Can the Aces Avoid a WNBA Finals Sweep?

Let’s begin on a positive note. 

My assignment was to write about the Las Vegas Aces, a team that just fell behind, 2-0, to Seattle in the WNBA Finals. It’s hard to be all flowers and sunshine analyzing a group on the brink of elimination. But make no mistake about it: reaching this stage of the playoffs is a win for the franchise. 

The Aces were a game away from exiting the Wubble when Dearica Hamby was ruled out (likely for the season) with a right knee injury. Las Vegas still managed to outlast Connecticut. That was the Aces’ championship. 

Yes, the Seattle Storm have been mightily impressive in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals. Their offense is crisp and potent – a clinic. But in a way, they are simply taking advantage of what’s in front of them. Look at the depth of these two rosters in their current state. Las Vegas has no business winning this series. 

Still, it’s becoming popular to frame these WNBA Finals as a blowout, non-competitive, an inevitability. That reeks of lazy thinking to me. The Aces have been tied or held the lead in both second halves against Seattle. There are things Las Vegas could do to make these games close all the way to the final buzzer that it simply hasn’t done. 

First, the fresh legs caveat. ABC displayed a graphic before tip-off of Game 2, showing that A’ja Wilson had played 215 minutes in the 2020 postseason to Breanna Stewart’s 136 minutes. That’s a significant starting point. Seattle is far fresher than Las Vegas. 

Of course, this goes way farther than what each side has left in the gas tank. As was the case in the first 120 minutes of the Connecticut – Las Vegas series, the Aces are getting out-coached and out-executed. 

It all starts on defense. Outside of A’ja Wilson, the Aces have been an utter disaster defensively in this series. Seattle shot 50 percent from the field in Game 1 and 57 percent in Game 2. The Storm are getting whatever they want whenever they want with little-to-no resistance. 

On numerous occasions in Game 1, Jackie Young went under screens set near the three-point line, ceding easy looks. At one point the Aces completely ignored Stewart as the roller in a pick-and-roll action. They are getting scrambled in transition far too easily, seemingly unsure of where to go as the Storm race ahead. 

The Aces have switched ball-screens with very little resistance. Above, we see Danielle Robinson switch onto Stewart, prompting Angel McCoughtry to race over from the weak side and provide reinforcements. Carolyn Swords also slides over to take stock of the situation, leading to an incredibly unbalanced defensive floor. Two straightforward passes later and Alysha Clark hits a wide-open corner 3 because of one simple pick-and-roll that led to a mismatch. 

Here’s another bad one. Emma Cannon, who played fantastically in Game 2 by providing an ultra rare scoring spark off the bench for the Aces, starts the possession guarding Stewart. Somehow, Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer didn’t deliver a memorandum to his players along the lines of, “Stay attached to Stewie at all times!” Seems like that would be prudent advice. Anyway, once again we see Stewart ignored as the screener in a fundamental, “you’ve got to be prepared for this” type of action. Cannon leaves Stewart wide open as she helps on Epiphanny Prince, even though Young has Prince covered. Stewart makes the extra pass and again Seattle finds one of its best shooters wide open in the corner – one of the most efficient shots in basketball. Even though Loyd misses, these looks are coming way too easily. 

Transition has been an oft-discussed area of concern and the Aces didn’t help themselves in Game 2 by turning the ball over 15 times. 

When Swords is on the floor, Seattle has set drag screens for Sue Bird in semi-transition, attempting to spring Bird downhill with only Swords standing between ball and basket. 

These are non-competitive possessions. Freebies. Swords doesn’t stand a chance and it’s not her fault. 

Same idea in the clip above, only this one is a multifaceted breakdown. First, let’s appreciate how hard Swords works to get back on defense here. She sprints to the spot Stewart is about to set a screen at and does a decent job recovering. But already, Las Vegas is a step or two behind the Storm. McCoughtry doesn’t appear to be guarding anyone, leaving Clark wide open in the corner. Bird actually tosses a no-look pass here, and the person she’s looking at – Natasha Howard – is also wide open! There have been too many of these aimless, cluttered defensive possessions for the Aces where Seattle appears to be operating at a different speed. All Las Vegas can muster in response is indecision. 

Offensively, the issues have been more clear cut. I’ll never leave the Jackie Young Bandwagon, but she played two of the roughest games of her career in Game 5 against Connecticut and Game 2 against Seattle. The Aces need scoring pop off the bench and Young has turned it over more consistently than she’s scored. Kayla McBride has enjoyed brief stretches of offensive brilliance in the WNBA Finals, paired with extended stretches of extreme sloppiness. She attempted to hit Loyd with a behind-the-back dribble in Game 2, only it went off her foot and led to points for Seattle. 

You’ve heard by now about how teams are collapsing on Las Vegas in the paint, mucking up entry passes, and sagging off the Aces “shooters” to extreme degrees. Wilson is being defended with extreme physicality and the looks Las Vegas created with ease in the regular season just aren’t there anymore. Seattle deserves a lot of credit for this. Howard is getting nowhere near the shine she deserves for her stellar play in Game 2. Clark has been all over the place as always. At one point, Loyd switched onto Wilson off an inbounds pass and completely stifled her. The Storm bring it on both ends. 

The coaching advantage Seattle possesses in this series must be mentioned, too. Perhaps I’ve been a little too hard on Laimbeer over the course of these playoffs. He did a fantastic job during the regular season keeping the Aces fresh. As I mentioned earlier, losing to this Seattle team without Hamby is not a failure. 

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But we’re here to be honest, and the honest truth is that Las Vegas could easily be even with Seattle in this series right now. Defensive indecision is one area in which Laimbeer deserves a share of the blame. Hesitancy to go small is another. 

Perhaps no area more clearly points to lackluster coaching than after timeout and out-of-bounds plays. In this sense, the Aces have been a mess. 

This was directly following a timeout. There were a number of examples I could have used. Nothing is wrong with the initial action, which springs Robinson free to collect the inbounds pass. After that though, the lack of creativity is once again laid bare. Seattle fronts the post, denying entry to Wilson, so Wilson comes up to run a screen-and-roll. It’s well defended and McCoughtry uncharacteristically panics, throwing an errant release-valve pass to Cannon who can’t reel it in. More easy points for Seattle on the other end. 

There’s a middle ground to be found here in how we spin the 2020 WNBA Finals narrative. 

Is it a great travesty if Las Vegas loses? Absolutely not. The Aces were definitive underdogs. 

And yet, for those acting as if Seattle is steamrolling everyone in its path with blowout after blowout, that’s simply inaccurate. The Aces are outmatched in this series, but they are also getting outplayed in ways that are fixable. 

Will Las Vegas make those fixes? 

Tune in Tuesday at 7 PM EST on ESPN. You know the deal.

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