The Las Vegas Aces are just four wins away from the ultimate goal—again.
After winning a WNBA-record 34 games during the 2023 regular season, the Aces have steamrolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs, defeating the Chicago Sky and Dallas Wings in the minimum five games while outscoring their opponents by an average of 15.3 points per 100 possessions. None of this is unexpected for the reigning WNBA champions, who in several ways have built upon their championship-level success of last season and become the league’s newest juggernaut.
There’s just one thing standing in the way of the Aces and true “dynasty” status: the New York Liberty. Often referred to as a “super team” after assembling a star-studded lineup through multiple massive offseason transactions, the Liberty have been hot on the Aces’ tail for all of 2023, and were the only team Las Vegas lost to more than once in the regular season; the Aces and Liberty split their four-game regular-season series, and that’s not including the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup Championship, which New York won handily.
Ever since the beginning of the 2023 season (and perhaps even before), the Aces and Liberty have been on a collision course to meet in the WNBA Finals. That day has come. Game 1 of the 2023 WNBA Finals between the Aces and Liberty will tip off this Sunday, Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. ET and get the national broadcast treatment on ABC.
Will the Aces become the first WNBA team to repeat as champions since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2002? In the Liberty, they’ll face the stiffest possible test. Let’s analyze a few key matchups and how the Aces might be able to take advantage of them.
A’ja Wilson vs. Breanna Stewart is the ultimate power forward matchup
At the center of every matchup between the Aces and Liberty is, of course, the individual matchup between A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.
The two forwards, commonly regarded as the best the WNBA has to offer, have had their share of battles over the years. Both are two-time Most Valuable Player winners, with Wilson earning the award in 2020 and 2022 and Stewart winning it in 2018 and 2023.
Even though Stewart most recently took home the league’s ultimate regular-season honor, a case can be made that 2023 was Wilson’s strongest season to date—an impressive feat in itself for the five-time All-Star. Wilson posted career-highs in several statistical categories, including scoring (22.8 points), rebounding (9.5 rebounds) and shot-blocking (2.2 blocks) while recording the best true shooting percentage (62.7 percent; fourth in the WNBA) of her career. Wilson also tied the WNBA’s record for points scored in a game (53 on Aug. 22) and won Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second-consecutive season.
If that’s not impressive enough, Wilson has raised the bar even higher thus far in the playoffs. Through five games (all Aces victories), Wilson is averaging 25.8 points (67.5 percent true shooting), 11.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game, once again proving that she’s at her best when the lights shine the brightest.
In elite company ✨@_ajawilson22 averaged 25+ PTS, 10+ REB, and 3+ BLK per game in a 5-game playoffs stretch, joining Lisa Leslie as the only two players to average such a stat line in WNBA Playoffs history #WNBAPlayoffs | @Google | #MoreThanGame pic.twitter.com/ZShlq56n2T— WNBA (@WNBA) September 30, 2023
Stewart may be the reigning MVP, but in Wilson, the Aces have perhaps the only player in the WNBA who can match—or even outplay—the talented Liberty forward. That Wilson and Stewart play the same position adds immediate intrigue to the series, and the Aces should feel confident if things come down to their best versus their opponents’ best.
Aces backcourt offense vs. Liberty backcourt defense
The Aces can match the Liberty’s firepower elsewhere on the court, too. Las Vegas’ perimeter trio of Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum arguably is the best in the WNBA at creating shots off the dribble; each player can provide instant offense in their own right, though the Aces prefer to spread the ball around and not rely on any one scorer. Gray, Young and Plum combined to average 51.6 points and 15.6 assists per game during the regular season, and their individual games fit so well together that Las Vegas typically doesn’t even need all three of them playing at their best to still have a considerable advantage at guard.
That might not be the case against New York, though. If there’s one perimeter group that can match that of the Aces, it’s the Liberty’s. Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu’s on-ball wizardry is on par with Gray’s and Plum’s while Betnijah Laney’s strong, aggressive play similar to Young’s.
One thing is for sure: A strong series from Plum would go a long way for the Aces. While Gray (16.8 points and 8.3 assists per game) and Young (17.8 points per game and 57.9 percent 3-point shooting) played well in their regular-season series against the Liberty, Plum averaged fewer points against New York (14.3) than she did against any other team and shot below 40 percent from the field in those four games.
It’s especially crucial for Plum and her teammates in the backcourt to score the ball efficiently in the Finals, as their opponents (with the exception of Laney) are generally not defensive-minded players. If the series isn’t decided by which power forward plays better, it may instead be by which guards are at the top of their respective games.
No. 2 seed New York Liberty (0-0) vs. No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces (0-0)
When: Sunday, Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, NV
How to watch: ABC
Aces injury report: Candace Parker (out; foot), Riquna Williams (out; not with team)