February 27, 2024

LAS VEGAS — Coach Becky Hammon said her Las Vegas Aces gave themselves a “D” grade for how they played in the first half of Sunday’s Game 1 WNBA Finals matchup with the New York Liberty. Hammon thought that might have been a bit harsh. They were only down three points at halftime. She gave them a C-minus.

But when the Aces came out of the locker room, they turned things around into an A by Hammon’s standards.

Las Vegas outscored New York by 20 points across the final 20 minutes, at one point extending their lead to as many as 22 points, for a 99-82 victory to go up 1-0 in their best-of-five series against the Liberty.

New York, which is seeking its first WNBA title and playing in its first Finals since 2002, will look to even the series Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).

How did the Aces turn it around? Let’s take a look at went right for the Aces, who are looking to become the league’s first repeat champions since 2001-02, and what the Liberty need to improve on in Game 2.

Battle of the guards: Advantage, Aces

Much had been made about the star power in this matchup, including the guards: The Aces’ Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young are former No. 1 picks (in 2017 and 2019, respectively), as is the Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu (2020). Chelsea Gray and Courtney Vandersloot will go down as two of the best point guards the league has ever seen.

On Sunday, Plum, Young and Gray were “pretty ridiculous,” Hammon said, combining for 72 of the Aces’ 99 points while containing New York’s backcourt as well: Marine Johannes had 14 points off the bench, but Ionescu and Vandersloot were limited to 17 points collectively. Betnijah Laney, who had scored at least 19 points in New York’s five postseason victories, also had a quiet game with 11.

“They just had a little bit of a tough night,” Brondello said of her guards. “That’s not going to happen two games in a row.”

With so much attention dedicated to slowing down two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, as well as Gray running the point, Plum and Young felt they had opportunities to thrive. And they took advantage of them.

“How do you eat an elephant?” Hammon said, referring to the problems Stewart and Jonquel Jones pose in the paint. “One bite at a time, or invite your friends. So we invited our friends.”

Heading into the series, Hammon identified Young as the X factor, and the guard showed her importance early and often in Game 1, finishing with 26 points (5-for-8 shooting from 3), five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Her defense on Ionescu was just as important, if not even more critical: Ionescu had previously scored at least 22 points against the Aces three times this season, but was held to seven on Sunday (2-for-7 from field, 1-for-5 from 3).

“I thought [Ionescu] over the course of the five games that we had played them, she’s been ridiculous,” Hammon said. “So I just challenged [Young] to take that head on, and they like challenges.”


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0:27

Chelsea Gray celebrates after backdoor assist to Jackie Young

Chelsea Gray finds Jackie Young wide open on a backdoor pass to give the Aces a layup.

Defense wins championships?

The flip side? The Liberty were a step too slow on the defensive end of the floor, whether it was allowing players like Young and Gray to get going from 3 or Plum from getting easy looks at the rim. Las Vegas shot 54.7% from the floor, including 40.9% from beyond the arc.

“One-on-one defense was critical for us and they got the upper hand in this game,” Brondello said. “We’ve got to make them work a little bit harder. There were too many open layouts at the rim.”

New York has greatly improved on the defensive end over the course of the season, and had twice held the Aces below 70 points, but seemed to lose traction on that end as the game progressed. The Liberty guards will have to step up here as well.

The Aces’ second-half defense was “as good as I’ve ever seen it,” Brondello said, and their ability to get stops helped fuel their offense. New York saw moments where the ball stuck and movement slowed down, which allowed the Aces to thrive off clogging the paint.

“We just did it,” Wilson said of the team’s improved defense in the second half. “We lost all the pressure. Everything was just off of our shoulders because we knew what was at stake. So I don’t think we created any crazy scheme. We just did our job.

“And Becky always tells us, ‘If everyone’s doing their job at the same time, we’re good in that space.'”

Coaches love the adage “defense wins championships,” and when it comes to a battle of two typically high-powered offenses, whichever team is better on the other end of the floor will likely emerge as champion.


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0:43

Marine Johannes splashes pair of ridiculous 3s for the Liberty

Marine Johannes hits two off-balance 3-pointers as the Liberty try to hold off the Aces.

New York X factors going forward?

Hammon said she’s a fan of Johannes, whose one-legged, off-balanced 3-point shooting was on full display in the first half Sunday. Johannes had scored only five points in the postseason entering the game, not playing as much in the earlier rounds in such physical series.

The Aces did a better job against her in the second half, where she was held her scoreless. But it’ll be fascinating to see how the Liberty look to use her in the coming games, especially depending on what production they get out of their other guards.

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, or invite your friends. So we invited our friends.”

Becky Hammon on the problems Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones pose in the paint, and how Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young stepped up

Jonquel Jones nearly had a double-double in the first half with 12 points and nine boards — a big reason why the Liberty led at the half — before adding just four points and one rebound across the final 20 minutes.

Las Vegas won the battle on the glass (plus-6 in the second half), and the Aces’ ability to contain Jones’s production in both the paint and on the boards neutralized one of the greatest matchup problems New York boasts. Jones is the first player to compile seven double-doubles in a single postseason, but the Liberty will need a full 40 minutes from her to swing the momentum.


Another blowout

Fans thought they were finally getting a close battle between these two superteams when it was a close game in the first half, but the Aces’ strong start to the third carried over into a fourth that didn’t have much intrigue the rest of the way.

But if there’s one thing Brondello stresses about her coaching style it’s that she never gets too high or too low — and that’s what she has tried to instill in her team all season.

One of the Liberty’s greatest examples of that: New York hasn’t lost back-to-back games all season. Even after dropping Game 1 by 15 points against the Connecticut Sun in the semifinals, the Liberty rebounded to win three straight games, including two contests on the road at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Can that streak extend into Wednesday, against an Aces team that hasn’t lost in the playoffs and is two victories away from winning another title?

“We’re going to know that we respond in the right way and I trust these players,” Brondello said. “And we’re going to keep competing and fighting.”

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