For the Las Vegas Aces to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Seattle Storm in the WNBA Finals, league MVP A’ja Wilson needs to go above and beyond.
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The fourth quarters of Game 1 and Game 2 in these WNBA Finals have so far shown how clinical Seattle are, but also how rested they are compared to the Aces.
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WNBA seasons are often squeezed to fit around international tournaments, but this year was even worse with the coronavirus pandemic thrown in. Each team had to fit 22 games into 49 days. As the top seed, the Aces got a week off while other teams battled through playoff basketball but they then faced an unforgiving Connecticut Sun five times in nine days in the semi-finals.
Meanwhile, the Storm swept their semi-finals series against the Minnesota Lynx, and, consequently, their star Breanna Stewart has registered just 171 playoff minutes this year compared to A’ja Wilson’s 252 for Las Vegas in the same timeframe.
During the semi-finals, despite rugged, physical defense from one of the toughest defensive forwards in the league, Alyssa Thomas of the Sun, Wilson averaged eight points for Las Vegas in the fourth quarters of the semi-finals games. But it takes more than one player to stop the MVP and the Storm are showing exactly that, as she is averaging just three fourth-quarter points in these Finals so far.
While Thomas might have been strong, the Storm’s three bigs – Breanna Stewart, Natasha Howard and Mercedes Russell – are long, and they have been fronting, which gives Wilson problems. The Aces star can match strength, and she is crafty with the ball in her hands but she has struggled to touch the ball during the two fourth quarters so far, and is averaging just 3.5 shots, compared to nearly five shots against Connecticut, during the final frame.
Seattle Storm’s defense on A’ja Wilson has been great. Mini thread 👇
Wilson is only averaging 3 points on 3.5 shots in fourth quarters of the Finals, partly because Mercedes Russell has done a great job denying her the ball. pic.twitter.com/457dFHk8NN
In pick-and-roll defense, Storm head coach Gary Kloppenburg is sending two defenders at the ball handler, which makes it difficult for them to pass to a seemingly open Wilson. During that split second delay on the pass, the Storm are rotating well to make sure Wilson is in an uncomfortable spot outside the paint.
Seattle’s singularly focused defense might not be so effective if the Aces were at full strength. They are currently competing without injured back-to-back WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby, who is unlikely to be back, even if they delayed Game 3 by four weeks.
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Las Vegas scored 61.9 points per game when Hamby was on the floor this season, second only to Wilson. Her presence gave the team a second credible threat and allowed head coach Bill Laimbeer to find precious minutes to rest his MVP. That has been difficult in the playoffs, which is leading to fatigue.
Kayla McBride has not played like she did as an All-Star in the previous two seasons, and her point production is the lowest of her career. She has been fine against the Storm, but is averaging nine points in the playoffs and has perhaps struggled sharing space with Angel McCoughtry this year.
Coming off major surgery, McCoughtry only averaged 20 minutes per game during the regular season. In win-or-go-home Games 4 and 5 against the Sun in the semi-finals, Laimbeer played the 34-year-old more than 33 minutes in each contest. She scored 29 points and 20 points, respectively, and looked like the five-time All-Star of old.
In the Finals, however, McCoughtry has not played 28 minutes yet and she has averaged 18.5 points.
The Aces need something in Game 3. They got a lift from Emma Cannon in their last match-up: her 17 points was helpful, but it wasn’t enough, and it isn’t something you can rely on from someone who played a mere 24 seconds during the regular season.
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Laimbeer has been searching deep into his bench, but, somehow, they need to find a way for Wilson to break out in the fourth quarter if the Aces stand any chance.
She has the talent to step up in big games – and if there is a player with a better one-dribble pull-up jump shot in the league, please contact me @coach_huw – and the offensive system has been set up for her to thrive.
The Seattle Storm defense on A’ja Wilson is great, but if they make a late rotation, the MVP is gonna MVP and make them pay. If she catches the ball in the mid-post, her one-dribble pull-up might be the best in the game #wnba
A post shared by Huw Hopkins (@coach_huw) on
But that offensive system is easier to stop without a second threat.
On the defensive end, the Aces are still working hard. Wilson is leading in this department as well: she deservedly finished on the All-Defensive Second Team, leading the league with two blocks per game and finishing with seven defensive rebounds per game – both career highs.
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Where she led, the rest of the team followed by committing on that end of the floor. Hamby was excellent, Jackie Young was one of the most athletic perimeter defenders and took on the toughest assignments, Danielle Robinson was solid and Carolyn Swords – for the regularity in which she was targeted by opposing offenses – was immovable in the post, and worked hard to keep up with players away from the basket. A well-designed system and good coaching kept everybody working together.
The good news is that even if the Aces are swept in these finals, they not only have an MVP and one of the best offensive players off the bench, they also have arguably the most dangerous true big in basketball and one of the best young point guards ready to return next year. Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum missed this entire season due to health concerns, but both should be back for the 2021 season.
Laimbeer’s biggest task – whether for Game 3 or for the 2021 season – is to keep this team together. Without two starters this year, he has been able to register the Aces’ first Finals appearance since the franchise moved to Las Vegas from San Antonio.
Against a Seattle squad at nearly full strength – and on a mission to finally defend the championship they won in 2018 after Sue Bird and Stewart were injured all of last season – it was always going to be a tall task for the Aces.
With Hamby they might have stood a chance, if McCoughtry was able to play full games without tiring it could have been more competitive, and if McBride was in better form, she has the raw talent to win one or two games by herself on a good day.
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But if they win Game 3, it will be because Wilson plays like a SuperMVP – something Las Vegas will be able to enjoy for years to come.
Watch Game 3 of the WNBA Finals, Las Vegas Aces @ Seattle Storm, live on Sky Sports Mix (Ch 416) late on Tuesday night from midnight
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