The Las Vegas Aces lost their first game of the postseason, falling 76-73 to the Seattle Storm in Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals. Here’s how the Aces gave away homecourt.
Lady Aces, we’re not playing Phoenix anymore
Las Vegas got off to a rough start against the Storm, trailing 15-4 nearly seven minutes into the game. Becky Hammon said her team played as if the the world was on their shoulders, but it also looked like the Aces were a little taken aback by the activity level from their opponents. Seattle had a tough first-round matchup against Washington, a team that could have credibly competed for a WNBA title. Meanwhile, Las Vegas faced a team on its last legs in the first round; all due respect to Phoenix’s effort, but there is a significant uptick in quality from the Mercury to the Storm.
“They jumped on us a little bit,” Chelsea Gray said. “We missed some layups, maybe first game jitters, I don’t know, like we just missed shots, a couple shots. Defensively, we gave them some easy things like o-boards and put backs and they thrive on that. So we got to have a better start for sure next game.”
In the first quarter, the Aces were outrebounded 14-7, including 4-0 on the offensive glass for three Seattle second-chance points. They committed four turnovers, leading to eight transition points for the Storm. Those 11 effort points were how much Las Vegas trailed by after one, and the Aces spent the rest of the game trying to make up that margin. They ended up taking the lead for the first time in the fourth, but the pressure of having to play so many perfect possessions just to get back in the game wore on them.
The defense was mostly good, with a few exceptions
Seattle averaged 82.5 points per game during the regular season and was held to 76 by the Aces defense. After scoring 26 in the first quarter, the Storm managed only 17, 17, and 16 in the final three periods. They were limited to 5-of-22 shooting from 3-point range and under 50 percent on twos. Altogether, it was a defensive effort that gave Las Vegas a chance to win, especially considering the Aces boasted the second-best offensive rating (109.6 points per 100 possessions) in WNBA history during the regular season.
That defensive effort came from all five players on the floor. A’ja Wilson, despite picking up two early fouls, was a wall at the rim, especially against the Seattle centers Tina Charles and Ezi Magbegor. Wilson also had the daunting task of staying with Breanna Stewart on the perimeter and forced the former MVP into a number of tough shots. That challenge also fell to Kiah Stokes on occasion, and the recently-promoted starter was also able to use her size to push Stewart away from the rim.
Las Vegas adapted well. When sending two the ball produced some confusion with the backside rotations, the Aces abandoned the traps. They also whipped out their zone defense on occasion to fluster the Storm’s rhythm, particularly after timeouts — Seattle didn’t score on any of its out-of-timeout plays — and whenever the Storm were playing without one of Sue Bird or Jewell Loyd. The zone came in handy at the start of the fourth quarter when Vegas chipped away at the remnants of Seattle’s lead.
However, just because the halfcourt defense mostly went according to plan, there were still issues to improve upon. The Storm collected three more offensive rebounds, which helped create a 5-0 advantage in second-chance points. More pressing was the poor transition defense. The Aces only committed 11 turnovers but were outscored 16-0 in fast-break points.
“Defensively, I mean holding this team to 76 points when they got a prolific offense, like that’s not too shabby,” Gray said postgame. “We just had to be more on point so the scores that they do get is a little bit tougher, and not the easy put backs, the easy transition points.”
Hammon wasn’t as kind to her team’s performance. When asked if she was at least satisfied with the defense that got Las Vegas back in the game, she said, “No, 16 to zero in transition points. No I’m not happy with the defense.” Hammon also wasn’t convinced that Seattle’s poor shooting was a result of the Aces defense, noting that neither team shot the ball well.
A’ja Wilson needs to be better
Las Vegas lost Game 1 because the team couldn’t score well enough. An offensive rating of 91.3 is far below the team’s regular-season average, and even below what the Storm — a top-3 defense — conceded during the regular season (97.4 defensive rating).
The majority of the damage was sustained in the first quarter, though. Afterwards, Vegas had a 106.5 offensive rating, which would have led the league. Individual brilliance from Chelsea Gray, forever unstoppable at getting to her midrange high-arcing jumper (6-of-7 for the game), helped. The Aces also started targeting the weak Seattle perimeter defenders, whether that was Epiphanny Prince or Bird. Kelsey Plum was able to get going in isolation against Prince and then Las Vegas used screens to get Plum going downhill with Bird on her back. Jackie Young was stifled by the size of Stephanie Talbot, but against smaller opposition, found space for pull-up jumpers and even made her way into the paint off of curls.
A notable name missing from that list? A’ja Wilson. Wilson had her second single-digit scoring performance of this postseason, posting eight points for the second consecutive Game 1. The Storm clearly made Wilson a priority of their defensive coverages, but even so, a former MVP getting only one shot attempt in the fourth quarter — and three in the second half total — is unfathomable. Wilson also only earned one pair of free throws, which came in the second quarter.
Seattle tried to make Wilson a jump shooter, denying her touches in the paint. When Wilson got early seals, she effectively turned her deep post position into points, but those opportunities were few and far between. More often, Wilson found herself in traffic, and the Aces didn’t do a good enough job of moving the ball to create openings.
“They really swarmed her every time she touched the ball,” Hammon said. “When they’re going to bring bodies like that you know, you got to be strong with the ball and the ball has to keep moving. I thought the ball got sticky there, and we lost some of our movement.”
Gray added that she and her teammates settled for some pull-up jumpers when they should have tried to get the ball into the paint, and as the point guard, she’s responsible for getting Wilson easier looks early to get her into a rhythm.
Whatever the solution, Wilson is a superstar and needs to perform like one, just as her Olympian counterparts Stewart and Loyd did. The M’VP bounced back from a tough opener against Phoenix with 17 points through three quarters in Game 2, so the Storm will expect a similar rubber band effect in this series. These playoffs aren’t a referendum on the MVP or DPOY voting (though Wilson acquitted herself quite well for the latter), but in order for her team to win, Wilson has to improve. That’s how the Aces can tie this series before heading to Seattle.