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Looking back on the 2020 WNBA Finals: What went wrong and what has changed for Vegas?

No Las Vegas Aces fan wants to hear about Breanna Stewart’s 37 points in Game 1 of the 2020 Finals right now, but we looked back to see what’s fueling the Aces this time around.

WNBA Finals - Game One
A’ja Wilson (left) and Breanna Stewart
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Oddly, the Las Vegas Aces have been the No. 1 seed in both 2020 and 2022, when they weren’t predicted to be the No. 1 team, and were the No. 2 seed in 2021, when they were predicted to be the No. 1 team.

In 2020, ESPN ranked the Aces at No. 4 in their preseason power rankings and this year at Swish Appeal we ranked them fourth in the preseason as well.

The 2020 team edging the predicted No. 1 Seattle Storm with a No. 1 seed tiebreaker was not expected, but the Aces went 2-0 against the Storm in the regular season. Sue Bird did not play in either game and Breanna Stewart missed one of them.

That may have been a lucky break for Vegas, but an 18-4 record is impressive nonetheless and the winning percentage of .818 stands as the highest in franchise history. Second is 2021 (.750) and third is 2022 (.722).

A’ja Wilson was of course the regular-season MVP in 2020, averaging 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals and two blocks. She accepted what was her first MVP award just two years after winning Rookie of the Year and a month and nine days after she had turned 24.

Wilson and Angel McCoughtry came up huge in the semifinals to dig the Aces out of a 2-1 hole against the Connecticut Sun (their opponent in this year’s Finals). However, neither would not go on to be the best player on the floor in the Finals against the Storm. Breanna Stewart was absolutely phenomenal en route to winning Finals MVP.

Game 1

Game 1 started off well enough for Vegas. It trailed by just two after one. It then lost the second by 15, but won the third by the same margin.

The third may have gone to the Aces, but a 13-0 run for Seattle began with Jewell Loyd free throws at 16 seconds remaining in the frame. Stewart proceeded to go an 11-0 individual run to open the fourth that put the Storm up 80-67. The team from the Pacific Northwest led by at least eight the rest of the way and won 93-80.

Stewart finished with 37 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks while Loyd added 28 points and four assists and Sue Bird dished out 16 helpers.

The Aces were last in the league with 4.2 made threes per game in the regular season but shot 10-of-21 from beyond the arc, making one more trey than Seattle. However, they lost field goal percentage 50 to 35.1 and points in the paint 48-18.

McCoughtry was Vegas’ leading scorer with 20 points (nine rebounds). Wilson followed with 19 points (six boards).

Game 2

Seattle had three 20-point scorers in Game 2 (Stewart, Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard) and two others in double figures (Sue Bird and Jordin Canada). It won 104-91.

Stewart had 22 points, five assists and two steals. Clark had 21 points and six helpers. Howard had 21 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Bird had 16 points, 10 assists and two steals and Canada chipped in 10 points.

The Storm’s shooting got even hotter than in Game 1: 57.1 percent from the field. So even though the Aces shot 52 percent, it wasn't enough. Both teams shot over 40 percent from three with Seattle making 12 treys to Vegas’ eight. The Aces won the rebounding battle for the second straight game, this time by a wider margin of eight. They also turned the tables in the paint, winning 46-44.

Wilson had 20 points, seven boards, two steals and two blocks. McCoughtry and Emma Cannon each had 17 points, Kayla McBride had 14 and Danielle Robinson stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, six rebounds and 10 assists.

Game 3

The score after one quarter of Game 3 was the same as the score after the first quarter of Game 1 (23-21 Seattle), but the Aces lost the second by seven, the third by 18 and the fourth by six to end their season with a disappointing 92-59 loss.

Stewart dropped 26 points while Loyd had 19 points, nine rebounds, four helpers and two steals. The Aces went cold from the field again, shooting 34.4 percent compared to the Storm’s 47.5 percent effort. The Storm also turned the tables on the glass, winning 42-33, forced 19 Vegas turnovers, winning that margin by 11, and won points in the paint 44-22. Vegas made just two threes to Seattle’s seven.

So while the Aces had the advantage or kept it pretty even in some categories in Games 1 and 2, Game 3 was just domination by the Storm. It created the narrative that the series was never close and that Vegas never had a chance going in. That Stewart, Loyd, Bird, Howard, Clark and Canada was simply a superior roster to what Vegas was left with after Liz Cambage opted out of the season, Kelsey Plum suffered a season-ending Achilles tear and Dearica Hamby suffered a knee injury in the semis.

Nobody blamed Wilson for not being able to win it on her own, but she was hard on herself. She had 18 points, six rebounds and four assists in Game 3. The next closest Ace in the scoring column was Jackie Young with 11 points.

Of course, with Cambage, Hamby and Plum set to return, Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams both coming over from the Los Angeles Sparks in free agency and Wilson, McCoughtry and Young all returning, the Aces were seen as a super team entering 2021.

Here’s Cat Ariail’s take on the expectations Vegas faced following their Finals loss (this was written before 2021 free agency brought in Gray and Williams):

What went wrong/changes since 2020

The Aces only had one good shooting game for starters. They also let a close game slip away in the fourth quarter in Game 1 and Game 2. Then, in Game 3, they lost their advantage on the boards and turned the ball over far too much. But really, an all-time great player in Breanna Stewart and an all-time great big three were on the other side and Vegas just did not have the pieces to compete. They showed in the 2022 playoffs that with the right pieces around Wilson they could beat Stewart, Loyd and Bird.

Because of that semifinal triumph, they are back in the Finals, and they’re also now up 1-0 on the Sun. No more Cambage, McBride or McCoughtry, but Plum and Young both improved a ton this year and Gray has taken her game to and all-time great level in the playoffs.

Neither Cambage or McCoughtry is a big 3-point shooter and Gray and Williams are. Plus, Young and Wilson are shooting far more threes than they did in 2020. So the Aces are all about the three ball now with Wilson still getting it done in the paint as well and it has led them to a slightly better offensive rating (111.9 compared to 109.6 in 2020). And with Gray they have the best clutch closer in the game at the moment, something they didn’t have in the 2020 Finals.

2022 WNBA Finals - Connecticut Sun v Las Vegas Aces
Point guard Chelsea Gray (with ball) is shooting 61.1 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from three in the 2022 playoffs.
Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

Bill Laimbeer led the Aces to their two best winning percentages in franchise history, so it’s hard to call Becky Hammon more successful yet. But she has gotten them a Finals win, something Laimbeer never achieved with Vegas. He of course has three rings from his time as the head coach of the Detroit Shock though.

Even if Hammon isn’t as decorated a coach as Laimbeer yet, her style (shooting the three) and the Aces’ new supporting cast’s style (shooting the three) may be a better way of complementing Wilson skills than the Aces’ pound the paint strategy under Laimbeer and with Cambage.

The Sun also recently lost a Finals and have never won one. For a look back at their loss in the 2019 Finals, click the related link below:

If the Aces do erase the memory of 2020 and win a title, it will be a huge relief for a team that has faced such high expectations in recent years. To read about what else it would mean, click the related link below: