May 26, 2024

Seven of 18 WNBA Finals have gone the distance since the best-of-five format started in 2005. With the top two seeds and preseason favorites playing for the 2023 WNBA championship, will we see an eighth rendition of a winner-take-all Game 5 when the Las Vegas Aces face the New York Liberty?

We couldn’t ask for a better setup, with a matchup of superstars in their primes — Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson and New York’s Breanna Stewart — as two teams with the top talent and what appears to be the best chemistry meet. The Finals will begin Sunday in Las Vegas at 3 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN App.

The most recent five-game WNBA Finals was in 2019, when the Washington Mystics beat the Connecticut Sun. That was a matchup of the top two teams in the standings, as was the case in 2016 and 2017, when the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx went the distance and alternated in taking home the trophy.

This season, the Liberty beat the Aces in the Commissioner’s Cup final, while the teams split their four regular-season meetings. They played four times in August, so those games are still fresh in their minds.

Almost anywhere you look in this series, you’ll see a No. 1 pick or an MVP or a statistical leader — or someone who is all three.

Both coaches are former WNBA players; Las Vegas’ Becky Hammon led the Aces to the league title last year, while New York’s Sandy Brondello guided the Phoenix Mercury to the 2014 championship.

The fan bases come at this from a different perspective. The Aces’ franchise dates to the start of the WNBA in 1997 as the Utah Starzz, but their time in Las Vegas has been short and successful. They moved from San Antonio to the Strip in 2018, and they are appearing in the Finals for the third time.

New York, on the other hand, is the only still-existing original WNBA franchise that has not won a title. While the Liberty players — none of whom has been with the team since before 2019 — might not really feel that historical weight, the longtime Liberty fans do.

So which superteam will be the 2023 champion? ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel preview the Finals.

It’s the Finals matchup we all expected. But what’s one thing that has surprised — good or bad — about the Liberty and/or Aces?

Voepel: Stewart’s shooting woes have been a surprise. She was at 46.5% overall and 35.5% from behind the arc in the regular season. In the Liberty’s six playoff games, those percentages have dropped to 35.6 and 20.7. Of course, if she got a lot of her misses out of the way before the Finals, that’s good news for the Liberty.

Philippou: Having covered the Liberty-Sun series in person, New York seemed to develop grit in real time to overcome a 0-1 deficit versus an uber-tough Connecticut squad and win three straight games, including two at Mohegan Sun Arena. Different people stepped up in different moments for the Liberty, but for the most part, they stayed poised to close out such a competitive series in four games.

I am surprised the Liberty’s bench hasn’t seen more minutes in the playoffs, since their depth seemed to be an advantage when considering New York as a contender earlier this season. Does that change against the Aces? Kayla Thornton‘s toughness and energy can turn around a game, as can Marine Johannes‘ shooting, and Stefanie Dolson adds post depth against a team that doesn’t have a ton of it. Johannes had a stellar outing versus the Aces in the Commissioner’s Cup championship, but she has played only 42 minutes this postseason.

Pelton: In addition to seconding what Alexa said, I agree Stewart’s postseason slump has been a surprise. When the Seattle Storm lost to Las Vegas in last year’s semifinals, it was the first time a healthy Stewart had been knocked out of the playoffs since 2017. And even then, Stewart set a playoff record with 42 points in the final game of a hard-fought series. Going back to UConn, and including EuroLeague competition, Stewart has almost always been at her best when the stakes are the highest. They don’t come much higher than in this series.


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Aces go on 11-0 run to advance to WNBA Finals

The Aces complete a sweep of the Wings with an 11-0 run to send Las Vegas to the WNBA Finals.

How much should we read into the regular-season series (2-2 split) and the Liberty’s win over the Aces in Las Vegas in the Commissioner’s Cup final?

Philippou: Yes, the Finals are a whole new series, but those games — particularly the August ones — showed us a lot about how these teams match up. That said, I expect Wilson to play closer to how she did Aug. 28 against the Liberty (23 points) than say how she fared Aug. 6, when she tallied nine points on 2-for-14 shooting and tweeted, “I doubt I’ll ever shoot 2-14 again I pray I don’t lol.” Since then, she has shot below 40% just once, and she has been playing on another level over the past two months or so. The Liberty have excellent defenders in Stewart and Jonquel Jones, but they’ll still have their hands full trying to slow down Wilson.

Voepel: The Aces’ 98-81 victory over the Liberty on June 29 doesn’t have much bearing on this series, as Candace Parker was still playing for the Aces, and Jones wasn’t quite in the playing form she is now. The other four matchups, all in August, are likely indicative of what we will see in the Finals. The Aces didn’t play well in their first game in Brooklyn nor in the Commissioner’s Cup final in Las Vegas. Those will be games the Aces will review in preparation because they were far from their best in both.

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