At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Brittney Griner gave us Gold-Medal Griner, scoring a record 30 points in the gold medal game in order seal a seventh-straight gold for Team USA.
In the semifinals series between the No. 2 seed Las Vegas Aces and No. 6 seed Phoenix Mercury, Griner has raised her game to an even higher level. Through three games, she has averaged 22.3 points on almost 61 percent shooting from the field, while also contributing 8.3 rebounds, five assists and two blocks per game.
However, Griner’s impact has exceeded her stats. She has been an unstoppable force, but in a cool, almost nonchalant, manner, unbothered by double teams as she has dimed up teammates or scored over two defenders.
If the Aces cannot solve and slow Griner, they will be going home after Game 4, which tips off in Footprint Center in Phoenix on Wednesday night at 10 p.m. ET (ESPN).
What can the Aces do to insure that the series returns to Sin City for Game 5? It all starts with their two twin-tower stars — A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage.
A’ja Wilson has to find her game
It has been a rough semifinals series for the 2020 MVP.
In Games 1 and 2, Wilson was efficient — scoring 15 points and 12 points on 58.3 percent and 50 percent shooting, respectively — but she was not consistently involved in the Aces’ offensive action. In Game 3, Wilson had 14 field goal attempts. Yet, she only converted two of them — good for a field goal percentage of 14.3 percent — on her way to eight points.
For the regular season, the Aces had the best offense in the league, with an offensive rating of 107.1. This top mark was achieved behind elite play from their bigs, which was captained by Wilson and her 18.3 points per game.
In the playoffs, Vegas’ offensive effectiveness has severely waned, with their offensive rating dropping to 99.6. Instead of running things through Wilson, the Vegas guards have driven their offensive attack. While this strategy was successful in Game 1, as the back court trio of Chelsea Gray, Riquna Willams and Kelsey Plum combined for 68 points, it has been subsequently less successful, with Vegas managing only 60 points in Game 3.
Although the length of the Brittney Griner-Brianna Turner tandem clearly has bothered Wilson, the Aces need to figure out a way to get her going.
Can Vegas get more from Liz Cambage?
Still regaining her conditioning after an August bout with COVID-19, Cambage has been limited to less than 20 minutes per game, with head coach Bill Laimbeer playing the Aussie in short three to four minute stints.
The Aces could use more from her, particularly on the defensive end.
During the regular season, the Vegas had the league’s second-best defense, with a defensive rating of 96.0. Cambage’s defensive rating was 91.3, the best among the Aces’ rotational players.
In the playoffs, Vegas’ defense has not been on point, evidenced by their abysmal 120.5 defensive rating. It has been (somewhat) better when 6-foot-8 Cambage is on the court and able to defend Griner in single coverage. Although she cannot solely solve the Aces’ defensive woes, more court time for Cambage could help to re-solidify the Vegas defense by forcing Phoenix to orient their attack away from Griner. (Although, potentially opening things up for another Diana Taurasi explosion certainly is not the solution.)
More Cambage also could boost the Aces’ offense, especially when Griner is off the court. She can overpower the other members of the Mercury frontcourt for easy buckets. With Wilson’s offensive struggles, Vegas could use a big-time performance from Cambage.
However, are Cambage and Laimbeer willing to push her limits in a do-or-die contest?
No. 6 seed Phoenix Mercury (4-1) vs. No. 2 seed Las Vegas Aces (1-2)
When: Wednesday, Oct. 6 at 10 p.m. ET
Where: Footprint Center in Phoenix, AZ
How to watch: ESPN or TSN4
Key to the matchup: Although Brittney Griner has been brilliant, she is not solely responsible for the Mercury’s 2-1 series advantage. Neither is Diana Taurasi, even as she added an incredible 37-point performance to her already illustrious postseason resume. Quite simply, the Mercury — up and down their roster — have wanted it more. After letting Game 1 get away from them, they brought another level of tenacity to Games 2 and 3, playing with a focused fire for the full 40 minutes in both games. The Aces, in contrast, have not consistently played with playoff-caliber intensity. Sometimes, an outcome of a game and series is determined by which team just plays harder. If the Mercury can keep that same energy, they will advance to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2014.
Mercury injury report: Sophie Cunningham (questionable; left calf strain)
Aces injury report: Angel McCoughtry (out for season; right knee)