them out of the 2021 postseason and dispatching the Phoenix Mercury (or what was left of them) in two games.
Now, the top-seeded Aces get a second opportunity to even the score against the fourth-seeded Seattle Storm, who defeated Las Vegas in the 2020 WNBA Finals. The Aces were the no. 1 seed in that matchup as well, but since the entire season was contested in Bradenton, Fla., homecourt wasn’t really an advantage.
Even though only two years have passed since that series, Las Vegas looks dramatically different. A’ja Wilson is the only starter remaining from the starting five (Danielle Robinson, Kayla McBride, Angel McCoughtry, Carolyn Swords, and Wilson) who took the floor in the 2020 Finals, and only Jackie Young remains from the rotation. Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum were both injured, and Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams, and Kiah Stokes had yet to arrive in free agency. The Aces drafted Iliana Rupert after those Finals and then changed coaches from Bill Laimbeer to Becky Hammon this past offseason.
The enemy on the other side looks mighty familiar, though. The Storm retain three of their starters, and they’re the most important ones: Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, and Sue Bird. Epiphanny Prince still runs the second unit, and Ezi Magbegor has graduated from bit player to third big. Noelle Quinn was the associate head coach for Seattle that season and has since been promoted to head coach, providing some continuity on the bench as well.
Maybe Wilson and Young are the only current Aces who individually bear the scars from that series, but the way they brought the hurt to a Phoenix team that had one remaining starter from last year’s semifinal round makes it seem like Las Vegas doesn’t forget easily. The Storm won a title in 2020 that the Aces are still searching for, and it’s only fitting that the path to this year’s championship goes through Seattle.
Semifinals series schedule
Game 1: Seattle at Las Vegas, Sunday Aug. 28 at 1 p.m. PT, ESPN
Game 2: Seattle at Las Vegas, Wednesday Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. PT, ESPN2
Game 3: Las Vegas at Seattle, Sunday Sept. 4 at 12 p.m. PT, ABC
Game 4 (if necessary): Las Vegas at Seattle, Tuesday, Sept. 6, ESPN2 (Time TBD)
Game 5 (if necessary): Seattle at Las Vegas, Thursday, Sept. 8, ESPN2 (Time TBD)
Regular-season series (Aces won 3-1)
Las Vegas and Seattle met during the first weekend of the season, with the Aces pulling away in the fourth quarter behind Kelsey Plum’s 14 points to win 85-74. The two teams wouldn’t play again for another seven and a half weeks, at which point the Storm had acquired Tina Charles. This time, it was Seattle that made a fourth-quarter run to win by 10, though Charles didn’t play much of the final period.
More than a month passed until meeting number three, which happened to be Bird’s final regular-season game in Seattle, and Hamby’s first game coming off the bench after starting entire regular season to date. Las Vegas trailed briefly to start, but behind Wilson’s 29 points, took a 24-23 lead and never looked back. As Wilson said postgame, “I wasn’t trying to crash Sue’s party. She invited me to the party!”
The Aces kept the party going on the final day of the regular season for the fourth matchup, as Las Vegas mounted another fourth-quarter comeback to secure the top overall seed in the postseason. Gray erupted for 33 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter when she earned 11 trips to the foul line. Wilson and Plum chipped in with 25 and 23, respectively, and the Aces didn’t even need Hamby or a slightly hobbled Young en route to victory.
What do the Aces do well?
Las Vegas crushed the rest of the league in offensive efficiency this season, scoring 109.6 points per 100 possessions. The gap between the Aces and second place was bigger than the gap between the second and sixth place, which incidentally, was the Storm (102.6 offensive rating).
The hub of the Vegas offense is Wilson, the MVP frontrunner. She put up 22.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game against Seattle this season. Even when an individual defender — like Brianna Turner in the first round — can keep up with Wilson 1-on-1 in isolation, Wilson is still a dynamic roller off of screens and can space the floor, necessitating quick decisions from the opposition. She’s also outstanding at drawing fouls to get her team into the bonus early.
The beauty of the Aces attack this time around, compared to 2020, is that Wilson is flanked by three perimeter scorers who can each get their own shot. Young had previously been unable to use her bully-ball approach in the postseason, as opposing defenses packed the paint, but shooting 43 percent from three this season means the lane has opened up for her, and she is a willing shooter from everywhere on the court. Plum was the league’s second-leading scorer and is just as capable of stepping back for a 3-pointer as she is knifing her way to the rim, where she shoots 59 percent.
Young and Plum each demand high-level perimeter defenders, and that’s before Gray decides to find her own offense. Gray is perhaps the most audacious passer in the WNBA and creates open looks for her teammates out of thin air, but she’s also an incredibly physical guard who can get to her spot on the elbow for a pull-up middy on any possession. The Storm have two strong on-ball guard defenders in Gabby Williams and Loyd, but Bird will be tested in isolation against whoever she is stashed on. If Seattle tries to get creative and hide Bird on Kiah Stokes, Las Vegas would have a sizable advantage on the offensive glass, especially against a Storm team that already struggles to collect defensive rebounds (ninth in the league in opposing offensive rebound percentage during the regular season).
Defensively, the Aces are excellent at limiting shots at the rim. They also have Wilson (who led the league in blocks) and Stokes as rim protectors should opponents get to the basket. Plum and Gray aren’t the stoutest defenders at the point of attack, but a steady diet of zone — plus Young taking the toughest guard assignment — mitigates those issues, as does the cleanup crew of Wilson and Stokes.
Las Vegas also has a coach in Becky Hammon who isn’t afraid to experiment but also leans on her best players as much as possible. With only three games over the first eight days of this series, expect heavy minutes from the Aces best five.
How can Seattle make life difficult for Las Vegas?
In a word, Stewie. Wilson is an ideal individual defender for Stewart, but given the responsibility she bears for the Aces offense, Las Vegas will probably elect to start with Stokes on Stewart, her former UConn teammate. Stokes can’t really hang with Stewart when the former MVP initiates from the perimeter, and any extra attention given to Stewart means open shots for Bird or Loyd, or cutting lanes for Williams.
Loyd has been on a heater of late, since scoring only one point in the penultimate matchup against the Aces. She’s one of the best tough-shot makers in the league, and Young (presumably) will have her hands full in the battle of two former no. 1 picks from Notre Dame. Charles can also cause damage when her shot gets going, and at the very least, could put the Las Vegas frontcourt in some foul trouble with her consistent post-ups.
The Storm have a stout defense overall, and Magbegor is an overqualified backup who will come in handy against Wilson, but their aggressive help principles will leave openings for the Aces guards to create their own shots. They’ll have to be more disciplined to have any hope of slowing down Las Vegas.
Are there any notable injuries?
The Storm lost Williams to a concussion in the third quarter of Game 2 against Washington. Her status for the semifinals is unclear.
This is a dream matchup for the WNBA postseason. Two MVP candidates facing off at the power forward position, seven no. 1 picks in the starting lineups, two head coaches who were both former players representing a changing of the guard for the league. Seattle hasn’t lost a playoff game with Stewart healthy since Game 4 of the 2018 semifinals against Phoenix, but the Aces have also have won the regular season series against the Storm for four years running.
Seattle is one of the premier franchises in WNBA history, with a GOAT in her prime and a legend on her way out. There is no better opportunity for Las Vegas to demonstrate that it is finally worthy of being a championship team.