BROOKLYN – With 15 minutes left in Game Four of the 2023 WNBA Finals, A’ja Wilson sensed opportunity. She identified an opening—a sliver of possibility—only the all-time greats can see.
You know the look. When Wilson is at her peak (which is essentially all of the time), a searing focus washes over her. Wilson hits a shot and backpedals down the court, eyebrows furrowed, her stare a warning siren: “Watch out. I can’t be stopped.” She exudes determination from every fiber of her being.
This is the fire that separates the No. 2s from the No. 1s, the All-Stars from the MVPs, and the Hall of Famers from the greatest to ever play.
Down eight points, two starters (Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes), and in a jam-packed Barclays Center roaring with excitement, the Las Vegas Aces were in need of a gargantuan effort. A Sabrina Ionescu three had extended the New York Liberty lead to 12 early in the third quarter. After some gritty back-and-forth, Aces reserve Cayla George—who’d been thrust into the starting lineup after Gray and Stokes were ruled out with foot injuries—hit two straight triples. Those shots were enough to keep Vegas within striking distance and spark Wilson’s antenna.
It was time to strike.
Wilson put her head down and dominated the final quarter and a half in a fashion befitting of her two-time MVP status. She submitted her most iconic performance in a career overflowing with them, leading Las Vegas to a thrilling 70-69 victory.
Behind Wilson’s 24 points and 16 rebounds, the Aces became the third team in WNBA history to win back-to-back championships, and the first since Lisa Leslie’s Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002.
This was art, equal parts skill and grit blended seamlessly to produce one of the most mesmerizing 39 minutes of basketball ever seen.
Wilson’s footwork is a masterclass in control and decisiveness. Watching her work in Game Four, it felt like she was the only player on the floor who mattered. That was far from the truth, of course, as that would be antithetical to the game itself and what this Aces team came to represent. I’m just saying there were moments when that’s how it felt. Wilson got exactly what she wanted, when she wanted it, against some of the best defenders in the world.
After George’s two straight threes cut the Liberty lead to eight, Wilson peeled off nine straight Aces points, a mix of silky mid-range jumpers and thundering drives to the hoop. Wilson’s brilliance sliced New York’s lead in half, paving the way for a 6-0 Alysha Clark run to end the third quarter and give Las Vegas a 53-51 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Jackie Young came alive, dizzying Liberty defenders with jaw-dropping footwork and strength. Young was the first pick in the 2019 draft, exactly one year after Wilson occupied the same position. Young’s work ethic has always served as the standard, but she struggled under the weight of outside expectations early in her professional career. Her confidence came, then abandoned her, only to return again and start the cycle over.
Wilson’s confidence in Young never wavered. The two became close friends. Wilson’s support and guidance helped cultivate Young’s self-belief until it was entrenched for good.
So there they were, Wilson and Young, working in tandem for the ten most consequential minutes of the 2023 WNBA season. The chemistry was eye-popping.
Young’s ability to manipulate defenses, to understand tendencies and how to leverage them in Las Vegas’ favor, is dazzling.
This is what happens when you play every game of your WNBA career with someone.
Aces draw the switch. Betnijah passes A'ja off to Jonquel, which gives A'ja favorable position. Jackie sees this and slides in the perfect entry pass which leads A'ja into a spin right and the two. pic.twitter.com/NP2yQ4HPqp
— Owen Pence (@OwenPence) October 26, 2023
This play may look ordinary. It’s anything but.
For most of the series, Jonquel Jones guarded Wilson. Jones was exceptional all postseason and did her best against Wilson, but her best wasn’t working on this seismic night. Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello moved Breanna Stewart onto Wilson in hopes that her All-Defensive First Team stalwart would be able to slow No. 22 in white. It wasn’t that simple.
Here, Wilson’s strong screen on another All-Defensive staple, Betnijah Laney, forced a switch. Stewart slid onto Young as Laney passed Wilson off to Jones.
