Coaches’ Corner—New York vs. Las Vegas, Round 1

Over a third of the way into the season, the first duel between the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty finally happened on June 29. Coronated as the WNBA’s superteams before the year started, the Liberty and Aces have come out of the gates as two of the league’s stronger teams. With this battle so highly anticipated, Winsidr brought two of its own coaches to analyze the game. Imanni Wright and Matt Cohen broke down what was and wasn’t working for each of the teams, key moments and plays, and what to expect in round two.

Game Outcome: Las Vegas 98, New York 81

Outside of the first few minutes, this game was never really in doubt. The Aces thoroughly maintained control all game. 


Why New York Struggled

The broadcast claimed early on that the Liberty may have been tired given their recent schedule. The Liberty came into this game playing their fourth game in eight days, coupled with flying across the country from their previous game in Connecticut. While these may offer explanation for some initial struggles, it can’t be the catalyst for all of the Liberty’s issues in this game. Let’s look deeper into what went wrong for this team.


Poor Help Rotation

The Liberty are not an especially poor defensive team. They were ranked fifth in defensive rating (DRTG) coming into the game. However, they did what nearly every other Aces opponent has done this season—struggle to contain the Aces’ explosive offense. One area of concern was the Liberty’s help rotation, which was especially lacking against the Aces.



The Aces’ offensive system is predicated on spreading you out, typically embodying a four- or five-man out structure. In order to defend this, a team needs to communicate to ensure that as a pass is skipped from one end of the court to the other, the help rotation can follow suit. In the clip above, Aces guard Chelsea Gray drives left to the nail. When Breanna Stewart catch hedges on Gray to slow her down, it also limits Sabrina Ionescu’s ability to recover. In this instance, New York needed to “x-out” to prevent wide-open looks. When the ball is skipped from the strong side to the weak side, an “x-out” is when two guards switch coverages on the weak side to prevent the open looks, usually resulting in an “x” formation. Courtney Vandersloot performed the first part of the coverage when she stepped up to cover Jackie Young, but Young’s quick head fake pushed Vandersloot closer to Young, and Ionescu did not get back to covering Plum in the corner quickly enough.



Another issue was the help rotation off screens. When Young drives her defender, Marine Johannès, into the Plum screen, Ionescu follows Plum instead of staying on Young. One or both of them didn’t communicate, but Ionescu should’ve been able to see that Johannès was hung up on the Plum screen and not rotating over. These types of mistakes led to too many open shots for the Aces. 



I commend Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello for mixing things up in response to her team struggling with help rotations in this matchup. In the clip above, the Liberty are in a two-three zone defense. The biggest issue with that defense is it has the tendency to leave the perimeter open for shots unless the defense can rotate effectively and sharply to prevent these looks. We can see above that the Aces play the zone perfectly; they shift Alysha Clark to the nail to draw in the defense, which leaves Young wide open. The Liberty either need to use a three-two zone to prevent these perimeter looks or they need to rotate better.



The Liberty also struggled with help-side rotations in the paint. In the clip above, Clark drives to the basket off the right block, which pulls Kayla Thornton over to trap the box and double Clark. Unfortunately, Jocelyn Willoughby doesn’t drop down quickly enough on the help side, which leaves Kiah Stokes with the easy layup. 


Couldn’t Stop Dribble Penetration

The Aces had the right scouting report against the Liberty guards. Despite the Liberty guards having the second-best DRTG in the league, the Aces found great success attacking them off the dribble. 



In the above example, the Aces’ four-out offensive system had A’ja Wilson at the nail, which pulled Stewie out of the paint. This allowed Gray to attack, burning Ionescu in the process (more on that later).




Wherever the Liberty learned that Kelsey Plum can’t go left, they were dead wrong. Plum is a lefty, so her dominant hand is going left. As we see in the clips above, the Liberty time and again pressed Plum defensively on her less-dominant right side, giving her clear avenues to attack with her stronger hand.


Sabrina Got Hunted

Part of the Aces’ scouting report was to hunt Sabrina Ionescu in the pick-and-roll and off the dribble. Ionescu is a terrific offensive player, but it’s no secret that she has room to grow on the defensive end. The Aces kept that in mind and attacked her early and often. Brondello switched Ionescu’s defensive assignment four times in the first quarter alone.



The clip above highlights one of Ionescu’s pitfalls. She can get outmuscled off screens at times, and here she gets pushed off her defensive spot by Wilson and never recovers. 


Poor Guarding of the Back Cuts

The Aces used their off-ball movement to back cut throughout the game. The New York defense lacked effective communication to call attention to the cutters, leaving plenty of wide-open shots at the rim. Vegas had 50 points in the paint, and a big reason for that was the Liberty’s poor response to the Aces’ use of these back cuts.



Above is a good example of the Liberty not effectively handling the Aces’ back cuts. When Jackie Young lifts from the corner to the wing, Johannès overplays the action, not wanting to get caught on the screener. Instead, Young sharply cuts to the basket, leaving Johannès in her dust. 



The first assignment in transition defense is always to stop the ball. The Liberty did a fine job at this as a number of players were back and ready. The problem is they forgot about the trailer, and, in the clip above, Jonquel Jones completely forgets that Candace Parker is still making her way into the play. 

The Liberty had a lot of focus on their individual assignments, and rightly so, but in order for them to be better in game two, they are going to need to keep their heads up, call for help, and rotate over to stop the cutters.


