September 24, 2022 - 9:00 am
It’s been almost five months, 46 regular and postseason games and approximately 1,850 minutes of basketball, but the Aces’ season has finally come to an end.
They are champions for the first time in their 26-year history. They are Las Vegas’ first major-league, title-winning team. This might be the foundation of something bigger. For now, though, they are content to cherish their achievements.
“This year, right here,” 2022 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after winning the championship, “is something I’m never going to forget.”
If there was any adjustment to fit first-year coach Becky Hammon’s style, the Aces didn’t show it. A 13-2 start to the season confirmed the team as one of the league’s top contenders.
“(Hammon) started off from the beginning, making sure she is not going to be easy on us,” point guard Chelsea Gray said. “Just making sure that we are ready when the time comes.”
Fifth-year guard Kelsey Plum and fourth-year wing Jackie Young were the early stars for the Aces. Plum was a perfect fit for Hammon’s perimeter-oriented offense, free to launch 3s whenever open. Young also showed off her improved 3-point shot. She had 19 points or more in seven of the first eight games.
Wilson also shined, announcing herself as an MVP candidate with a 35-point performance against the Los Angeles Sparks June 11.
The start wasn’t sustainable. On June 21, the reigning-champion Chicago Sky humbled the Aces by overcoming a 28-point deficit for a 104-95 win, the largest comeback in league history. The Aces dropped four of their next six games.
Defense was the cause of the Aces’ stumble entering the All-Star break, and it cost them some personal glory. Four Aces — Plum, Young, Wilson and forward Dearica Hamby — were named to the July 10 All-Star Game along with Hammon, but Gray wasn’t selected.
The Aces cleaned up their defense a bit after the All-Star break, but it didn’t solve all their problems.
No one lost more shots due to the Aces’ poor defense than Hamby. The All-Star forward thrived in transition early in the season, but saw her field goal attempts drop substantially near the All-Star break.
Her lack of touches coincided with a brutal 3-point shooting slump. Hammon moved Hamby to the bench Aug. 7 and promoted center Kiah Stokes to the starting lineup.
Hamby suffered a right knee bone contusion one game later, but Stokes proved valuable to the previously undersized starting lineup. The Aces gained valuable momentum by winning the final four games of the regular season.
Hammon was selected as the WNBA Coach of the Year, Young chosen as the WNBA Most Improved Player and Wilson was named both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Wilson and Plum were also on the All-WNBA first team.
“Play the right way and everybody wins,” Hammon said. “And when we win, everything else takes care of itself.”
The Aces entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. They faced a depleted No. 8 Phoenix Mercury team in the first round.
Phoenix endured a difficult season. All-Star center Brittney Griner was detained in Russia and never played a game. All-WNBA first team guard Skylar Diggins-Smith left the team a week before the season ended. Five-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi was sidelined by an injury, and prized offseason signing Tina Charles — the 2021 WNBA scoring leader — left the team in midseason to sign with the Seattle Storm.
The Mercury simply didn’t have the firepower to compete. Despite a poor Game 1 from Wilson, the Aces won Game 79-63 behind Plum’s 22 points, then cruised to a 117-80 Game 2 win to sweep the best-of-three series.
The Aces faced a much more challenging opponent in the WNBA semifinals. The No. 4 Storm were a versatile, defensive-oriented team led by the 2022 scoring champion Breanna Stewart.
Seattle stunned the Aces in Game 1, winning 76-73 after another poor outing from Wilson. Storm coach Noelle Quinn seemingly had an answer for everything the Aces wanted to do offensively. The Aces leveled the series in Game 2 thanks to Wilson’s 33 points, setting up the pivotal Game 3.
In one of the greatest games in WNBA history, the Aces and Storm combined to score 14 points in the final minute of the fourth quarter. A buzzer-beating layup by Young sent the game to overtime, where the Aces blitzed the Storm for a 110-98 win, even though they had trailed by four points with 11.2 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
“We got it out of the mud,” Wilson said.
The Aces got off to a much better start in the WNBA Finals. They scrapped for a 67-64 win in Game 1 against the No. 3 Connecticut Sun, a gritty veteran team led by 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones. Wilson had 24 points, Young’s defense on Sun wing DeWanna Bonner was exceptional and Hamby played her most impactful minutes of the playoffs after returning from injury a few games earlier.
Game 2 was all Aces. They won comfortably, 85-71, to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series before the series shifted to Connecticut.
The Sun blitzed the Aces early in Game 3 to avoid a sweep, but Gray emerged late in Game 4 to prevent a potential Game 5.
Her 20-point performance led the Aces to a title-clinching 78-71 win, and helped the veteran point guard win Finals MVP.
“They have all kind of been on their own little journeys,” Hammon said, “and yet we land here on the same road with the same destination.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal