The WNBA semifinal series between the Las Vegas Aces and Phoenix Mercury is tied after two games following a 117-91 win by the Mercury Thursday, Sept. 30 from Michelob Ultra Arena.
“We got our butts kicked,” head coach Bill Laimbeer said. “By one or by 21, it’s still one out. Sometimes losing by one is worse than losing by 21.”
It was a wire-to-wire win for Phoenix after dropping game one Tuesday night.
Game three will be played Sunday, Oct. 3 in Phoenix on the campus of Arizona State.
“They played harder than us, they wanted it more than us,” he said. “But that’s what playoff series are about [...] So we have lots of time to make adjustments, find our game and win.
“We’re a very confident team. We believe we can win anywhere we play and that’s our task.”
With a maximum of three games left and the next two being played in Arizona, Laimbeer understands the road will only get tougher.
“Oh, it’s going to be harder,” he said. “Every game you play, the next one is always the hardest one. Phoenix thinks they have a chance now, they think they have the homecourt advantage -- which they do. So we have to get out there and make sure that we come to compete from start to finish.”
The Mercury were led by a playoff career-high 37 points on 10-of-13 shooting to go along with six rebounds.
“I told anybody that would listen, I thought Taurasi was going to come in and try to take over the game,” Laimbeer said. “And she did, give her all the credit in the world.”
She scored 20 points in the second half including 11 in the third quarter. A quarter where Phoenix built a lead as large as 23.
By the end of the game, the Mercury had a lead as large as 26 points.
Center Brittney Griner scored 16 of her 25 points in the first quarter as part of a second straight blistering first quarter for the No. 5 seed.
“She’s a great player,” Laimbeer said. “We’ve got to be a little more in her space on the perimeter, don’t give her quite the open look -- make her recock. But in the post she’s going to do her thing many times -- that’s who she is, that’s what she is.. But those open shots that she made tonight hurt us a lot.”
Griner also added seven rebounds as part of a 36-rebound night for the visiting team. A margin that was +13 on the home team.
“Rebounding is just going after the ball,” forward A’ja Wilson said. “That’s just wanting it and I feel like they wanted it more. Phoenix came out and punched us in the mouth and they wanted it more and you can’t have that in a playoff series.”
Wilson finished with 12 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in 27 minutes of action.
Phoenix made its first three shot attempts and 13 of its first 16 from the field.
By the end of the first quarter, Las Vegas was down 17 points and had allowed its opponent to shoot 16-of-19 from the floor.
“They use Taurasi and Griner as the anchors to go about their business,” Laimbeer said. “When Taurasi’s hot like that they're very, very difficult to beat. She’s done this multiple times against my teams in the past.”
Midway through the second quarter, the Mercury had a shooting percentage of 81% to go along with a 52-35 lead.
By halftime, Phoenix was at 75% while Vegas was hovering around 56%.
Frustrations began to mount in the third quarter, when Laimbeer was issued a warning after Taurasi was fouled on a three-point attempt.
“I pick and choose my spots over the years,” he said. “I’ve played this game and been a coach in this game for over 40 years or damn near close to it. I understand what’s going on in the game.
“There were some things tonight that was like, ‘OK, why did that happen? OK, let’s move on.’ [...] We’re a hungry young group [and we’re just asking] to be treated fairly. That’s all we ask -- we’re the highest shooting free throw shooting team in the league. We’re also the team that the other shoots the least amount of free throws against in the league. What changed?”
Laimbeer took time to address the officiating during his postgame presser.
“I will say I’m getting a little tired of the referees and the way they referee us versus the other team,” Laimbeer said. “They treat us like we’re champions and we get a champion’s whistle; we’re not, we’re trying to win our first one.”
Guard Riquna Williams said after the game, “The refs are the refs.”
At one point in the third quarter, the Mercury had shot twice as many free throws as the Aces (20 to 10).
The third quarter had 29 combined free throws alone.
By the end of the game, both teams combined to shoot 46 free throws.
Aside from the hot shooting, Las Vegas played a game void of many mistakes.
For nearly 35 of the 40-minute ball game, the Aces had only committed one turnovers while taking advantage of 10 steals on the other end.
“Positives?” Wilson said with a smile while glancing over the stat sheet. “We got out with our arms and legs, still healthy. I’m trying to look for a positive. Honestly, I don’t see a positive because that just wasn’t us. It didn’t feel like us, from tip-off, it didn’t feel like us.”
Guard Kelsey Plum scored 18 of her 25 points in the second half including nine in the fourth quarter.
Wilson was still very critical of the team’s performance at the start of the game. “We weren’t locked in,” she said. “We weren’t locked in at all to our assignments. It seems as if we were just a step behind and you can’t do that against a good Phoenix team.”
Williams added 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field.
Center Liz Cambage found more of a rhythm in game two scoring nine of her 13 points in the second quarter.
“Liz knows her assignment,” Wilson said. “Liz knows what she needs to do and it’s good to see her pushing through it but at the end of the day, like I said, it’s on all of us. We’re glad she’s getting back into the swing of things but it still doesn’t make up for the way we looked on the defensive side of the basketball.”