Finals Preview: Aces – Sun

We have reached the pinnacle of the 2022 WNBA season, and all that remains are two battle-tested, evenly-matched teams. The Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun both punched their tickets to the WNBA Finals, with Game 1 coming Sunday, September 11, at 3pm EST. However this series shakes out, one of the biggest storylines will be: who will win a title for the first time in franchise history? Both teams have been here before—with the Aces finding their way in the Wubble in 2020, and the Sun the year prior in 2019—but since neither has won it all, this Finals is shaping up to be one of redemption and validation for these two teams.

The Aces are being gifted a stocky 56 percent chance to win the series, but the #direspeCT Sun embody the underdog mentality—when no one shows them love, they shine the brightest. Don’t expect this Sun team to go quietly into the night, even against these high-powered Aces.

 

How They Got Here

In the first round, both the Aces and Sun took down opponents bereft of healthy, talented players—the Aces drew the Mercury sans Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, whereas the Sun played the Arike Ogunbowale-less (save for a few inconsequential minutes in the deciding Game 3) Dallas Wings. In the second round, both teams faced stiffer competition, as the Aces battled the formidable and chique-pick Seattle Storm, and the Sun locked horns with the defending champion Chicago Sky. These series were hotly contested and demonstrated the supreme talent this league holds, but both the Aces and Sun played within their DNA and won their own ways. A clash of diametrically adverse playing styles awaits Sunday afternoon.

 

The Matchup

With the Aces taking the season series two games to one, this matchup is closer than some might think. Looking at the chart above, the Aces have been an offensive behemoth all season, blitzing opponents with buckets left and right, and the playoffs have been no different. The Aces lead in most statistical offensive categories amongst playoff qualifiers, and they look poised to make that their primary force in this series. After all, in the opening round against the Mercury, they tied the record for the second most points in a playoff game. At the same time, head coach Becky Hammon has preached the need for improved defense all season, and the Aces have shown the capacity to hold their own on that end, limiting opponents to just over 80 points per game (PPG). 

The Sun, however, were better offensively during the regular season than the eye test would have you believe; but come playoffs, the analytics and eye test have found their way back to one another. The Sun have been mediocre in most offensive categories so far this postseason, certainly worse than in the regular season. Where they’ve gotten better (scientists are still looking into how this is indeed possible) is on the defensive end. This team’s whole identity is stopping the opponent, gumming up the works with quick feet, using their length to disrupt passing lanes, and exploiting the unrelenting waves of opportunistic turnover creation. The Sun give opponent’s nothing, and if you don’t believe in it (I didn’t until the semis), look at what they did to Chicago’s elite ball movement and experienced offensive execution. The excellence of the Chicago offense we all lauded pre-series turned into a quagmire of missteps, turnovers, and an inescapable defensive clamp that suffocated all hope.

 

The Starters

 

Before we jump into the matchups, it’s important to note that while Aces forward Dearica Hamby is active, she is certainly not 100 percent, so what Hammon decides to do will be interesting. Hamby was starting in Stokes’ spot for much of the season prior to the injury, but was moved to the bench shortly before she got hurt. With Hamby starting, the matchups might be more straightforward; however, if Stokes starts, we’ll likely see Sun head coach Curt Miller get more creative. In their last matchup in the regular season, Jonquel Jones didn’t play, making this exercise all the more challenging. Noting all of that, this is how I think they’ll match up, assuming Stokes remains the starter alongside the rest.

 

Chelsea Gray vs. DeWanna Bonner 

They don’t call her the “Point Gawd” for nothing. Gray has been incredible all season, but especially in the playoffs. Inexplicably forever underrated, Gray has been all parts facilitator and scorer for the Aces, draining 24.0 PPG on an absurd 62.6 percent field goal (FG) percentage. She’s also hitting on nearly 60 percent of her threes; couple that with her league-leading 7.7 assists per game (APG), and she’s the whole package Vegas needs her to be. All told, Gray has nearly a 76 percent true shooting percentage, which accounts for three-point and free-throw percentages. That number is the best number in any American pro basketball league ever in the playoffs. If there’s a playoff MVP right now, my vote is Gray. Gray has also tied herself for second on the assist/turnover ratio playoff list with 12 in Game 3 against the Storm. No matter what Connecticut throws at her, there may be no stopping what she’s able to do.

 

 

Bonner is the only player on the Sun team with championship pedigree, so her experience there alone (although plenty of others were there in 2019) will prove advantageous for her team. Bonner has been up and down during the postseason, averaging 13.9 PPG, but on 35.2 percent shooting, one of the lowest percentages she’s had in the past five seasons. She’s still a fierce competitor and an important cog in the Sun machine, so she will still command plenty of attention from Aces defenders, looking to make them pay if they leave her open. 

