Even though the Las Vegas Aces’ defensive efficiency dropped off after the All-Star break, they’re still the best defense in the league. And they showcased it in the first playoff game of their quest to repeat as WNBA champions.
The No. 1-seeded Aces kept the No. 8 Chicago Sky to a season-low offensive output in a 87-59 win at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday night. The No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun leaned on offense, and a record night from the 3-point line, to trounce the No. 6 Minnesota Lynx, 90-60, in Uncasville, Connecticut, in the early game.
The top seeds lead, 1-0, in their respective best-of-three series that continue on Sunday. The other two first-round series tip off Friday night.
Don’t tell the Sky the Aces’ defense has ‘dropped off’
The Aces are favorites to win the title and most picked them to sweep the first-round series against a Sky team that slid into the playoffs in the final days. But this one was expected to be a high-scoring affair given their three regular-season matchups, all won by the Aces.
It was very much not a dual offensive showcase at all. Instead, it was one-sided.
The Sky averaged 87.3 in the three regular-season games against Las Vegas, up from their 81.7 ppg average, and hit at least 40% from the field in each game. The scores were 93-80, 107-95 and 94-87.
Their 59 points Wednesday is tied with a June loss against the Washington Mystics for their worst offensive outing of the season. They shot a collective 33.3%, second-worst to a 32.5% outing in May against Atlanta.
It was the best defensive outing for Vegas, whose previous defensive best was keeping Minnesota to 62 points in June. They allowed 80.3 points per game on average and kept teams to 65 points or fewer six times.
For a team that has faced questions about its defense of late, it’s a statement opening. The Aces had 10 steals, seven blocks and 16 points off of turnovers to the Sky’s six.
The addition of free-agent veteran and two-time champion Candace Parker bolstered their defense early and quickly lifted them from their seventh-best defense in their title year to the best in the league. Their 95.8 defensive rating is still the best of the season, but Parker’s absence meant a slight drop off in that efficiency through the back half. It peaked at 100.7 in August during their long road stretch and with three games against the New York Liberty.
Defense, more than their well-balanced superstar offense, will be what helps set them apart as the playoffs continue. The Liberty (89.2 ppg) aren’t that far off the Aces (92.8 ppg) and the Wings, featuring tall post play, average a third-best 87.9 points per game. Both are more than the Sky (86.3 ppg) and Sun (85.8 ppg) averaged last season when the Aces led at 90.4 ppg.
And as the No. 1 seed, they’ll hold home-court advantage as far as they go in the postseason. The Aces lost at home once in the regular season against Los Angeles (and in the Commissioner’s Cup game to New York that does not count in regular-season standings). They’re incredibly tough to oust at home where their net rating is 21.9 compared to 8.9 on the road. Part of that is their defensive rating is nearly seven points better at home (94.3) than on the road (101.0).
Point guard Chelsea Gray scored 20 points (7-of-15) with seven assists, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Jackie Young scored 18 points, hitting 3-of-5 3-pointers, with six assists, three steals and two rebounds. Kelsey Plum added 16 points (7-of-17) and A’ja Wilson had 14 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. Kiah Stokes had 14 rebounds and Alysha Clark came off the bench to score 13 on an efficient 5-of-8.
Sun ride record 3-point night
All eyes were on MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas heading into the first game of the 2023 WNBA playoffs, but it was the one phase of the game in which she doesn’t dominate that sent the Sun ahead early in their Game 1 win.
Connecticut set a franchise record for made 3-pointers in a playoff game with 16, which also tied the mark for second-most in a WNBA playoff game. The record is 23, set by last year’s Aces squad.
It bested the Sun’s 2023 season-high 13 set against Washington in early July. The Sun set the playoff mark by the midway point of the third quarter amid a hot night from the perimeter that started right from the tip in a dominating victory at Mohegan Sun Arena. It was the largest winning margin in Connecticut franchise playoff history and the largest losing margin in Lynx playoff franchise history.
Tiffany Hayes, who was upgraded to available while dealing with a knee injury, made a 3 to open the game on an assist by Thomas. DeWanna Bonner hit one on an assist by Natisha Hiedeman and Hayes added another off a Thomas assist for the Sun’s first nine points. They made eight 3-pointers by the midway point of the second quarter, eclipsing their season average of 7.2 before the break.
