“Hit your free throws.
“Hit. Your. Free. Throws!
Those were the words of Roscoe Wilson Jr. minutes after his daughter, A’ja Wilson, claimed the WNBA MVP Award at just 24 years of age.
You can be the best basketball player on the planet and still, your parents will keep you grounded, reminding you about the importance of free throws as you celebrate one of the greatest achievements of your young life. That’s true love.
In the biggest 40 minutes of her professional career on Tuesday night, a winner-take-all Game 5 against Connecticut for a “trip” to the WNBA Finals, Wilson heeded her father’s advice. She nailed her free throws. It saved the Aces season.
Game 5’s homestretch felt surreal. This was the “back in my day” brand of basketball you’ve always heard about but never actually seen. This was the final mile of a marathon when the power of will overrides the power of rapidly weakening knees … unless it doesn’t. This was the defensive brawl to end all defensive brawls.
In many ways, there couldn’t have been a more fitting culmination to this semifinal series. Defense dictated almost all 200 minutes. Starters received extended playing time and carried gargantuan loads. Wilson did not sit a single second in Games 4 and 5. Both benches combined to score five total points in Game 5. The Aces and the Sun staggered to the finish line, and who could blame them? It had been an incredibly long, draining, and demanding road leading to Tuesday evening.
Yet amid the chaos of this uniquely captivating elimination game stood a singular presence, the most valuable player on the floor, and a reminder that what we were watching was indeed still basketball. The steadiest two hands on the court belonged to A’ja Wilson. And she put them to remarkably good use.
Las Vegas outscored Connecticut, 13-9, in the fourth quarter. Wilson’s first touch of the final frame came over a minute in. She blew past Natisha Hiedeman and Beatrice Mompremier in one fell swoop for an easy layup.
With just over 8:00 remaining, Carolyn Swords, who submitted an absolutely essential 31 minutes, nailed a put-back to nudge the Aces in front by a point.
Wilson led the league in free throws attempted this season. Through three quarters, she had yet to reach the charity stripe.
Las Vegas’s remaining nine points over the final 8-plus minutes were all scored by Wilson at the line. She missed just one attempt, the first of two with 6:41 left. Her second hardly moved the net.
Wilson proceeded to outscore the Sun, 6-2, over the final 6:41, propelling Las Vegas to a 66-63 win and a meeting with Seattle in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Friday night.
As the greatest players always seem to do, Wilson overcame myriad obstacles on the path to victory.
Dearica Hamby, an all-star level talent, missed the final two games of the series with a right knee injury.
In the first quarter of Game 5, referees penalized Wilson with a technical foul for perhaps the most common, benign exclamation you can make on a basketball court, one that is uttered thousands upon thousands of times a day at playgrounds and gyms across the world. It was yet another reminder that Black women are very rarely allowed to show emotion on the court without being reprimanded, the same type of emotion men are lauded for and branded as “ultimate competitors” because of. A similar but less extreme version of the emotion Diana Taurasi exhibited earlier in the season – which went widely celebrated on social media – when Taurasi told a referee, “I’ll meet you in the lobby later” after herself receiving a tech. This was atrocious, pathetic officiating on a massive (sound) stage. It wasn’t just her father Wilson summoned on Tuesday night. “Eva almost came out,” Wilson said on Twitter after the game, referring to her mother, who also felt a certain type of way about the referee’s ridiculousness.
Before the most important ten minutes of her professional life, Wilson wasn’t allowed to sit down. Trailing by one point and having played the duration, Wilson was required to participate in ESPN’s between quarter interview, answering two questions asked by Holly Rowe. The blame here does not fall on Rowe. It falls on whoever thought it was okay to make players answer questions from a journalist in the heat of competition without offering them a chair. Rowe asked Wilson how much she had left in the tank. Wilson responded, “Oh, I got a whole lot.”
As if all this wasn’t enough, Las Vegas head coach Bill Laimbeer couldn’t find a way to get his star the ball throughout the fourth quarter. Credit here must be dealt to the Sun, who did a marvelous job mucking up passing lanes as Wilson posted up, denying entry of the ball. Curt MIller’s defensive gameplan and his players’ nearly flawless execution of it was a major factor in the choppiness of the second half. Still, an equal amount of blame must be dealt to Laimbeer, who lacked creativity finding ways to assure Wilson was involved on offense. The Aces tallied EIGHT possessions in the fourth quarter in which Wilson never once touched the basketball. They scored zero points on those eight possessions. After putting her team up three, Wilson did not receive another touch for the remainder of the game – two more full possessions and over 90 seconds of action. Las Vegas’s guards didn’t do a great job of feeding Wilson at her favorite spots on the floor, but the lack of fluid movement and crisp off-ball actions implied overall fatigue and coaching malpractice. The players were gassed, needed a boost from their coaching staff, and did not get it.