This is where Young and Wilson sing, years of shared court time manifesting in a mutual understanding of what must be done. Young knew Jones would overplay Wilson’s left hand, so she took one step toward halfcourt, dragging Stewart farther from where the play would unfold. Then, Young smoothly flipped a one-handed pass to Wilson’s right side, away from Jones, leading Wilson directly into a spin move for two.
Stuff like that won Las Vegas the championship.
Let’s not ignore the grimier work.
Wilson set up a residency on the glass against New York, outmuscling Jones for preferred position in the paint and shrewdly tipping the ball to herself if she couldn’t snare it on the first try. Rebounds dictated the series, and Las Vegas ended up plus seven in that regard despite being the smaller team for extended stretches of Game Four.
Wilson sent shivers down Liberty spines with her otherworldly defense. The back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year blots out so much of what teams want to do on offense. Routine actions become wrought with second-guessing. You can almost hear opponents wondering, “Is my shot about to get sent into the fifth row? Will I end up on the wrong side of a SportsCenter highlight or worse—a meme?”
Young, also a defensive whiz, flew around like her career depended on it. She was in two places at once during the final possession of the game, forcing Stewart to pass with a timely double team before racing out to bother Courtney Vandersloot’s potential game-winner. But—as mentioned previously—it was the tougher, possession-to-possession minutiae that made the ultimate difference.
With the Aces so shorthanded, they switched almost every Liberty action, putting Young at a severe height disadvantage versus Jones on numerous occasions. No sweat. Young fronted the 2021 MVP with verve, denying entry passes or deflecting them entirely, those hours in the weight room and the boxing gym turning a perceived mismatch on its head.
Following the win, Clark poignantly hammered home the season’s theme. She attested to Vegas’ togetherness and how impactful her new teammates were in making her feel at home.
That closeness was evident through every step of the Finals. In the press conference following Game Four, the entire team surrounded Wilson, Clark, and head coach Becky Hammon around the podium. The team took a 30-minute pause from partying so they didn’t have to split up.
This camaraderie wasn’t just a byproduct of winning the championship. The day before Game Four—two days after Gray went down late in Game Three—the Aces practiced on the main court at Barclays Center. It was business as usual, an impressive looseness and calm on display given Gray and Stokes were on crutches.
A team that radiated joy, sending ripples of laughter through every arena they traversed, wasn’t going to sulk over some bad luck.
It all comes back to Wilson, stemming from her gift as a leader and the example she sets for the rest of the franchise.
When Gray and Stokes were ruled out, veteran guard Sydney Colson was thrust from the end of the bench squarely into the rotation. Known by casuals more for her elite sense of humor and infectious personality, Colson can also hoop, something Wilson has always stressed to those willing to listen. The Aces don’t employ Colson solely for the interpersonal stuff; they immensely respect her basketball abilities.
Sitting in the seats bracketing the Barclays hardwood around 30 hours prior to Game Four, Wilson displayed why she’s an all-time great. The on-court stuff is clear, but it’s Wilson’s heart that sets her apart, how she empowers those around her.
When asked about Colson, who was a game-high +17 in the clincher, Wilson responded in a manner that underscored the ethos of Vegas’ players.
“I think a lot of people try to care. They try to make it look cute, or they try to go out there and do too much, but Syd does not care,” Wilson said. “She’s going to do her job. She’s going to execute and go from there.
“Obviously, our bench is great. They bring the energy. Everyone thinks we keep them for laughs, but at the end of the day, they’re hoopers. They’re ballers. They work every single day. Sometimes they make me get in the gym because I see them working so hard so I’m like, ‘Well, let me go lace up. I want to get in [on]the action.’
“They’re going to be ready for this moment. This is the moment that everyone dreams of. Obviously putting them out there is going to be [a]different feeling, and it’s going to be uncomfortable, but when have we been comfortable this whole series?”
That “next player up” mentality only works if the person at the top treats everyone equally. Wilson does, every single day.
So many elements of excellence that lead to one natural conclusion: A’ja Wilson has established herself as one of the greatest to ever do it, and she may just end up in the top slot when it’s all said and done.