Even before tip-off, the question of who would enter the WNBA Playoffs as the No. 1 seed was answered as the New York Liberty fell on the road in Washington to ensure the top spot belonged to the Las Vegas Aces.
To compound matters, the defending champs beat Phoenix, 100-85, Sunday, Sept. 10 to close the regular season on a four-game win streak. By going into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, it marks the second straight year the franchise has accomplished the feat.
“We still have some work to do,” head coach Becky Hammon said. “It is hard to beat a team back-to-back, it just is.”
In the league’s first 40-game regular season, the Aces concluded the stretch with a 34-6 overall record. This mark includes a 19-1 mark at home despite the team playing its first game inside the T-Mobile Arena this season.
“I loved it,” Hammon said. “There were a lot of people here, you could definitely feel it, it was rocking. This is our first time being in here so the more we can make it feel like home, the better.”
As the league’s top seed, Las Vegas will now be matched up with Chicago in this year’s 1-8 matchup. During the regular season, the Aces won all three meetings against the Sky.
“It’s one game at a time,” guard Kelsey Plum said. “We’ve got to lock in on this upcoming game. We can’t really focus on anything else but that because people are too good. In the playoffs, forget everything that happened in the regular season, it’s a different season.”
It is unclear as of now, if first-year Las Vegas player Candace Parker will be available for the series as she recovers from foot surgery. Parker has been out of action since early July.
“Our super team got diminished real quick,” Hammon said. “That being said, they were still super. The Big Four and [forward] Alysha Clark and the amount of energy and effort they’ve put into being professionals [...] they were so good.”
In the final showing of the regular season, the Aces relied heavily on its stars, none bigger than the reigning MVP A’ja Wilson. She dominated again with 36 points on 13-of-18 from the field including 10 first quarter points and 22 total points before halftime which included six straight points to help Las Vegas grab the lead for good.
Over the last two games, Wilson has racked up 66 points on 26-of-35 shooting. She concludes the regular season with sixth 30-point games.
“She’s better than she was last year,” Hammon said. “She plays on the best team with the best record and efficiency, I go back to the minutes played. Don’t penalize her because her coach didn’t play her in a lot of fourth quarters.
“Points per minute, she’s the most efficient scorer in the league. Defensively, she anchors the No. 1 defense in the league.” The reigning Defensive Player of the Year didn’t just have it going on offense as she compiled five steals, three blocks and eight rebounds to finalize her stat line.
“When she decides she just doesn’t want somebody to touch the ball, they just don’t touch the ball,” Hammon said. “We try to give her the security to get in good spots defensively but a lot of times she’s just roaming. She can guard one through five, she can keep anybody in front of her.”
Plum scored 30 points for the first time since scoring 40 against Minnesota in early July. Her final stat line was 30 points on 12-of-19 from the floor coupled with three rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Near the end of the third quarter, Plum rattled off five straight points including a deep stepback three just before the start of the fourth quarter.
“She had been struggling up until this game,” Hammon said. “She struggled to start the season shooting [the ball]. I go back to, ‘If Kelsey Plum shooting threes is my biggest problem, I have a very good life.’ Because she’s been doing that her whole career, that’s who she is. I’m never concerned with her shooting.”
Fellow guard Chelsea Gray added 21 points on 8-of-11 from the field with a 7-of-8 mark from three-point range. She also posted eight assists for the 19th time this season and for a third straight game.
“She’s a huge piece to what we do,” Hammon said. “I have the utmost confidence in her [and] I know her teammates do [...] I feel like KP breaks down defenses and then reads where[as] Chelsea reads defenses initially and then breaks you down.”
Gray is preparing to head into the WNBA Playoffs for the first time after securing the WNBA Finals MVP award last fall.
“She’s the head of our snake,” Wilson said. “She makes us go, she gets us organized and makes sure we’re in the right spots so we can perform at a very high level. But at the same time, she doesn’t miss out on her moments and that’s what we need most.”
Despite only being held to three points in the game, guard Jackie Young is one of four players to average at least 15 points per game during the regular season including the aforementioned Wilson, Plum and Gray.
“I think it’s a testament to Becky and our style of play,” Plum said. “I also think my teammates are just real hoopers. Sometimes you’ve just got to get a bucket.”