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2019 WNBA Semifinals Analysis (Game 3): Aces’ defense shakes the shine off Mystics’ offense to keep season alive

A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage scored a combined 49 points to give the Las Vegas Aces a 92-75 win over the Washington Mystics in Game 3 of the WNBA Semifinals. Kelsey Plum was a big part of the Aces’ success. Next up, a chance to even the series on Tuesday.

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Washington Mystics v Las Vegas Aces - Game Three
A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage finally jelled into the explosive front-court duo everyone hoped they’d be. On defense, the pair was downright grizzly.
Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

After six lead changes and the game tied four times, the Las Vegas Aces were ahead 92-75 at the final buzzer to win semifinals Game 3 against the Washington Mystics. How did Vegas come up Aces? By cleaning up their own messes, namely turnovers, errors with clock management and the like. But to overcome the top-seeded team in the WNBA — along with the top-ranked offense and a 50-40-90 MVP — more was needed than finding ways to avoid beating themselves. The Aces needed to suppress the Mystics’ scoring and improve their own.

Here’s how Vegas got it done and what they’ll need to do to prepare for another win-or-go-home game this postseason:

How Vegas came up Aces in semifinals Game 3

Buoyed by the plucky fans inside Mandalay Bay Events Center spurring them on, the Aces came up with their second big win-or-go-home win of the 2019 postseason. This time, however, it wasn’t a Hamby Heave to get it done — trick shots won’t do this deep in the playoffs — but a balanced effort of lockdown defense, shrewd point guard playmaking and frontcourt dominance (in that order).

Step 1: Muffle Emma Meesseman

As the old adage goes — for snakes (and, more sordidly, for NFL players, per their coaches in that league’s early days): Kill the head and the body will follow. For the Aces, the “head” of the Mystics was Belgium native Emma Meesseman and she needed to be stopped. In Games 1 and 2, Meesseman averaged 28.5 points and eight rebounds. To put an end to that madness, the Aces swarmed her on the perimeter, where she’d been lethal, and forced her to take inside shots against physical forward A’ja Wilson and 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage. The result was a six-point scoring outing for Meesseman, on 6-of-8 shooting.

All of the shots she took from the perimeter, she missed.

WNBA Stats

But the Vegas defense was a team effort and worked on the whole Washington team, allowing or forcing:

  • 25% 3-point shooting from league MVP Elena Delle Donne
  • 5 turnovers by Ariel Atkins
  • 16.7% field goal percentage for Natasha Cloud
  • 38.6% field goal shooting for the Mystics
  • 33.3% 3-point shooting for the Mystics

Vegas also dominated D.C. on the boards, out-rebounding Washington 40-28.

Individually, Aces frontcourt stars A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage did a lot to frustrate Meesseman, keeping her from getting open on the perimeter and out-muscling her under the basket. It was a physical game, with Natasha Cloud literally tripping someone up (no call) and Cambage elbowing Meesseman in the head (no call). After the game, Cambage was critical yet again about the frustrations of banging with “undersized” players in the post, seemingly addressing Meesseman specifically with a challenge to “get in the weight room or get out of the post.”

Whether Cambage’s barb will serve as motivation for the 6-foot-4, 191-pound Belgian — and for LaToya Sanders, too, who at 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds is the smallest center in the league — to come out strong in Game 4 is yet to be seen. But Cambage (6-foot-8, 216 pounds) and Wilson (6-foot-4, 195 pounds) asserted the full force of their powers, becoming a two-woman wrecking crew that kept all Mystics starters, plus Kristi Toliver off the bench, in negative plus-minus.

Wilson pulled down eight boards and Cambage retrieved six. Each recorded two steals apiece, and all of the Aces’ blocked shots came from Wilson (two) and Cambage (one).

Former coach of the year Mike Thibault will work his wizardry in Game 4 to prevent this kind of defensive domination. He will find ways to help his three-point point machine, Meesseman, get better looks.

Step 2: Continue the Plum playmaking

Point guard Kelsey Plum is a different beast in the regular season versus the playoffs — coming off the bench versus running with the starters. During Sunday’s contest, a broadcast graphic showed Plum had scored zero points and grabbed zero rebounds to that point in the game. Yet, it was the best basketball of Plum’s season, if not her WNBA career.

Energetic defense, sharp court vision, crisp ball movement, speedy drives to the rim characterized Plum’s nine points, nine assists and seven rebounds — the cusp of a double-double and almost a triple-double.

But those single-digit numbers are a disservice to Plum’s actual contributions. She made just 2-of-9 shots from the field (22.2%) and one of her three points from distance (33.3%). But her playmaking — including assists, rebounds, perfect free-throw shooting and one steal — put her at a game-high +21 (tied with Liz Cambage).

Plum’s on- and off-ball energy set the tone for the team’s pace and defensive effort. She will need to have a repeat performance in Game 4, keeping playmaking as her priority but being ready to swoosh in a 3-pointer if left alone on the perimeter.

Step 3: Beat the Mystics at their offensive game

With Meesseman muffled and Washington’s offense sufficiently out of sorts, the Aces got better scoring opportunities. Vegas is the top defensive team in the league and their efforts on the boards transformed their offensive production. The Aces grabbed 12 more rebounds than the Mystics, with nine of their 40 coming on the offensive glass. The result: Vegas outscored Washington on second-chance points 20-5.

Using their defense to push the Mystics into inefficiency gave the Aces a 48.6% advantage in shooting from the field (to the Mystics’ uncharacteristic 38.6%). The Aces also shined in three-point shooting, making 42.9% of their shots from long range while keeping the Mystics to a paltry 33.3%.

Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby found herself in foul trouble, but her timely three-point shooting and hustle rebounds — for 10 points, four rebounds, one steal and +12, off the bench — played a big role in the win. Inserting Hamby allowed Wilson and Cambage to catch a few minutes of rest, keeping them as fresh as possible for minutes down the stretch.

Cambage was the game-high scorer with 28 points. Wilson and Kayla McBride contributed 21 points and 18 points, respectively.

How to watch Game 4

The Aces can tie things up in Game 4 at Mandalay Bay on Tuesday, Sept. 24 (9 p.m. ET/ESPN2).

Do the Aces make this a five-game series? Will the Mystics wrap things up to prepare for the Sun, who clinched their Finals bid in a 3-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Sparks on Sunday?

Tell us in the comments.