Why Las Vegas Was Successful

Statistically, the Aces did their thing; they shot 58.0 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc. They were also 90.0 percent from the free-throw line, and the starters were on the positive side in terms of the plus-minus. They finished with eight turnovers and 10 steals, and they had the aforementioned 50 points in the paint compared to the Liberty’s 42. What made the Aces so successful in this game?


Physicality on Defense

Particularly in this matchup, you can see that the physical defense of the Aces made the typical shotmakers for the Liberty uncomfortable. There were few moments when someone like Stewart or Ionescu, among others, didn’t have a hand in their face, receive a slight bump, or feel some physical presence from their Aces defender. This interrupted the Liberty’s typical flow and caused players to miss shots they typically make. 

Additionally, the Aces constantly and consistently rotate on defense. On multiple occasions, the Aces got steals due to hands in the passing lane and by being fully active with on-ball and off-ball defense. In the clip below, despite the basket, the Aces’ aggressive defensive scheme forces Ionescu’s hand earlier than she probably wants to pass.



Spacing , Spacing, and Spacing!

Las Vegas utilized spacing to its advantage, allowing Aces players to get easier and cleaner looks at the basket. There was almost never a time that the team wasn’t adjusting or moving without the ball. Below is a great example of the Aces’ movement.



Optimal space allows for players to have great options in the execution of plays that involve  dribble drives and/or multiple passes. Passing is an important factor for this Aces team, and they were the most successful when they made two to three passes during the play action, which we can see below in these clips. 



Accurate Post Passing

The Aces beat the Liberty in points in the paint due to the Aces guards successfully passing when stuck under the basket. This requires skill and precision because of the cluttered nature of the lane. We can see Plum do this successfully twice in the clips below.  




See Also

Minimal Mistakes

The Aces made minimal mistakes in the matchup, but when they did make an error, the Liberty capitalized on those opportunities. The Aces seemed to have some lapses on defense in relation to communication on screens, and they sometimes were late with their defensive rotations, which we can see in the following clip.  



On the other hand, the Aces capitalized on the Liberty’s more numerous mistakes and scored over 20 points on turnovers while also nabbing 10 steals. 



New York’s Bright Spots

With all that said, New York did get some things right in this contest. The Liberty found one especially rewarding spot on the floor—the left block. The Liberty made good use of it, attacking the left block repeatedly to their advantage. Las Vegas was surprisingly ineffective at defending this area of the paint.




The two clips above highlight similar actions to get high-quality shots in the paint. Both used pindown screens to get Stewie and Jonquel Jones, respectively, in movement to cut directly to the paint and then to the rim after receiving the pass. 

Another important element the Liberty used, but sparingly, was ball movement. In the clip below, the Liberty crisply move the ball around the floor as the Aces defense scrambles. Ionescu could have thrown the ball to the corner for another option player, but instead, she finds a cutting Stewart for an open runner in the paint. 



Occasionally, the Liberty utilized good defensive positioning to force the Aces into poorer quality shots. Below is a great example. Vandersloot stays over the screen and recovers quickly enough to prevent Gray from driving downhill. Vandersloot moves her feet, stays in front of Gray, and forces Gray into a tougher shot. 



Key Moments

One thing coaches talk a lot about is winning the last few minutes of quarters. In hockey, coaches hate it when opposing teams score within the last minute of a period because it erases any momentum their team had built during that period. The same can be said for basketball coaches. Scoring at the end of a quarter can be a death blow for the positive steps taken by an opponent during a period. Below are two key moments when Vegas used its time effectively to get offense at the end of a period. 




With the possibility of having the ball at the start of the next quarter, these end of quarter buckets can turn into four- or five-point swings for the team who makes them. While New York was losing by a good margin for much of the game, it was these moments that really hurt any momentum the Liberty could have built.


Game Two Improvements

New York, whether it was due to exhaustion or something else, didn’t come ready to play. There are a number of adjustments the Liberty will need to make if they intend on competing in games with the Aces. Off-ball movement with the intention to create defensive confusion would be a welcomed start on the offensive end. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t go in the hoop, so you have to use off-ball movement to help put your team in the best possible position to score. Additionally, the Liberty’s defense needs to be better. They need more communication with one another to rotate over and recover off screens and skipped passes. Cutting the turnovers would go a long way as well, but that is easier said than done. 17 turnovers resulting in 22 points off those turnovers for Vegas is not a recipe for success for New York. Conversely, the Liberty need to force more turnovers. New York forced eight turnovers and scored only nine points off those turnovers. Lastly, the Liberty need to be willing to improve the intangibles. This year, especially on the defensive end, Becky Hammon’s crew is clearly driven to win the 50/50 balls. Greater hustle, effort, and collective resolution to fight on every possession should bring greater benefits to this veteran New York team.

For Vegas, building on the momentum is something this team has already accomplished as the Aces have not lost a game since this matchup. If this team continues to make minimal mistakes and keep their turnovers to under double figures, they have a very strong shot to not only beat the Liberty again but also become back-to-back champions. They do all the fundamentals as close to perfection as they can by having constant ball movement, making smart decisions, and working extremely hard on defense. The only things that need to be cleaned up are the minimal defensive lapses that seem to happen due to faulty communication and/or timing. The team does a great job of taking care of the ball and each other. Proof of that can be seen in how balanced the scoring is in this matchup. All the starters finished in double figures due to the team being able to spread the floor and execute play actions quickly and efficiently. 

Game two between these powerhouse teams will take place on Sunday, Aug. 6 in Brooklyn at 3 p.m. EST.


All stats as of 7/7. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of

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