That was an ugly and maddening game, and only by coincidence of schedule not the ugliest, most maddening thing on television Tuesday night. In a decisive Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals, the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces didn’t defeat the seven-seed Connecticut Sun so much as outlast them, 66-63, to advance to the Finals. They’ll face the favored Seattle Storm in a best-of-five series beginning Friday night.
The Aces, holding the Sun to 18 points in a queasy-making second half, proved themselves the most peculiar team in the WNBA, a team made—for better or for worse—in the image of head coach and former Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer. Where, say, last year’s champion Washington Mystics ran a historically efficient pace-and-space offense, Vegas wins its games on the defensive boards, from the free-throw line, and hardly ever from three-point range.
That three is more than two may be the fact that launched a thousand modern basketball teams, but the Aces gambled their season on different logic: Three is equal to three. Without the personnel to get anything going from the outside, the Aces executed three-point plays “the old-fashioned way, a bucket and a foul,” as Laimbeer said after Game 2. For the most part, the strategy worked. Scoring just over 14 percent of their points from three and over 21 percent of their points from the line, the Aces finished the regular season with the second-best offensive rating and defensive rating in the league, aesthetic pleasure be damned. (And oh, was it damned. Extremely damned.)
Anachronism has its charms, but as playoff basketball strategy, it has its limits, too, and the Sun were hungry to expose them. The easy answer to an offense like the Aces’ is to swarm and congest, and the Sun did exactly that, prompting 18 Las Vegas turnovers in Game 5 and holding the Aces to 27 points in the second half.
Having eked into the playoffs with a 10-12 record, Connecticut was one of the season’s feel-good stories. That story, however, takes some convenient creative liberties: Despite a rocky start to the season, the Sun roster featured accomplished veterans already tested by a similarly gritty appearance in the Finals last year. Had they shot maybe five percent better in their three losses, the Sun would be heading to their second consecutive Finals. All-Defensive First Team player Alyssa Thomas, nearly unstoppable in transition, played physical and punishing basketball all series. Every other Connecticut starter is a shrewd on-ball defender. With a 2-1 lead after Game 3, the Sun seemed all but inevitable. A vintage performance from Aces guard Angel McCoughtry rescued the Aces in Game 4, and still, Vegas’s chances felt slim. At one point in the second quarter of Game 5, Las Vegas trailed Connecticut by 16 points.
The last time the Aces needed bailing out in the playoffs, they turned to forward Dearica Hamby, the sixth woman more like a third woman whose premature half-court heave in a single-elimination playoff game sent Vegas to the 2019 semifinals. But Hamby left this series in Game 3 with a season-ending knee injury, one that seemed crushing enough to end the Aces’ season, too. She was not walking, let alone walking through that door. Neither was Kelsey Plum, the star guard out with a torn Achilles. Neither was post player extraordinaire Liz Cambage, sitting the bubble season with a medical exemption.
So the job fell to A’ja Wilson, as it had most of the summer. Wilson earned her 2020 MVP title both by being the best player on her team and creating the most fitting narrative; this depleted roster would be nowhere if not for her. Without Cambage to share the paint, the 24-year-old Wilson has enjoyed a singular, breakout third season. Like some assemblage of Laimbeer’s post-player dreams, she drives reliably through contact, usually with a silky left-handed scoop, and dominates on the defensive glass.
She played every minute of Game 5 and finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. Improved this year, too, are her high-release jumper and meticulous footwork, weapons she deploys to entangle defenders (who often numbered three in this series) at precisely the right angles. Vegas could not score a field goal in the final—yeesh—eight minutes of Tuesday night’s game. More frustrating: Laimbeer did not even seem terribly interested in getting Wilson the ball. No matter. In those eight minutes, the season in the balance, she drew five fouls and went 9-for-10 from the free-throw line. Of the Aces’ 13 fourth-quarter points, Wilson scored 11; the other two came off a putback on one of her misses. The Sun, left trailing by three with 13.4 seconds left, couldn’t quite cobble together a play out of their last timeout. When time expired, the Aces collectively shrieked with relief. So did I.
It was not pretty. It almost certainly will not work against Seattle. But as the Aces’ luck had it last night, neither of those was the problem at hand.