The WNBA Finals are upon us and the matchup everyone wanted is about to occur, the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces face off against the No. 2 seed New York Liberty. Both teams have been head and shoulders above the rest of the league and have had some incredible matchups during the regular season. They ended their season series 2-2, but the Liberty have bragging rights with their Commissioner’s Cup win. The Aces, however, have what matters most: home court advantage in the Finals.
With both teams evenly matched and Las Vegas having three games of data on what a loss against the Liberty looks like, what can the Aces takeaway from those defeats to ensure they don’t suffer the same result in this series? Let’s take a closer look.
Heavy lies the crown
Despite all the talent on the Aces roster, it will still come down to their best player making the big plays when it matters. And for Las Vegas, that’s A’ja Wilson. The back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year protects the rim, averaging 2.2 blocks and 1.4 steals per game. Both are career highs. She’ll have the defensive responsibility of guarding players such as Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart. Her success in defending them will play a significant role in who wins or loses this series.
Wilson struggled mightily on the offensive side of the ball in two of the three losses against the Liberty. In the Commissioner’s Cup final, she only scored nine points on 2-for-10 shooting. In the Aces’ Aug. 6 defeat, she replicated that performance with a nine-point 2-for-14 stinker. That cannot happen in the Finals. If it does, the Liberty will win; it’s that simple.
The inside game
Besides a lackluster game from Wilson, what else is in the recipe for an Aces loss?
In each Liberty win, New York dominated points in the paint. The cumulative score inside for those games was a 99-71 advantage for the Liberty. With New York being the best 3-point shooting team in the league, they become a nearly-unbeatable offense if you allow them to utilize Jones’ size and attack the paint. You have to take something away from the Liberty to win; if they are dominating inside and outside, the consequence will be a loss.
Pat Riley famously said, “No rebounds, no rings.” It was true in the NBA of the 1980s and it’s true in today’s WNBA. You need to give your team second-chance opportunities by grabbing offensive rebounds and end possessions by getting defensive boards. The Aces were destroyed on the glass in their three defeats, losing the battle 140-83. The devil is in the details; small things like boxing out and crashing the boards could make all the difference.
Matchup wrinkles to watch
Individual matchups and counters will be fascinating. The Liberty have thrown different defenders on Wilson, finding success with Stewart and Jones. Putting Betnijah Laney on Chelsea Gray didn’t stop the Point Gawd, but it did make her have to work harder, as Laney has the speed and physicality to stay in front of Gray. The Aces will have to win these individual matchups and come up with solutions on the fly when things are not going in their favor.
One player I have concerns over is Kelsey Plum. She appeared to be constantly targeted in multiple games. The Liberty were determined to make sure she was defending the ball handler, wanting to put her in as many pick and rolls as humanly possible. Plum will have to be a solid enough on defense in order to not be a liability and discourage this tactic throughout the series. Otherwise, she may see a slight reduction in minutes.
Vegas may be favored to win it all, but the margins for error are slim. It’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to beat the Liberty three times in five games. Still, if the stars step up and the Aces clean up the glass and keep the Liberty out of the paint, then Las Vegas can win their second title in a row, make their case as one of the all-time great teams and be a title away from becoming a dynasty.
We’ll see if they start the series off strong on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.