Defensively, Bonner is rangy, using every inch of her 6 ‘4’’ frame with her instincts and physicality to disrupt passes and offensive flow within her defensive assignment. Nothing the Storm could do yielded Gray’s attack, but they didn’t have someone with Bonner’s spindly constitution. Look for Miller to get her out against the Point Gawd, pushing Bonner to use every tool in her defensive hex bag to slow down Gray. 

 

 

Kelsey Plum vs. Natisha Hiedeman

With all due respect to Hiedeman, this matchup belongs to Plum. She’s been on a mission this year to prove her worth, a mission met with resounding success. Despite her argument that she hasn’t changed anything other than playing more minutes, Plum’s meteoric rise in production has been a critical reason for why the Aces are the favorite in these Finals. 

This Aces team rains threes with reckless abandon, but so far in the playoffs, that abandon has paid dividends, collectively making 66 three-pointers, good for seventh all-time in the playoffs, according to Across the Timeline. If their hot shooting continues (aka Plum treating even the smallest sliver of space between her and her defender as an invitation to launch and drain, as she did in the regular season), then they are sure to break the all-time record. Additionally, the Aces are tied for second on the all-time playoff list with 11 three-pointers made per game, and will almost assuredly break that record, too. Plum has been strong in the playoffs, averaging nearly 19 PPG, but is shooting only 28.2 percent from three. At the same time, the Aces are tied for second most unassisted above-the-break (all threes not in the corner) threes in the playoffs, which speaks to Plum’s capacity to create shots for herself from the perimeter (to her credit, Plum had 37 above-the-break, unassisted threes in the regular season, second highest all-time). She will need to help her team where her bread is buttered, and while it’s encouraging to see her drive and finish at the rim or get fouled (Plum is fourth in free throw attempts per game so far in the playoffs), the three is an important component to her game and will need to improve for this team to beat the Sun.

 

As for Hiedeman, she is a defensive menace, evidenced by having the highest defensive rating (DRTG) of any player in the playoffs with at least 20 minutes. Her tenacity and ability to defend multiple positions make her a serious threat for the Sun. While not a huge scorer (only 8.5 PPG), Hiedeman is efficient with her chances, choosing to attack the paint or score off a fastbreak—35.3 percent of her points come in the paint, with another 44.1 percent from deep. She is a versatile player who, when hot offensively, can burn you in multiple ways.

 

 

To some degree, this will be an overlooked matchup, even if Plum is able to three-point barrage her way to huge games. There are star matchups throughout the lineups, but don’t overlook this one—while the Aces clearly hold the guard advantage in this battle, if Hiedeman can control what Plum can do and force Plum to facilitate, that might be all this Sun team needs to get the upper hand.

 

 

Jackie Young vs. Courtney Williams

This is my favorite matchup of the series (no slight to the Wilson-Jones matchup, if we’re so lucky) because these are two integral players at different points in their careers. Four years into her career, Young has improved exponentially each year, but none like the jump from 2021 to 2022. Of players averaging at least 20 minutes per game (MPG), Young is eighth in the playoffs in effective FG shooting percentage, which accounts for the higher value of a three-pointer compared to a two-pointer. She’s also sixth in the playoffs in true shooting percentage at 66.2 percent. With all the star power this team has, Young is often assigned to the third- or fourth-best defender, meaning she can feast on lesser competition. Look for her to pick her spots with clutch threes throughout the series.

We know what Williams, now a grizzled veteran, is and what she can be. As the old adage goes, there are only three certainties in this world—death, taxes, and Courtney Williams’ midrange. While not a strong three-point shooter, Williams is a throwback player of sorts, as her midrange game is one of the finest in the league. 

 

 

On the defensive end, Williams is a Swiss Army knife, capable of stopping the one through four in any lineup. Of players who’ve played at least 20 MPG this postseason, Williams is fourth in the league with a 91.1 DRTG. Her fit on this team is integral—a top defender, a clutch leader, and, as mentioned above, a midrange game that just can’t be contained. She’s third in the playoffs with a third of her points coming from the midrange, and is ninth with an 85.2 percent FG percentage on two-point attempts. Where she may be most impactful is in transition, an area where this team thrives. Since the Sun’s offense isn’t superior, they use their defensive chops to force turnovers and create easy offense in transition. Williams is a guru, meaning the Aces will need to be highly aware of her when they cough the ball up.

