The WNBA Finals sure have been a rollercoaster. No one expected the New York Liberty to be on the brink of elimination as quickly as they were. The Las Vegas Aces dominated the first two games and threatened to sweep the Liberty as they headed into Game 3 on Sunday afternoon.
The Liberty were able to recover from their unusually poor performance in Game 2 and, aided by the energy of playing at home, won Game 3. No sweep for the Aces this time! Still, the Liberty will face elimination once again as they welcome the Aces back to Barclays Center for Game 4 on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN). They’ll be fighting to even the series at 2-2 and take the Finals to a deciding Game 5 in Las Vegas on Friday night. No team in WNBA history has ever come back from a 0-2 start to win a finals series.
The biggest storyline going into Wednesday’s Game 4 is the fact that both Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes of the Aces have been ruled out due to foot injuries.
Chelsea Gray and Kian Stokes will both be out for Game 4, per Aces head coach Becky Hammon.— Khristina Williams (@Khristina) October 17, 2023
Gray and Stokes join Candace Parker on the injury list; Parker has been out since July recovering from her own foot injury. Her absence has meant the Aces not only have lacked depth and size, but also have missed her veteran presence on the court.
The absence of Gray and Stokes, in addition to Parker, changes things colossally for the Liberty. The reality is that injuries happen. But it’s extremely disappointing to think about top players having to sit out an exciting series. Both teams obviously want to go up against their opponent’s best; it’s more competitive that way. Still, there is no denying the injury news gives New York an advantage.
Injuries just suck. I continue to hold out hope that Chelsea (and now Kiah) are able to bounce back quickly. It’s an absolute bummer that we’re not seeing this matchup at full strength, because W fans deserve that, and these players work so damn hard for this moment.— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) October 17, 2023
So how does this shift change things for the New York Liberty going into Game 4?
New York must exploit their frontcourt advantage
One of the weakness this Aces team has is a lack of true depth on the bench—a weakness that certainly is made up for by the sheer talent of their starters. With two starters out, Becky Hammon will have to rely on her bench in a way she has not had to all season. The bench, collectively, has only played 97 minutes in the postseason.
The Liberty will now have an advantage in the frontcourt. Replacing Stokes and Gray in the starting lineup likely will be Sixth Player of the Year Alysha Clark and Cayla George. Other than A’ja Wilson, the only other true center on the Aces roster is Alaina Coates, as Cayla George is classified as a “forward/center.”
With a lack of depth, going up against Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart in the front court will be a defensive challenge for the Aces. Stewart hasn’t necessarily played her best in this series, but don’t be surprised if she turns it up. Jonquel Jones has been crucial to the success of the New York Liberty in the postseason; she could absolutely dominate in the post if the Aces don’t have the size needed to defend her. Of course, they have the Defensive Player of the Year in A’ja Wilson—but she can only do so much.
There is also Betnijah Laney to worry about, who often has a quiet-yet-outstanding performance for the Liberty. She is averaging 11.7 points per game in this series.
The Liberty have to hold down the Aces’ backcourt
New York’s backcourt will also have to step up in Game 4, as the setbacks for the Aces will only make them more dependent on their own backcourt of Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young. Those two alone have combined for 45.3 points per game in the Finals so far. So while losing Chelsea Gray is obviously a huge blow, the Aces still will have the ability to score. On the other hand, Courtney Vandersloot has struggled in the Finals so far, averaging 10.3 points per game.
NY Liberty stats through the Finals so far:— Women’s Hoopz (@WBBWorldWide) October 16, 2023
10.3 PTS | 3.7 REB | 5.3 AST
8.7 PTS | 4.0 REB | 6.3 AST
11.7 PTS | 2.0 REB | 2.7 AST
18.3 PTS | 11.3 REB | 3.0 AST
21.7 PTS | 9.3 REB | 2.7 BLK | 64% FG#WNBAFinals
More so, Sabrina Ionescu also will have to have a big game on Wednesday night if the Liberty are going to push this series to five games. In regular-season matches against the Aces, she lit it up from 3 and was a key factor in the Liberty’s successes. Hopefully, the homecourt atmosphere will help her turn it on for Game 4.
Another way Sandy Brondello can boost her team’s backcourt, especially with the absence of Chelsea Gray as a defender, will be with Marine Johannès. MJ had some absolute circus shots in Game 1 and could be an x-factor for the Liberty. In those possessions where Johannès was able to get those shots off, she was guarded by Chelsea Gray.
This series has not looked like anything we expected. The injuries to Gray and Stokes make the odds of New York pushing the Finals a deciding fifth game more probable than ever. But it will still be a challenge. As fans, we definitely want to see as much WNBA hoops as possible, and also hope that injured players can recover quickly. Regardless, it will be a game you don’t want to miss!
No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces (2-1) vs. No. 2 seed New York Liberty (1-2)
When: Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY
How to watch: ESPN
Liberty injury report: Han Xu (out; not with team)