Game 1 of the WNBA Finals didn’t go as planned for the No. 2 seed New York Liberty, at least in the second half. Despite holding a three-point lead at halftime, the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces erupted in the third quarter, outscoring the Liberty 26-16. Vegas dominated the second half, taking Game 1 99-82.
It certainly was a game New York would like to forget. But with Game 2 tonight (9 p.m. ET; ESPN), how can the Liberty even the series?
What went wrong?
The Liberty’s guards were absolutely dominated by Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum. The New York backcourt of Ionescu, Vandersloot and Laney were outscored 72-28 by the Vegas backcourt of Gray, Plum, and Jackie Young. That 44-point difference could have looked a lot worse if not for Marine Johannès’ fantastic shooting performance in the first half.
Ionescu and Vandersloot have to be more aggressive hunting for their shots. There were moments in the second half where Vandersloot was not even looking for her shot, which puts a ceiling on the New York offense and limits everyone else on the court.
After the game, Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello spoke about the team’s backcourt struggles, saying, “Our guards they just had a little bit of a tough night, that’s not going to happen two games in a row. We believe in them, they’ve carried us all season long, we’ll still put the ball in their hands, and we want them to be confident and do what they do.”
During the regular season, the Liberty led the WNBA in 3-point attempts and 3-point makes per game by a sizable margin, but I don’t believe they necessarily are a better 3-point shooting team than the Aces. The Liberty prioritize attempts from behind the arc, which pays dividends when you are shooting well. Yet, when you face a team like the Aces that also shoots the ball well (both teams shot approximately 37 percent from 3 this season), the returns don’t look as impressive. Both teams made nine 3-pointers on Sunday. The Liberty, however, attempted seven more 3s than the Aces.
Defensively, the Liberty struggled containing Young and Plum, as both erupted for 26 points. The Aces were the best offense in basketball this season and part of what makes them so difficult to defend is the constant motion. Split cuts and dribble hand-offs put a lot of pressure on New York and forced their guards to defend, something that Las Vegas will certainly make them do again in Game 2.
What went right?
Jonquel Jones had a phenomenal game. From the opening tip, the Aces made a concerted effort to make her navigate through as many screens as possible and she did a great job doing so, altering shots at the rim and being a force on the glass. Jones finished with 16 points, most of which came in the first half. The Liberty gave her the ball early in this game, as the Aces had Kiah Stokes guarding her and didn’t send any double teams or aggressive coverages towards her. Perhaps that coverage will change in Game 2, but, if not, that definitely is a matchup New York should go to more as the series progresses. If the Aces are going to live with single coverage, the 2021 MVP will have the chance to put up big numbers.
Of course, offense will be at a premium in this matchup, so Marine Johannès likely will play a huge role for the rest of the series. She finished with 14 points in 16 minutes and was a plus-8, hitting one-legged threes falling out of bounds. When Vegas traps Johannès, as her shot making forced them to do, it opens up so much for the Liberty offense; if she continues to hit shots, good things will happen.
Marine Johannes is ridiculous— Teg (@IQfor3) October 8, 2023
4 first half threes, all difficult shots, what a start to the WNBA Finals pic.twitter.com/TmCNXKrojy
Most importantly, Johannès’ first-half minutes helped New York win the minutes when MVP Breanna Stewart was on the bench. It will be fascinating to see how both coaches manage playing time for Stewart and A’ja Wilson. For New York, it is imperative that they win the minutes when Wilson is off the floor and stay afloat when Stewart goes to the bench.
I anticipate this being an extremely close series since both teams are very balanced. The Liberty are a team that can beat the Aces. To do so, New York will need to get better guard play from Ionescu and Vandersloot on both ends and they must win the minutes when A’ja Wilson goes to the bench.
No. 2 seed New York Liberty (0-1) vs. No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces (1-0)
When: Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, NV
How to watch: ESPN
Liberty injury report: Han Xu (out; not with team)