In a two-minute span beginning at 6:59 of the second, the Sun sank four consecutive 3-pointers to turn a two-point deficit into an eight-point lead. At halftime, they were 9-of-18 to set a franchise record for 3s in any half of a playoff game and leading, 46-32. Overall, they finished 16-of-30 (53.3%) and scored more than half of their points from 3.
Connecticut is an efficient-enough 3-point shooting team, hitting 36% of their attempts to rank fourth in the league. But it doesn’t rely on it, drawing 26% of its points from there (seventh in the league) versus a second-best 46.9% of its points in the paint. Its average 20 takes per game rank ninth. The Sun win without hitting high numbers beyond the perimeter, but developing a hot streak there early bodes well for a longer run.
Better defensive teams (the Lynx are ranked 10th of 12 teams in defensive efficiency) are going to key in better on Thomas, who barely attempts anything beyond 14 feet due to her two torn labrums. The “point-center” is an incredible facilitator and the Sun’s success in knocking those passes down from deep will keep them in barn burners with teams like the No. 2 seed New York Liberty (11.1 3FG made per game), which could be a semifinal opponent, or No. 1 Aces (9.3) in a potential Finals rematch.
The Sun’s high in 3-point makes in their 2022 Finals run was 8-of-15 attempts on a playoff-best 53.3% clip from beyond the arc. It was in their Game 3 Finals win against the Aces. Their second-highest shooting clip was 46.2% (6-of-13) in the deciding Game 4 loss.
Rebecca Allen, who the Sun acquired from New York in the trade that sent MVP Jonquel Jones to the Big Apple, was 5-of-6 for all 15 of her points from 3-point range. Hayes, who the Sun acquired in an offseason trade with the Dream, went 4-of-6 from 3 and added two free throws for 14 points. Tyasha Harris, also a part of that three-team trade that included New York, was 3-of-3 from 3.
Thomas keeps adding name to record books
Thomas didn’t make it three consecutive playoff games with a triple-double, but her stat line did join a club of previously one.
The veteran became the second player with at least 10 points, 10 assists and five steals in a playoff game in WNBA history. Courtney Vandersloot did it in the 2021 Finals the Sky won. Thomas had 15 points, 10 assists, five steals and three rebounds. She had a third of the team’s assists and half of their steals. And was 7-of-15 overall.
Bonner’s season has gone under the radar next to Thomas’ MVP-caliber one and she was too quiet in the Finals run last season. The Sun need more from her consistently to make it back.
In the Game 1 win, she joined her fiancée in the double-double category. It was her second career playoff game with at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, per ESPN Stats and Information. She finished with 17 points, 15 rebounds and six assists. With her first bucket of the night, she moved into fifth all-time in postseason scoring behind Diana Taurasi (1,455), Parker (1,149), Tamika Catchings (1,141) and Maya Moore (1,077). Bonner, who sits at 969 points, passed Lynx star Lindsay Whalen (953).
Moving on up into bigger arenas
The Aces played further down the Las Vegas strip at T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday because of a scheduling conflict at Michelob Ultra Arena inside Mandalay Bay. The arena seats around 18,000 and official attendance was reported as 12,927. The arena was so loud, Sky interim head coach Emre Vatansever could not hear the broadcasters’ questions during the in-game interview.
In the past when the Aces have been forced out of their home arena, they’ve landed at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center or MGM Grand Garden. This time around, the front office saw the opportunity to see how the team would fare at an arena with a larger capacity, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported.
The Aces led the league in attendance this season with 9,551 fans per game. It was close to averaging a sellout in the arena that sits approximately 10,000 to 11,000. They sold out last season’s postseason contests as fans continue to rally around their home team. And in the season finale at T-Mobile, a record crowd of 17,406 attended.
Overall WNBA attendance is trending upward, even though some teams play in smaller arenas that seat around 4,000. The Review-Journal reported the Aces front office has no intent currently to move, and doesn’t want to overextend. Its deal with Michelob Ultra Arena runs through the 2024 season, the paper reported, and the Aces will have two-year options.
It will be a big sequence as the league continues its growth. The collective bargaining agreement can also be opted out of by either side after 2024, and the media rights deal is up in 2025.