 

 

Credit to whoever can win this battle. Young can disappear at times during long series, but so can Williams. Young needs some help facilitating her offense, but Williams knows how to hunt and get a bucket, even if it isn’t always in the flow of the team’s offensive scheme. If Young is shut down by Williams, that’s another weapon the Aces don’t have, and will have to make up for that offense elsewhere. But if the Aces can drive and push the Sun to collapse (especially Williams, who can roam at times defensively), Young will be setting up basecamp in the corners and burn the Sun all series long. 

 

Kiah Stokes/Dearica Hamby vs. Alyssa Thomas

If Dearica Hamby is healthy enough, I’d be curious to see if she slides back into the starting rotation, thus guarding Thomas, but Hammon may choose not to mess with what’s working and keep Hamby as the first or second player off the bench. For now, I’ll say the assignment goes to Stokes, who’s been fine in her starting role, especially on the defensive side. There is a chance we see Stokes on Jonquel Jones to free up Wilson, but I’ll keep it as is until we have proof otherwise. Some games Stokes can show out and score big, hitting the reliable midrange shot to offer depth scoring.  In general, though, her offense isn’t much to write home about, but as mentioned, she’s been serviceable on the defensive end, preventing 12.0 points per 100 possessions when she’s on the floor. While Hammon doesn’t use her bench much, she must be thrilled that, with Hamby out, Stokes has been able to produce some and provide a more positive presence.

On the other hand, Thomas is certainly no slouch, even if she is constantly overlooked as one of the best players in the league. She shoulders the biggest load for this Sun team (even without two functioning ones), consistently putting them on her back to grind out wins. She led the league in the regular season with 2.7 defensive win shares (DWS), and she has continued her menacing defensive ways in the playoffs, with only two teammates—Bonner and Heideman—ahead of her in DWS per game.

See Also

This is a matchup I can see the Sun exploiting, especially since Hamby isn’t fully healthy. Stokes can likely water down some of Thomas’ movement, but not all, and a wounded Hamby is not the defensive presence she can be, so Thomas should be able to take advantage whoever the Aces choose to throw at her. Thomas is also fourth in these playoffs with 5.5 APG, so if her downhill driving, plowing through opposing defenders to get easy buckets isn’t working, look for her to facilitate, especially if the Aces try and collapse their bigs on her in the paint. 

 

A’ja Wilson vs. Jonquel Jones

What a battle this is going to be—the 2022 MVP vs the 2021 MVP. The two best bigs in the game. The linchpins for everything their respective teams do on the court. The fans deserve this matchup, and it surely will not disappoint.

What is there left to say about Wilson that hasn’t been written? Wilson is a bonafide superstar and is arguably the league’s most marketable player. She’s averaged at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.0 blocks per game for the entire postseason, just the fourth player ever to accomplish the feat. She draws so much attention from defenders that her ability to finish at the rim or facilitate out of a double-team marvels every fan watching. All the energy she puts in on the offensive end doesn’t imply she’s lost on the defensive end—she’s 12th in DWS per game in the playoffs, so her hard work manifests itself on both ends of the floor.

Lest we forget about Jones, for she is a formidable entity to be reckoned with. Of players averaging at least 20 MPG, Jones’ DWS for the playoffs is 1.7, tied with Candace Parker for fifth. Using the same measure, Jones is second to teammate Hiedeman with a 89.7 DRTG. However you slice it, Jones patrols the paint and will give drivers much to think about if they attempt to score at the rim. Additionally, Jones offers plenty on the offensive end, especially in rebounding to offer second-chance opportunities and in the pick-and-roll (her 8.5 rebounds per game have helped the Sun lead the league in rebounds in the playoffs).

The matchup between these two legends is going to be otherworldly to watch.

 

The Bench

Any criticism Hammon has faced this season has come down to the lack of a bench for the Las Vegas Aces. Many found themselves perturbed at Hammon’s seemingly cavalier approach to the bench. When Hamby went down with an injury, many wondered how the starters would be left standing after all the minutes they have to play.

 

In the playoffs, Vegas’ bench is at 38.5 bench MPG  across six games. Taking out the Game 2 blowout over Phoenix, and they’re at 30.8 MPG across five games. Since 2005, the lowest bench minutes per game for a team is 29.1 in 7 games for the 2018 Mercury, so the Aces aren’t too far off from another record. But they don’t seem to slow down, demonstrated by Wilson’s ironwoman-esque 40 minutes in Game 4 in Seattle. If the Aces can continue to lean on their starters, and everything to this point proves they should, then the bench may not matter.

