Round 1 Preview: Aces Up, or Phoenix Rising?

The playoffs have arrived, and with them an interesting rematch of last year’s riveting five-game semifinal series between the Aces and Mercury. Phoenix prevailed then, going on to lose in the Finals to the Chicago Sky. 

The 2022 edition will look vastly different, as both teams changed head coaches in the offseason. Las Vegas brought in Becky Hammon to replace Bill Laimbeer, while Phoenix added Vanessa Nygaard to take over for Sandy Brondello. Phoenix is also vastly undermanned entering this best-of-three first round matchup, missing Brittney Griner (wrongful detainment), Diana Taurasi (right quad injury), and likely Skylar Diggins-Smith (personal reasons). The Aces will be without forward Dearica Hamby (right knee bone contusion). 

While Hamby is a massive absence for an Aces team that relied more heavily on its five best players than any other squad in the league, Phoenix is at a far greater disadvantage. Griner, Taurasi, and Diggins-Smith are the Mercury’s undeniable top three, and without them it will be tough to compete with the top-seeded team in the WNBA. 

Let’s dive into the specifics of this matchup. 

 

Projected Starting Lineups

8 PHOENIX: Jennie Simms, Shey Peddy, Diamond DeShields, Sophie Cunningham, Brianna Turner

1 LAS VEGAS: Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young, Kiah Stokes, A’ja Wilson

 

Major props must be given to this Phoenix roster for stepping up and clawing its way into the playoffs against all odds. The Mercury won two of their final four games, which may not sound impressive but most certainly is given the lineups they trotted out. Cunningham’s insertion into the starting lineup more than halfway through the regular season gave Phoenix a major boost, as the University of Missouri graduate shot 40 percent from three-point land on a massive 6.3 attempts per game. DeShields missed a chunk of the season due to injury, but has also provided major help in the scoring department down the stretch of the season. 

Before moving on to Las Vegas, I must highlight the brilliant play of Peddy this season. The Roxbury, Massachusetts native has been Phoenix’s rock this season. While Diggins-Smith played at an All-WNBA level and was the team’s clear MVP, Peddy was the role player who Nygaard could consistently count on to produce both offensively and defensively. She led the team with 1.6 steals per game and finished the year with 3 Win Shares, per Her Hoop Stats, placing her alongside Jewell Loyd and ahead of big names such as Sue Bird, Courtney Williams, Kelsey Mitchell, Tina Charles, and Natasha Howard. 

Las Vegas’s five is way more loaded. Wilson is one of two main contenders for the MVP award (Breanna Stewart being the other). Young is enjoying the best season of her career and has been one of the best two-way wings in the league all season. Plum is also enjoying the best season of her career, greatly enjoying her offensive freedom in Hammon’s new system. Gray is as enthralling as ever, putting on a point guard clinic night after night with dazzling passes and difficult fadeaway jumpers. 

A few games before Hamby suffered her injury, Hammon demoted her to the bench in favor of Stokes. This was a somewhat surprising decision despite the fact that Hamby was in the midst of a prolonged shooting slump that seemed to affect her overall play. Stokes is the weak spot in this lineup, but has played admirably on a team lacking depth. She gets after it on the offensive glass and always seems to make the right play. It’ll be worth noting whether Phoenix attempts to go after Stokes when the Mercury have the basketball. 

 

Key Stats

 

Net Rating: Las Vegas, 2nd (+7.7 points per 100 possessions); Phoenix, 9th (-3.4)

The Aces were consistently among the top teams in efficiency this season, whereas Phoenix generally found itself in the bottom four of the league. Las Vegas finished with the best offensive rating in the league and was sixth in defensive rating. Phoenix, meanwhile, was eighth in both offensive and defensive rating. 

 

Defensive Rebound Percentage: Las Vegas, 1st (74.5%); Phoenix, 12th (66.7%)

Somewhat surprisingly, Las Vegas was the most dominant defensive rebounding team in basketball this year. Despite playing smaller lineups than teams such as Connecticut, the Aces gobbled up opponent misses like nobody’s business. The biggest reason for this exceptional performance on the defensive glass was Wilson, who trailed only Monique Billings, Candace Parker, and Sylvia Fowles in individual defensive rebound percentage. The Mercury weren’t so lucky, greatly missing the presence of Griner, the team’s top rebounder. The prioritization of smaller lineups led to fewer rebounds for Phoenix in 2022. 

While the chasm between these two teams was massive on the defensive glass, they were similarly putrid when it came to offensive rebounding percentage, Phoenix and Las Vegas finishing 11th and 12th, respectively. 

See Also

 

Matchup to Watch: A’ja Wilson vs. Brianna Turner

Duh! This one feels fairly obvious, pitting my pick for the 2022 MVP award (Wilson) against a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Turner). 

With so many of their stars missing, the Mercury have chosen an ultra-small lineup as their go-to five. This places the defensive onus on Turner, who must protect the paint and wall-off all driving lanes to deny would-be challengers. It’s a large ask, but Turner is more than capable. She can hang when switching onto perimeter players, and is a dominant force down low, whether in one-on-one situations or helpside defense. 

Wilson will complicate matters. Not only is the 2020 MVP a defensive superstar in her own right, she’s one of the most dynamic offensive bigs in the WNBA. Wilson’s plethora of moves and lethal mid-range jumper make her a near-impossible person to guard. This season, Wilson has added a three-point shot to her arsenal, and that could prove the decisive factor in this matchup of talented centers. The fact that Wilson was able to hit over 37 percent of triples on over two attempts per game this season will force Turner to trail Wilson out on the perimeter. This will be vital for the Vegas guards, allowing Young, Plum, and Gray to attack the basket without the former All-Defensive selection, Turner, there to stop them. 

 

Potential X-Factors: Megan Gustafson (Phoenix); Riquna Williams (Las Vegas)

Gustafson struggled to stick on WNBA rosters following a magnificent college career at Iowa, but has found a home this season with the Mercury. Coming off the bench, she provides scoring from the center position at all levels of the floor, proving she can hit outside shots as well as dominate on the interior. She’ll have to put the ball in the basket and contribute heavily on the boards if Phoenix is to have a chance in this series. 

Williams was a two-way staple for the Aces last season, but has struggled to gain her footing this year after returning from injury midway through the season. With Hamby out, Williams’ role grows more important. When she’s on, Williams is one of the most lethal guards in the league, able to lock down opponents on defense and create offense at will, both from behind the three-point line and going to the hoop. Williams only exceeded 10 points five times this season, but two of those games came on the final two days of the season. If Williams can continue that momentum into the playoffs, she may be the boost Las Vegas needs to bring the franchise its first title. 

 

Prediction: Las Vegas in 2

And frankly, I don’t think the two games will be close. Phoenix already won its Super Bowl just by making the playoffs. The Mercury players and coaches deserve an immense amount of credit simply for playing this year, given the heartbreaking circumstances of the season with Griner away from the team. The Aces, meanwhile, are a legitimate contender to win it all, and will be motivated after how last season ended. Expect Las Vegas to breeze through the first round and back into the semifinals. 

Unless otherwise noted, stats appear courtesy of WNBA Stats.

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