Game 1 of this desert duel did not disappoint!
The No. 2 seed Las Vegas Aces protected The House, fending off the No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury. The squads square off for Game 2 on Thursday at 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2).
Here are three big picture questions that could determine how the second showdown of this five-game semifinals series unfolds:
Will the Aces’ backcourt again boogie? Or, will it be the battle of the bigs?
When you think about the Las Vegas Aces vs. the Phoenix Mercury, you usually think about the bigs. It’s about A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage, with a large dose of Dearica Hamby. On the other side, it’s Brittney Griner, supported by fellow All-Defensive teamer Brianna Turner.
While Griner was fantastic in Game 1 with 24 points, Wilson and Cambage had more muted performances than expected.
Wilson was clutch down the stretch — scoring six of her 15 points in the fourth quarter — but it was the Aces backcourt that propelled them in Game 1.
The headliners were Riquna Williams, with 17 points in the first half and 26 total, and Kelsey Plum, with 20 second-half points and 25 total. Yet, the contributions of Chelsea Gray should not be overlooked. An often too-reluctant scorer in recent seasons, Gray provided a perfect balance of shotmaking and playmaking on her way to a double-double of 17 points and 12 assists.
If the Vegas guards are again that good, expect the Aces to triumph, even if Skylar Diggins-Smith improves upon her 10-point struggle.
However, it is hard to imagine the bigs not taking center stage. Although the Liz vs. BG battle remained light hearted on Tuesday, things certainly could get more tense if Wilson and Cambage are under more pressure to score and Griner continues to have to tussle with two defenders almost every time she touches the ball.
This back and forth between Brittney Griner and Liz Cambage pic.twitter.com/5e1l9J8IyS— ESPN (@espn) September 29, 2021
Can Phoenix outshoot Vegas from 3?
By now, WNBA fans are familiar with the Aces’ unconcern with the 3-ball. In a sport increasingly infatuated with the analytic advantages of the 3-point shot, Vegas head coach Bill Laimbeer remains unmoved, instead insisting that his squad own the paint and get to the line (two areas that also contribute to analytically-friendly, efficient offense).
If the Aces make more threes than their opponent, it generally gives them an edge.
In Game 1, the Aces and Mercury both made nine 3-pointers, with Vegas going 9-of-19 and Phoenix shooting 9-of-31. Advantage, Aces.
While the high volume of 3-pointers a hobbled Diana Taurasi has heaved (12.5 per game in the playoffs) drags the Mercury’s overall percentage down, Phoenix has to make more than 29 percent of its 3-pointers if it wants to steal a game in Vegas. Encouragingly, Kia Nurse has shot the ball well from deep during the playoffs, hitting almost 39 percent of her 18 total attempts. Sophie Cunningham has the proven potential to pop off from deep. Using the double teams that Griner draws to generate open threes for Nurse and Cunningham might be better offense strategy than early-clock, contested threes from Taurasi. Of course, the widely-presumed GOAT can (and will) drain absurd shots, rendering such strategizing silly.
Regardless, Phoenix needs to win the 3-point battle.
What about the free throw line?
If they can also win the free throw battle, things will be looking even better for the Mercury.
During the regular season, both Vegas and Phoenix feasted on free throws. The Aces led the league with 21.9 free throws per game, with the Mercury following with 19.4 attempts per game.
In Game 1, the free throw situation was fairly equal. The Mercury got to the line for 16 free throws, making 13. The Aces shot 20 free throws, netting 15.
Notably, the WNBA’s two free throw queens — Skylar Diggins-Smith (6.2 attempts per game) and A’ja Wilson (six attempts per game) — were not major factors. In Game 1, Diggins-Smith was not drawing fouls on her drives, shooting only two free throws. Wilson was closer to her norm in terms of getting to the line, but she missed four of her five attempts.
Whether Diggins-Smith or Wilson can supplement their floor scoring by earning (and making) a significant number of free throws could swing this contest.
No. 2 seed Las Vegas Aces (1-0) vs. No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury (2-1)
When: Thursday, Sept. 30 at 10 p.m. ET
Where: Michelob ULTRA Arean in Las Vegas, NV
How to watch: ESPN2
Key to the matchup: During the broadcast of Game 1, Pam Ward and LaChina Robinson frequently mentioned that Phoenix was playing their third game (and their third close game) in six days, whereas the Aces had enjoyed nine days off. Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith lead the playoffs in total minutes played at 117 and 114 minutes, respectively. This workload, in combination with a flight to Seattle and a flight to Vegas, seemed to be taking its toll on the Mercury. Thursday will mark their fourth game in eight days. Do they have enough in the tank to again give the Aces trouble in Game 2? It would not be surprising if Phoenix did not have enough get up and go to keep up with a fast-paced Vegas team that will feed off the energy in Michelob ULTRA Arena.
Aces injury report: Angel McCoughtry (out for season; right knee)
Mercury injury report: none