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Aces prepare for potential postseason matchup vs. Dream

The Aces have three games remaining to make final adjustments ahead of the playoffs. All three opponents are potential postseason foes.

Coach Becky Hammon’s team begins its final homestand of the season at 7 p.m. Tuesday when the Aces welcome the Atlanta Dream to Michelob Ultra Arena. Their final two games are against the Chicago Sky and the Seattle Storm.

The Aces (23-10) already have sewn up a playoff spot, and hold the No. 2 seed. The Dream and Rookie of the Year front-runner Rhyne Howard have the No. 7 seed, meaning if the season ended Monday, the Aces would face Atlanta in the first round.

However, a game between the New York Liberty and the Dallas Wings on Monday night may change that, exemplifying how chaotic the stretch run has been.

Atlanta is locked in the battle for the final three playoff bids, trailing a streaking Wings team. The Dream is now tied on record with the Phoenix Mercury, only ahead because of the tiebreaker, and must fend off challenges from the Liberty, Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks.

The Aces are 1-1 against the Dream (14-19) this season, most recently losing 92-76 at Michelob Ultra Arena on July 19.

However, the Aces look different since that game. Hammon started center Kiah Stokes for the first time during their 89-81 win against the Storm on Sunday. She replaced all-star Dearica Hamby, who had started the previous 32 games, but has struggled since early July.

The Aces coach has appreciated Stokes’ impact, and her minutes have continued to rise during the past two weeks.

“I just need her to be herself,” Hammon said last month. “She’s smart, she’s long, she understands guarding distance, she always understands the scouting report.”

During the previous loss to the Dream, Hamby went scoreless on 0-of-3 shooting and five rebounds. She was minus-11 in 22 minutes.

Stokes wasn’t much better, scoring two points and adding two rebounds in eight minutes. The Aces were outrebounded 40-29 in the loss.

Stokes brings more size and rebounding presence to a small Aces lineup. She also lets forward A’ja Wilson play in more of a help role on defense. Hamby, a two-time sixth player of the year, gets moved back into a familiar reserve role where she can provide bursts of energy.

“She’s still going to play lots of minutes because she’s such a great defender, but we just wanted to mix it up a little bit,” Hammon said.

The change might help make up for the Aces’ lack of depth. Hammon said she hopes Hamby can spark some production from the rest of the reserves, too.

“I needed her to crush it in that position,” Hammon said.

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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