Though this was a frustrating phenomenon for Aces fans, Laimbeer’s glazed overreactions provided some much needed levity. At one point early in the third quarter after a particularly aimless stretch of play, Laimbeer sported the exact same expression pasted onto my own face back in high school as I sat through my AP Calculus exam. In the interest of full transparency, I scored a “1.” AP tests are graded on a scale of 1-to-5. I regret to inform you that a “1” falls at the bottom of that scale.
With so many factors out of her control, Wilson zeroed in on the one area (other than the free throws) she could completely command: defense. On a day when folks rightfully were up-in-arms over 2020 Defensive Player of the Year, Candace Parker, being omitted from both First-Team and Second-Team All Defense, Wilson played like she, too, felt a little disrespected. Though far too gracious to ever make this case herself, Wilson should have been named to the All-Defensive First Team. Additionally, she should have received way more consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.
On Tuesday night, Wilson looked like the best defensive player in the league. Period. Close the book and put it in the mail.
Wilson’s defensive performance had it all:
- Elite verticality. Where Connecticut was incurring fouls on one end, Wilson was avoiding a similar fate on the other by keeping her arms extended above her head, unflinching unless an opportunity to swat a shot presented itself. Wilson picked up DeWanna Bonner on numerous switches and completely stymied her.
- Expert helping. Wilson guarded Alyssa Thomas for the entirety of the game, but identified when Thomas was too far from the hoop to launch her variety of push-shots and scooted over to close off other driving lanes.
- Canny communication when switching. The video below illustrates Wilson’s immense defensive value. Not only is she the best physical defender on the Aces roster, but she’s also the leader of the whole operation. Here, Wilson identifies Angel McCoughtry getting stuck on Brionna Jones after switching a pick-and-roll action, so Wilson motions for McCoughtry to take Alyssa Thomas. Wilson grabs Jones on the roll. By switching onto Jones and staying in the paint around the hoop, Wilson keeps herself involved in Connecticut’s primary modes of attack. Wilson then navigates a second switch, sliding up to stop Bonner after Bonner dusts Emma Cannon with a crossover. Wilson stuffs Bonner for yet another stop.
- Slick switches onto Jasmine Thomas. This was such a massive key in the Aces winning this series. Wilson’s ability to lock down guards on the perimeter often goes unmentioned, which is odd considering the outsize impact it has on any given game. So often during the second half of Game 5, Jasmine Thomas and Alyssa Thomas ran pick-and-rolls, trying to create advantageous angles where one-on-one play was failing. Wilson was completely unbothered by these actions.
In the first clip below, Wilson contains Jasmine Thomas’s drive, forcing a risky kickout. Then, Wilson sees Swords get beat by Jones and again deploys those expert helping tendencies we just covered. The second clip below explains itself. Wilson can guard anyone on the floor and can do so exceptionally well.
- Solid, plain old one-on-one defense. Nothing flashy about this. Just sturdy, form-a-wall, and hold it while guarding one of the toughest players in the league. Time and time again in the second half of Game 5, Wilson walled off Alyssa Thomas right below the free throw line, forcing her to give up the basketball. This happened on the very first possession of the third quarter and it set the tone for the remaining 20 minutes. Though Thomas is able to get her shot off in the clip below, it’s a mightily difficult attempt and it fails to fall.
Those are just the possessions I decided to include. There were nine other halves of basketball in this series where elite level defense could be seen coming from No. 22 on Las Vegas.
Of course, it’s impossible to win a basketball game completely on your own. I mentioned the crucial contributions of Swords earlier. Angel McCoughtry, too, deserves a shout out for scoring 20 points and keeping the Aces competitive in the early going when things appeared to be sliding out of control. Many players chipped in with positive effort and execution on the defensive end.
Make no mistake about it, though: the MVP put the Aces on her back and carried them to the WNBA Finals. Roadblocks couldn’t stop A’ja Wilson from getting where she wanted to go Tuesday evening. That’s what greatness looks like.
Take a deep breath, hit your free throws, and the rest will work itself out.