In the postseason, seeming certainties can evaporate in an instant.
Just a few days ago, the Las Vegas Aces appeared destined to dominate their way to a second-straight championship, up 2-0 in the WNBA Finals after a pair of authoritative wins. Even as they played Game 3 without the crispness of previous contests, the Aces remained within striking distance, a mere run away from seizing control of the game, sweeping the New York Liberty and celebrating the WNBA’s first back-to-back championship in more than 20 years.
However, with just over four minutes remaining in Game 3 and the Aces trailing by eight, Chelsea Gray exited with a foot injury. Suddenly, what seemed so assured now appears incredibly daunting. Not only will Gray miss Wednesday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN), but so will Kiah Stokes, who also is dealing with a foot injury. That means head coach Becky Hammon is down two starters from the six-player rotation she has relied on for much of the playoffs.
Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes will be out for Game 4. Both have foot injuries. Questionable to return for Game 5, per Becky Hammon.— Alexa Philippou (@alexaphilippou) October 17, 2023
Gray is on a scooter and Stokes on crutches
The Aces’ reserve—of both players and spirit—will be tested as the seek to finish off the Liberty and claim the championship. Although a home Game 5, with the potential returns of Gray and Stokes, awaits if they fail to get the job done, extending the series as the now-underwomanned team is risky. Here’s why and how the Aces need to go all in in Game 4:
Can A’ja, Jackie and Kelsey go the full 40?
When at their best, the Aces overwhelm, unleashing a cascade of buckets from all over the floor as they also defend with urgency. An under-appreciated reason Vegas is able to dial up such dominance is their elite fitness level. A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum might be the fittest trio in the W.
Athletically, Wilson often appears to be on another level. She is relentless, never letting up as she runs the floor, attacks the basket and patrols the paint. During the first two games of the Finals, she frequently bounded off the hardwood on her first, second and third jumps, making it look as if Liberty players were stuck in mud. Young’s combination strength and speed likewise is unparalleled. On offense, she can bully through defenders and burst to the basket with apparent ease. Her effort never wavers on defense, whether fighting through screens or standing her ground. Constant motion is Plum’s brand. Ball in her hands or not, she zooms up the court and around the half court when the Aces are on offense. On defense, she is an incessant irritant, ceaselessly pestering opponents.
In Game 4, they might need to marshal all those energies and abilities for a full 40 minutes. Plum already did so in Game 3, while Young went for 38 minutes on Sunday. Last year, Wilson played the entirety of Vegas’ title-clinching Game 4 against the Connecticut Sun. So far in the Finals, she’s twice reached the 35-minute mark. Barring foul trouble, it is hard to imagine Hammon taking any of the three off the floor for more than a quick breather, if at all. For the playoffs, the Aces are plus-15.5 when Plum in on the court, plus-15.3 with Wilson and plus-14.3 with Young, the three highest plus-minuses on the team.
With the Aces’ now paper-thin rotation, giving one maximal effort in Game 4, rather two near-max efforts in Games 4 and 5, seems wiser, especially since the turnaround between Games 4 and 5 is the tightest of the series with Game 5 scheduled for Friday evening in Vegas. It’s a huge ask, but the trio has proven that they are prepared to assume such a burden and carry their suddenly-shaky “super” team to a second-straight title.
Will an unexpected hero emerge?
Asking for everything from Wilson, Young and Plum does not mean another Ace cannot, and will not, step up on Wednesday. At Tuesday’s practice, Alysha Clark and Cayla George suited up with the starters, suggesting both will join the starting lineup.
Cayla George and Alysha Clark aren't wearing the grey pinnies usually worn by the bench players.— Jackie Powell (she/her) (@ClassicJpow) October 17, 2023
Presumably, AC plays the three, and Cayla George replaces Kiah Stokes at the five along with Jackie Young, A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum. pic.twitter.com/0jqFDzpIka
Although she has yet to find her 3-point stroke in the Finals, Clark is a two-time champion. Aces fans might remember the 21-point Finals game she unleashed in 2020 as a member of the Seattle Storm, hitting a trio of 3-pointers and shooting better than 66 percent from the field. George played in 32 regular-season games, always coming off the bench and averaging 8.5 minutes per contest. She is unafraid to fire away from 3, even if her conversion rate does not make her a dangerous threat from deep. However, if she drains a timely shot or two from behind the arc, it could be enough to swing the game in the Aces’ favor.
During the regular season, second-year player Kierstan Bell most often was the seventh player in the Aces’ (Candace Parker-less) rotation. She thus far has seen only garbage-time minutes in the Finals and has yet to hit a shot from the field. But as a collegian at Florida Gulf Coast, Bell was a big-time bucket getter. And like George, she also will not hesitate to take an open shot from behind the arc.
Finally, it would be the ultimate feel-good story if Sydney Colson, the WNBA’s queen of good vibes and comedic relief, provided the extra punch the Aces will need to survive Game 4 and take their second-straight title. A member of Texas A&M’s 2011 national championship squad that knocked off two No. 1 seeds on their way to the title, Colson has experience performing in some of the tensest settings in women’s basketball.
In short, a Game 4 win for the Aces likely will look much different than once imagined, requiring a cocktail of greatness, grit, gumption and good fortune to overcome adverse odds and capture a second-consecutive championship.
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
Aces injury report: Chelsea Gray (out; foot), Kiah Stokes (out; foot), Candace Parker (out; foot)