Although sports books deemed the Las Vegas Aces as favorites to win the WNBA championship following the team’s acquisition of 2018 MVP runner-up Liz Cambage, those in the know understood it’d take some time for the young Aces to mesh, and those people were right as the Aces head into their first WNBA playoff series since moving to Las Vegas. 

When it came together, however, the Aces looked every bit the dominant superteam Bill Laimbeer believed he built. Offense wasn’t hard to find between all-stars Cambage, A’ja Wilson and Kayla McBride, so Kelsey Plum shifted her focus to hounding opposing guards and No. 1 pick Jackie Young became the shape-shifting defender the team needed. Dearica Hamby broke out and became the AP Sixth Woman of the Year, and veterans like Sugar Rogers and Tamara Young provided stability. All was well.

Then Wilson went down with an ankle injury that sidelined her for a few games around the all-star break, and, while the Aces had several players step-up in her absence, the injury threw a wrench into the chemistry-building the team was developing. What resulted was a limping toward the end of the season, losing four of their final six games. The Aces secured some time to recalibrate themselves by locking up a first-round bye with a win over the Phoenix Mercury. Unfortunately, Cambage finished the regular season on the bench with ice wrapped on a nagging Achilles tendon that has bothered her intermittently this season. 

During the Aces’ bye, the 5th-seeded Chicago Sky blew out the Mercury, setting up a fourth game between the teams.

Quick Facts:

  • LVA: 21-13, 82.2 ppg, 38.8 rpg, 20.9 apg
    • Leaders:
      • Points: Wilson – 16.5 per game
      • Rebounds: Cambage – 8.2 per game
      • Assists: Young – 4.5 per game
      • *3FG %: McBride – 42.8 percent
  • CHI: 20-14, 84.6 ppg, 36.4 rpg, 21.6 apg
    • Leaders:
      • Points: DeShields – 16.2 per game
      • Rebounds: Lavender – 6.9 per game
      • Assists: Vandersloot – 9.1 per game
      • *3FG %: Quigley – 44.2 percent

*at least 1.0 attempts per game, at least five games played

  • Season series: 2-1, Las Vegas
    • July 2 (in Vegas): LVA win, 90-82
    • August 9 (in Vegas): CHI win, 87-84
    • August 18 (in Chicago): LVA win, 100-85
    • LVA won both games in which Wilson played.
    • Cambage (3 games): 22.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 3apg 
  • LVA: League’s best defensive rating: 95.0 points per 100 possessions
  • CHI: League’s second-best offensive rating: 101.6 points per 100 possessions
  • CHI & LVA are first and second in the WNBA in pace (99.5 and 98.8, respectively)
  • LVA is 2-0 after 6+ days of rest with a plus-minus of +22.5.

WNBA Playoff Breakdown

Unfortunately for Laimbeer, the Aces squad weren’t the model of consistency a coach would want down the stretch. The team regularly started slowly and struggled to put together a consistent, quality play. Laimbeer tinkered with the lineup, electing to start Tamara Young over Plum, though the minutes distribution still played out similarly to when Plum was among the first five.

That choice shines some light on one of the Aces’ bigger question marks: WNBA playoff experience. Their three all-stars, Cambage, Wilson and McBride have played in a combined three playoffs games, while Tamara Young has played in 19. With the team so focused on getting the ball down to their two primary bigs, steady heads in the backcourt are a must.

Meanwhile, with WNBA Coach of the Year James Wade prowling Chicago’s bench, the Sky are coming off a massive 27-point win over the Phoenix Mercury. The team looked fluid and dangerous on offense, showcasing some of the quick passing and decisive choices that gave the Aces trouble in their loss to them in early-August. DeShields particularly had herself a night in her first WNBA playoff game. The second-year player out of Tennessee tallied 25 points (10-for-19), fifth-most in a playoff debut in league history, with four rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Courtney Vandersloot dictated the game and dished out 11 assists. 

The Sky will need to keep Cambage and Wilson from getting what they want, which means Stefanie Dolson and Cheyenne Parker need to play well. Dolson played especially well in Chicago’s lone win against the Aces, posting 16 points, including two threes, while playing physical defense on Cambage. However, the Aces are back at full strength (mostly, depending on Cambage’s Achilles). 

Whether either team can get going on the perimeter will greatly dictate the shape of the contest. Plum, Young and McBride struggled in the August 9 loss, with Plum going 0fer on the night, though she did average 14 points in the Aces’ two wins against Chicago. McBride never truly found a consistent rhythm against the Sky, shooting below 30 percent from beyond the arc. The Aces are going to need her to be a real threat early in the game so as to open up the rest of the offense.

X-factors:

LVA: Dearica Hamby

I mean, duh. Hamby is the spark-plug off the bench, a pest on the offensive boards, and seems to live in perpetual motion. In fact, the Aces are 10.1 points better per possession when she’s on the floor. However, that usually means one of Cambage or Wilson is off the floor. With Hamby on the floor instead of Wilson, the Aces’ net rating is plus-12.4. Myriad factors play into on-off numbers, including matchups, but it will be interesting to see how Laimbeer chooses to implement Hamby should the Aces start to sputter in their first WNBA playoff matchup.

CHI: Allie Quigley

The Sky’s sharpshooter poured in 15 points in their win over Phoenix, but against the Aces, she hit just four of her 13 attempts from beyond the arc. That said, if she hits enough shots early to keep the defense honest, the Aces will have a hard time managing the Sky’s smart cutting and distribution as they did early in the Sky’s win in Las Vegas. 

Conclusion

In a do-or-die matchup, home court can prove vital, but the Aces will play host their WNBA playoff game in the Thomas & Mack Center instead of the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Untimely, but the Vegas crowd isn’t unfamiliar with creating a raucous environment when the Runnin’ Rebels have things going in a positive direction. The Aces have made a habit of getting into and winning close games, however. According to the WNBA stats site, the Aces are 13-7 in “clutch” games, which are games that are within five points with five minutes remaining, leading the league with a plus-minus rating of plus-43. However, Chicago is right there with them with 14 “clutch” victories.

Essentially, when the game gets close — and it will; it’s the playoffs — neither team has shown many signs of wavering in the moment. The WNBA’s one-and-done format in its first two rounds is something that some players don’t necessarily love — understandable, considering nobody enjoys a sudden halt to the season — but it sure emphasizes the intensity of post-season basketball.

This matchup has proven to be one that can go either way but often shows its colors early in the game. Look for how the offenses flow and how much the defenses can disrupt, which is obvious because that’s how basketball works, but these teams tend to ask and solve questions of each other rather quickly, so any sort of substantial lead early in the game could prove significant. Predictions in one-and-done games are a true crapshoot, but Las Vegas sits as a 3-point favorite as of Friday.