When the Las Vegas Aces took a 2-0 lead in the 2022 WNBA Finals, it was the eighth time in league history that a team had won the first two Finals games in a best-of-five series. In the previous seven instances, the team had gone on to sweep.
The Aces entered Thursday night on a five-game win streak, punctuated by a rout in Game 2 when they were able to get anything they wanted in the second half against Connecticut. They had yet to lose a road game in these playoffs, going 3-0 in Phoenix and Seattle. All signs pointed to a Las Vegas win in Game 3, and a 9-2 start for the Aces only confirmed that impression.
Instead, Las Vegas fell apart soon after that hot start. After setting the nets ablaze for the first eight games of the postseason — and scoring 42 in the Finals thus far — Chelsea Gray finally had a relative off night, scoring just 11 points along with seven assists and four turnovers. The Aces had plenty of other miscues throughout the game, but the Sun keyed in on slowing Gray; that put the entire Las Vegas offense out of rhythm and allowed Connecticut to stay alive in the series with a 105-76 win.
The most significant adjustment that the Sun made to attempt to contain the human fireball that is Chelsea Gray was switching DeWanna Bonner onto the Vegas guard. In previous seasons, Connecticut has used five-time all-defense selection Jasmine Thomas as its primary defender on Gray to great effect, but with Thomas out for the season, that job had initially fallen to Natisha Hiedeman. The 5’8 Hiedeman is more of an offensive specialist and far too slight to disturb the 6’0 Gray, so the Sun were forced to give the assignment to 6’4 Bonner, who had done well to limit Jackie Young in her first two games.
“Length. Length,” Connecticut coach Curt Miller said of the decision to give Bonner the Gray matchup. “Chelsea Gray’s numbers are historic right now on contested shots. So we were pleased going into tonight, two games, 27 of her 33 shots in this series had been contested. 27 contested shots. So we were staying in place with her, trying to make them difficult, but she has an incredible release point and incredible knack of scoring while contested. So we decided a little bit more length on her, and we knew everyone’s going to guard her, everyone’s going to guard her tonight. But let’s put some length on her.”
The numbers speak for themselves, but it was noteworthy seeing Bonner actually affect Gray’s jumper. Even when it seemed like Gray was able to create some space from Bonner with her speed, Bonner was able to recover and provide a decent contest — as Miller said, those haven’t really mattered, but a Bonner contest means more than one from Hiedeman or Courtney Williams because of Bonner’s wingspan.
Gray only took seven shots after taking 17 and 16 in the first two games, so Bonner’s presence appeared to limit her aggressiveness as a whole. That was abundantly clear when Bonner subbed out with three minutes left in the first half, and Gray proceeded to hit three consecutive threes on the ensuing three Aces possessions. Being guarded by 2022 first-team all-defense Alyssa Thomas was apparently a reprieve from dealing with Bonner, because Thomas is at least not as long.
Bonner’s disruption also meant Gray became less involved in the offense. She induced Gray to give the ball up earlier, meaning Kelsey Plum or Jackie Young were often bringing the ball up the floor. Even when Gray had possession in the half court, she got off the ball early and let the rest of her Aces teammates play 4-on-4, which didn’t go that well considering they were without their best creative force.
“I’m just trying to stay locked in, try to limit her touches as much as I can, not give her too much room, try to use my length more than anything,” Bonner said postgame. “I’m a 6’4 guard for a reason, so I just try to use my length, use my speed.... However I can limit her touches or try to limit her from seeing the basket, get a clean look at the basket, is what I’m trying to do before she even gets to her spot.”
Bonner added that it was a team effort for Connecticut to contain Gray. It wasn’t just individual defense that flustered the Aces floor general; the Sun also put hard traps on Gray, whether that was icing Gray to the baseline or extending their pressure all the way to midcourt. That required help from Thomas and Jonquel Jones to meet Vegas’ screeners at the level of the pick, show on Gray, and then recover.
While Connecticut’s entire lineup was on a string to make the defensive rotations, the Aces’ effort wasn’t as coordinated to work out of the traps. At the start of the game, the Sun were helping off of Jackie Young, and she hit three 3-pointers to make them pay for paying extra attention to Gray. But once Connecticut adjusted to that mistake, Las Vegas was out of answers, at least in the first half.
Gray mostly made the right passes out of pressure, but the traps did their job of taking time off the shot clock, forcing the Aces into multiple shot-clock violations. Other than A’ja Wilson, no other Las Vegas players made quick enough decisions once Gray got the ball out of the trap, and that wasted the clock while also allowing the Sun time to get back to their original assignments on defense.
On one instance, Plum pump faked instead of getting the ball immediately to Wilson, and that gave Thomas time to get her body in front of the M’VP. On another, Riquna Williams and Plum dribbled the air out on the perimeter, and Wilson didn’t have enough time to get a shot off when she got the ball. Later in the game, Kiah Stokes didn’t come to the ball when Gray floated a pass to her, allowing Hiedeman to jump in for a steal.
“They really trapped Chelsea hard, and we didn’t do a great job, personally me, like figuring out — getting to those outlets,” Plum said postgame. “Becky calls it a .5 pass; so making a decision in .5 seconds. The ball stuck a lot and that was my fault, picked up my dribble a lot. And yeah, I mean, you have to give credit to their defense. They were super aggressive and they full rotated, and they made us hit, like, the third pass. We just didn’t keep the ball moving, and, you know, that’s on me.”
“But if we got it out of the blitz, I thought we were too hesitant a lot of times with that first pass out,” Becky Hammon said. “We held it, just let the defense recover. They threw in a little bit of zone, and we expected that, because why not, if you’re them.”
Las Vegas started to develop some counters after halftime. Gray would initiate the offense right before the screen came to avoid the trap while still bringing over a second defender to open up the rest of the floor. Gray also functioned as the screener herself, forcing Connecticut to choose between switching Bonner off her or giving Plum (or another ball handler, but usually Plum) a runway to the lane.
But Gray not scoring in the second half — and only scoring two points outside of that one-minute binge — is not a sustainable way for the Aces to play. They need her to get more offense and be more involved in the half-court process as a whole.
Maybe it’s disingenuous to critique the Las Vegas offense when the team surrendered 105 points and was lousy defensively. But the Aces have the ability to compete in shootouts; they just did against the Storm, who finished right behind the Sun in defensive rating during the regular season. And when their offense is bad, it creates opportunities in transition for Connecticut, which gets the Sun in a rhythm. There are feedback loops, and Las Vegas being unable to get into a flow on offense — which was sparked by Bonner’s defense — changed everything in Game 3.
“I’m not surprised they did (put Bonner on Gray),” Hammon said. “Why wouldn’t you try something different? That’s about the only matchup they didn’t try. So I think it’s a good adjustment by them. And when they had early success with it, it fuels the fire when you don’t burn it early. So again, we’ll go back, look at some tapes and things we can do better. But at the end of the day, as great as they were, I think we were way below average in things that we needed to do, and things that we can control. You can’t control what they do. You can’t control the adjustments or what they do but in things that we can control, we can do much better.
“They didn’t do it a whole lot different. They just did it harder. They have been blitzing us the whole series. They just did it harder, and we responded soft.”
The Aces attempted to mount a response in the second half Thursday and came up short. Now it’s on the them to bring that effort for a full 40 minutes as they attempt to once again bring the city of Las Vegas its first professional title.