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

We didn’t have too long to wait between the first matchup and the second; just over one month after the first clash, the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty were back at it again. This matchup is the first of four this month between these two teams, including the Commissioner’s Cup Championship game. If you forgot how things went the first time they played, be sure to check out our first article that details all the ways the Aces dismantled the Liberty. In game two, the roles were reversed.


Game Outcome: New York 99, Las Vegas 61


Why Las Vegas Struggled

You name it, the Aces struggled with it. There are a myriad of reasons why Las Vegas was unable to keep pace and make this a game, let alone win. 


Poor Box Outs

Let’s start with a small but mighty thing that good teams do regularly—prevent easy chances at the rim. Coming into the game, the Aces were eighth in opponent’s second-chance points per game, but that is largely because they are undersized.  However, the Aces’ fire and determination usually help make up for what they lack in the height department. The Aces’ defense came into the matchup ranked fourth in the league in opponent’s field goal percentage within five feet of the rim. It’s that tenacity in the paint that keeps the Aces winning and winning big. 

However, in this matchup, the problem was that none of that worked against the Liberty because the Aces were fundamentally poor at boxing out Liberty players.



The play above is an excellent example of this. Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu gets off a solid shot from the nail that hits back iron, but Aces guard Kelsey Plum doesn’t box her out, choosing to watch the shot rather than put a body on Ionescu. The result is Ionescu gets the offensive rebound and goes up for the strong two in the paint.



Another example of this came later on in the game. Liberty forward Breanna Stewart shoots a jumper over Aces defender Alysha Clark. In the paint, both Aces guard Jackie Young and Aces big Kiah Stokes are trying to box out Liberty big Jonquel Jones, but the problem is both are in poor positions to do so. Each boxes out a side of Jones, not in front of her. When the shot comes down, despite multiple Aces defenders collapsing around her, Jones is still able to grab the rebound and kick it back out to Stewie for the wide-open three. 

In the end, the Aces were doubled up on  total rebounds (48-24) by the Liberty and were beaten 11-2 on the offensive boards, with 20 of the Liberty’s points coming off second-chance buckets. Better boxing out may not have made the difference in this game, but a stronger commitment to basketball fundamentals may have made this loss more palatable.


Getting Beat off the Dribble

The Aces’ ability to set the tone defensively by playing the Liberty physically worked well for them last time. In this game, however, their guards were beat pretty easily off the dribble, leaving the Aces defense to scramble and recover. 



In the clip above, as Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot brings the ball up the court, Plum is covering her while Ionescu, the slip screener, is covered by Young. As Ionescu uses a slip screen, Plum switches to cover her, but there seems to be some confusion between Young and Plum. As Plum goes to cover Ionescu off the screen, Young did the same briefly before recovering onto Sloot. Sloot saw this and made a move toward the basket, finding herself free for an uncontested shot.

On several other occasions, Plum and Co were found to trail the dribble penetrators, hugging their back hips and not moving their feet well enough to stay in front of their assignments. Too many good looks for the Liberty were created this way.


Poor Overall Defensive Coverage and Rotations

Speaking of high-quality looks, if you aren’t going to rotate in help on defense, then you’re going to have a bad time. Time and again, the Aces defense looked lost and uncommunicative on the court.



The play above came at a critical juncture in the game. The Aces were down eight but had plenty of time in the second half to come back. The Liberty, however, had other plans. Here, Sloot uses the Stewie re-screen to slip and create confusion in the defensive coverages. On the play, A’ja Wilson and Plum switch, another difficult defensive practice for the Aces in this one, but Plum looks like she’s either trying to recover back to Sloot or front Stewie on the roll. Either way, it leaves Stewie in the perfect position to seal off Plum and get a high-quality look at the rim. The pick-and-roll defensive switches burned the Aces several times in this game, as the “mouse in the house” formula gave the Liberty bigs the advantage.



As the game spun out of hand, so too did the Aces’ decision making. In the clip above, Stewie has excellent position on the smaller Plum, but both Chelsea Gray and Wilson collapse to cover Stewie. A decision needs to be made—either one other person drops to double Stewie or all three do, but with the latter option, the Aces need to either recover quickly (Gray in this case) or another Aces defender needs to rotate over to prevent the open look for Betnijah Laney in the corner. Neither of these things were effectively employed, and the Aces are left bewildered as Laney splashes home the trey.



Here is yet another example of slow help rotation. In the clip above, Wilson does a nice job doubling Laney in the post with Plum at first. But as Laney kicks the ball out, Wilson doesn’t recover to the weak side, leaving another wide-open Liberty player—this time Kayla Thornton—to hit a three-pointer.