For what it’s worth, the one bench player who’s seen increased action as the postseason has rolled on is Riquna Williams. Against Seattle,  Hammon showed no hesitation to yank Plum from the game if she was making poor choices or not shooting well in favor of Williams. She has been a revelation for this team, especially since Hamby has been out, and allows Hammon to play essentially two lineups, interchanging Williams and Stokes. The problem is, Vegas only plays two lineups— their starters (Stokes-Plum-Gray-Wilson-Young), who have played 104 minutes together for a 17.7 net rating (netRTG), and when Williams swaps in for Stokes (38 minutes for a 26.6 netRTG). That’s it, and in looking at their netRTG, Vegas has only three players who are net positives when they’re on the court vs. not—Gray, Wilson, and Plum (barely), who’s at 0.1. The rest are all net negatives. Vegas has the second-worst offensive rating (ORTG) for its bench (36.2; CT has the best), but the best DRTG (33.1) in the playoffs. In short, the starters have played in 83 percent of the total minutes played in the playoffs, so Hammon will likely maneuver a way to keep some starters out for offensive flow while bringing in bench players to clamp down defensively; even for the few minutes she’s given them in the playoffs, it could be a way to get past the Sun for the championship.

For Connecticut, head coach Curt Miller goes to his bench a bit more frequently, but he’s also had a few blowout games to use at his disposal. In eight games, his bench averages 61.5 MPG, and most of that stems from Sixth Player of the Year Brionna Jones. Nearly a clone of what Jonquel can bring, Brionna Jones is an ironclad defender who gives Connecticut everything it needs behind Jonquel (there’s a reason why Brionna is 6POY). Behind her, the intriguing DiJonai Carrington brings energy and some scoring punch, too. If Miller wants to find an angle where he can attack the Aces, this might be it—coming in droves with speed to try and exhaust the Aces’ starters.

 

Intangibles

I want to focus on quarter-to-quarter shifts and home and road numbers. The Aces have the best ORTG in each half in the playoffs, highlighting just how dominant they are offensively (yeah, we knew that already). But did you know this? Interestingly enough, the Aces have the best second and third quarter DRTG in the playoffs, emphasizing the importance for this team to go into the half with a lead. They can shut teams down in the third quarter, so look for Hammon to be aggressive towards the end of the first half to ensure her team can get a lead then hold it with tenacious defense. Lastly, Vegas has the best ORTG on the road in the playoffs, albeit with a small, but impressive two-game offering in the Pacific Northwest. What this shows is this Vegas team means business, and has no trouble coming into your building and kicking you right in the mouth.

Connecticut is a tale of known commodities here too—the Sun have the best second half DRTG and the best fourth quarter DRTG; neither of which should surprise you. This team has been one of the best defensive teams all year, and in clutch time, they only get tougher. They are also an unbelievably strong rebounding team, but so are the Aces, who are right behind the Sun in rebounding in the playoffs. The key number is 57— when the Sun have a 57 percent rebounding percentage, they are undefeated in the playoffs. Anything below that? They are winless. This will be a crucial number Hammon will no doubt keep on the bulletin board in the locker room all series. Additionally, the Sun also have  the best DRTG on the road in the playoffs; that’s critical, as they’re going to be in Sin City for at least two, possibly three games. They showed that going into the lion’s den in Chicago didn’t faze them, so don’t expect the Sun to be scared in the opening games of the series.

Prediction

As mentioned above, these teams operate under very different playing styles. For the Sun, 55.8 percent of their points come in the paint, best in the league during the playoffs. Vegas? Dead last, at only 34.7 percent. However, only 16 percent of their points come from downtown, contrasted with 35.7 percent for Vegas, second-best in the league. Additionally, 14.1 percent of Connecticut’s points come on the fast break; that’s second best in the playoffs. Vegas is just sixth with 8.1 points in transition. Connecticut gets 17.9 percent of its points to come from the free throw line, tops in the league. All of this to say: a whopping 66.1 percent of their points come from the old-school two-point portion of the court, most in the league.

It’s these divergent approaches that make this series so exciting, yet so vexing. For me, this series comes down to who can control their style of play more. Vegas plays the uptempo, new-school approach with tons of traded chances, but knows how to shut down defensively when needed. The Connecticut Sun likes the muck-it-up, grind-you-down style where they’re happy to take the uncontested midrange because they know they’ll clean up the glass and finish strong.

I still can’t get over how Vegas can beat you in any number of ways. The biggest are drive-and-kick corner threes, Wilson on the block, and the PnR Triangle Offense to get an open look for Wilson at the rim. If those fail, Plum’s three-point prowess, Young’s ability to make open looks, and Gray’s capacity to facilitate and create her own shot makes this team attack coming from any number of places. I know the Sun are good defensively, but are they that good? I’m not sure. Aces in five.

 

All stats as of 9/11. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA.com

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© 2021 Winsidr. All Rights Reserved.

Scroll To Top