The Liberty Rocked The Baby
10:27 AM EDT on August 29, 2023
The Aces have entered baby mode. They have a baby problem. By which I mean, they looked awfully tiny and awfully sleepy in Monday night’s 94-85 loss to the Liberty, the fifth and final meeting of superteams before the playoffs begin in two weeks.
First, the tiny part: The third time these teams played, in the midseason Commissioner’s Cup final, Jonquel Jones was named MVP for hoovering up every last rebound. And when they played two days later and the Liberty lost, there was some satisfaction in it, the same kind you might get when an experiment perfectly proves a hypothesis. The Aces had Jones in early foul trouble in that next game and there was a neat conclusion to be drawn: As Jones goes, so go the Liberty. She was the key to this series, I wrote very confidently in my lab report. Except now, I am chucking my goggles and beaker to the ground because that’s not actually true. My life’s work is a lie! My good name in the scientific community is ruined! Jones was in foul trouble again on Monday night—she played 18 minutes to Breanna Stewart’s 38 and Betnijah Laney’s 36—and the Liberty managed just fine. They didn’t shut down A’ja Wilson, a task that usually falls to Jones. But they made up for it by overpowering Vegas’s flat halfcourt defense, and holding Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum to some pretty ugly lines. That's encouraging news for New York: There are plenty of paths to victory in this series.
Does your brain ever do the thing where someone mentions a year and you think, That was five years ago, and then you think about it more and realize, Oh no, that was actually 15 years ago? Though I've written about their transformation, I don't think my brain has ever stopped thinking of the Aces as the giant, elite rebounding, paint-packing team they were before Becky Hammon took over as head coach. It struck me last night that the Aces have shed a lot of size over the last few years, and when they play the Liberty, they just look so small. Once again, the Liberty out-rebounded the Aces, 43-31 and 12-5 on the offensive glass. Plum, 5-foot-8, couldn't do anything on either end of the floor and the Liberty knew it; they picked on her relentlessly. The same problem showed in Vegas's last game, when they lost to a jumbo Mystics team that finally has its starters healthy again. In Vegas's defense, it's not like they didn't anticipate this problem. You can certainly take issue with the way this team has been built, but many problems the Aces have right now—the size, the rebounding, the negligible production they get from backup big Kiah Stokes—would be solved by a healthy Candace Parker. Maybe there's some karmic justice at work here: This offseason, Becky Hammon decided the Aces had a different baby problem: Dearica Hamby, an excellent help defender and rebounder, was about to have a baby.
Unlike babies, the Aces won’t solve this series's size mismatch with time, but they should be less sleepy if they meet the Liberty again. “I feel like I'm pressing the gas but there's no gas in the tank,” Hammon said before Monday’s game. She pointed out that the Aces have played 11 games in the last 23 days, more than any other team. The stretch included two separate trips to the East Coast. They exit the tough part of the schedule still with the league's best record, albeit now with just a one-game lead over the Liberty. (The regular-season series being split, the tiebreaker would go to the team with the best record against teams that are over .500.)
I’m sympathetic to the fatigue problem; players criticize the league’s travel conditions for exactly this reason, because they know every extra hour spent on the road comes at a cost on the court. I’m less sympathetic to a coach who hasn’t managed it proactively—or even reactively. Hammon said she'd mused about resting her starters for a game during this stretch, but that the starters, naturally, didn't like the idea. Of course they don't like the idea! Who cares! You're the coach! Losing a game is fine and excusable and makes sense under the circumstances. It doesn't really make sense that, in a game that was basically over in the third quarter, Gray played 37 minutes, Jackie Young played 36, and Wilson played 35. (Plum logged 29, but only because she fouled out.) The Aces head back home now to close out the regular season with an easier slate of opponents and to get some badly needed rest. Or as much as their coach will allow them, anyway.