And lastly, the clip above may be the most egregious case of poor help rotation in this game. Both Clark and Young pick up the ball handler, which could be forgiven since Clark is trailing Ionescu’s hip. What isn’t forgivable is that no one steps over weak side to put a body on Stewie, and Young simply stands by and watches as it all unfolds. This allows for a simple give-and-go with Ionescu and Stewart, with Ionescu cutting directly through the middle of the court to the bucket.


Why New York Was Successful

A lot of simple things went right for the Liberty in this matchup that the team capitalized on, including great shooting and high efficiency from the starting five. 


Great Three-point Shooting 

The Liberty finished the game with some impressive shooting numbers that were simply superior to the Aces’ stats. New York shot an impressive 50.0 percent from the field along with shooting 44.0 percent from the three-point line. 

Among the starters, Ionescu led the way from the three-point line, shooting 6-of-10 from beyond the arc. Stewart, who was 4-of-9 from three-point land, wasn’t far behind. Combined, this duo’s three-point shooting contributed 30 points of the Liberty’s 99-point total. Laney and Vandersloot also added to the team’s three-point tally, contributing a combined 15 points just from three-point land.


Taking Care of the Paint

As mentioned before, the Liberty squad only allowed Las Vegas to grab two offensive rebounds in the whole matchup and were ahead in total rebounds, 48-24. Protecting the paint and grabbing 11 offensive boards gave the team extra opportunities on offense to produce. 

New York also scored 10 more points than the Aces in the paint, finishing with 36 points in this area compared to Las Vegas’ 26 points. Below is the shot chart of all the Liberty’s made baskets that were in the paint. 


Defensive Tenacity

To top it off, the Liberty displayed one of their better defensive performances of the season in this matchup. New York showed more cohesion on defense overall. Additionally, the physicality of this game was different from the first matchup. Liberty players were a lot more pesky on defense by initiating a little more contact, which made Las Vegas uncomfortable when trying to initiate offense. For example, in the video below, when Aces players Wilson and Kierstan Bell try to initiate the offense by screening for each other in the post, they are bumped by both of their defenders. 


See Also


The Liberty’s defensive efforts allowed them to hold many of the top players on this Aces squad to lower shooting percentages than usual, opening up the door for New York to take control of this game.


Las Vegas’ Bright Spots

Well, Las Vegas only really had one true bright spot in this game, and it was Jackie Young’s offensive performance. She was the only Aces player who seemed to have her game that day.



The clip above is just one example of the incredible work Young has done for the Aces this season. Young hits the tough shot through Ionescu’s physical defense, giving Vegas some early offensive momentum.



Additionally, early on, the Aces’ defense came to play. Wilson had several first quarter blocks, including one that led to the Young opportunity in the clip above.  


Key Moments

The game’s result was cemented during the third quarter, but the Aces lost the game earlier on. The Aces could not hit a shot from anywhere on the court, especially from distance.

The shot chart on the left is the Aces’ three-point shooting thus far this season. Note the exceptionally strong efficiency on shots taken and made from the right wing. The shot chart on the right is their three-point shooting in this game. Note here the couple of threes they made in the right corner, but no shots were made from their usually high-performing spot on the floor. For the game, the Aces shot 32.9 percent from the field and 26.1 percent from distance.

Additionally, the Aces lost plenty of 50-50 balls throughout the first half, foreshadowing the difficulty to come later on in the game. The play below exemplifies the rebounding issues the Aces suffered during this matchup.



This Ionescu bucket came after two offensive rebounds, including the 50-50 rebound prior to the shot. These possessions happened too many times throughout the game, spelling doom for the Aces.


Game Three Improvements

The Aces don’t have a ton to change from this game. Yes, you heard that correctly. The Aces are unlikely to be outscored 30-9 in a quarter again this season. The Aces probably won’t shoot 33.0 percent in a game again. They certainly won’t shoot 26.0 percent from three, from where they usually shoot 38.1 percent (good for tops in the league). The Aces had a rough game overall. Wilson shot uncharacteristically poor, and the Aces couldn’t shift into gear beyond a few fits and starts. 

I trust Aces head coach Becky Hammon to use this game to motivate her team. Every championship-level team knows they need a couple games throughout a season to remind them what it’s like to get beat. The Liberty had to play 40 minutes of near perfect basketball (they only committed six fouls all game when they usually average over 17.0 per game) to beat this Aces team. In a five-game series, I wouldn’t expect many of these results for the Aces. Las Vegas will be just fine.

The Liberty had a near perfect game in this matchup and shot extremely well. This team is starting to mold together, and they’re figuring out how to really play off each other’s strengths. In order for this team to improve going into the third matchup between these squads, the Liberty will need to be consistently great. It is never easy playing the same team for a third time, so it’s not going to be an easy repeat win for the Liberty. Staying consistent means excellent interior and exterior defense, smart shot selection, and balanced scoring. If New York is also able to continue its defensive physicality from this matchup, the third meeting  will be an extremely close one. 


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

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