Chelsea Gray’s mood was easy to figure out early. Near the end of the first quarter, in which the Aces guard put five quick points on the board, she was called for a charge after putting her shoulder through Sue Bird. Gray earned herself a technical foul after uncorking a Draymond Green-esque performance of disagreement with the call. She was pissed.
Gray got through the rest of the game without getting into it with the referees again, but that boiling intensity never left her as she helped the Aces to a 78-73 win over the Storm, evening the semifinal series. She was redlined all night, but also in total control of everything that was happening on the court. It was her ability to combine postseason orneriness with high-level play that produced her sparkling stat line: 19 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and a 61.5 field-goal percentage. She hustled after rebounds, flew after loose balls, and repeatedly tied up opponents for jump balls. She also orchestrated the Aces’ offense to perfection, and when the passing lanes weren’t there or the offensive sets stalled, she’d raise up from wherever she was standing.
Has Chelsea Gray ever missed a jumper? If you’ve watched her at all in these playoffs, it doesn’t seem like she has. She’s shooting 66.7 percent from the floor through four playoff games and has made 13 of her 20 three-pointers. These aren’t open spot-ups from the corner, either. Gray constantly has the ball in her hand, and when she shoots it’s often because whatever action the Aces were trying to run has failed, and someone needs to shoot before the 24 seconds run out. Her typical jumper looks like this:
Basketball pundits like to talk a lot about “winning players,” particularly during the playoffs. It tends to be an empty descriptor, as it either states the obvious (yes, we all know Candace Parker is a winning player) or patronizes some schmuck in service of demonstrating the pundit’s deeper basketball knowledge (do not speak to me about Patrick Beverley, sir). But for Gray, the label is apt. She didn’t make the all-star team this season, but she’s indispensable to the most efficient offense in the league.
“Winning player” means less when assigned to A’ja Wilson, the best player on the Aces last night and most nights, who scored 33 damn points and grabbed 13 damn rebounds. Of course the 2020 MVP was crucial to Vegas’s win. But Wilson was able to score like that largely thanks to Gray, who set the game to her tempo and never fell out of rhythm.
I wonder how it feels to be Breanna Stewart, who met Wilson in their clash-of-MVP-frontrunners with 32 points in Game 2, but didn’t get the same kind of help from her teammates. Jewell Loyd can burn up a game with some timely shooting, but she’s also just as capable of going 2-for-10 from the floor and losing her shoe on a pass. Sue Bird can still run an offense, but she’s also 41. You may have heard about this. The Aces are supposed to be the team with depth issues, but Stewart looked pretty lonely last night. She could’ve used someone like Chelsea Gray.