Only strange things happen when the Washington Mystics and Las Vegas Aces play each other. The rivalry is young but already boasts the WNBA’s first-ever forfeit, a game suspension due to a halftime earthquake, and—I will never forget this—a shot clock malfunction so hopeless the solution was for the arena’s public address announcer to count down from 10 on every possession for the first half of the game. Add one more to the catalogue: Sunday night, the Mystics took a 21-point lead with a minute left in the third quarter, only to completely collapse! They ended up losing 84–83 after Chelsea Gray hit a midrange jumper with six seconds left in the game to give the Aces their first lead since first quarter. (Washington will have a chance to avenge the loss tonight in a rematch; it’s sure to be strange.)
Back from the Olympic break, the Aces showed just how scary they can be when they do what they do best. First, there were the team’s signature strengths. After being held to single digits in the first half, the Aces bigs came alive and finally posed the problems they’re supposed to pose. Ten of A’ja Wilson’s 20 points came in the fourth quarter, and Liz Cambage looked excellent on both ends of the floor, especially in a defensive stop against the Mystics’ last possession of the game. “We had a cute little warmup,” said Cambage, grinning in her postgame interview. “The first half was a warmup.” The Aces’ more physical play in the paint also earned them some trips to the free throw line; they’d end the game having drawn 24 personal fouls while Washington only drew five. “We kind of lost our rhythm because there were so many stoppages in play,” said Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, reflecting on the team’s offense. “The fouling was terrible—I think more than anything—when you allow a team that’s kind of on the ropes to catch their breath and go to the free-throw line.”
Washington’s mistakes seemed to beget more mistakes. This is the Aces’ mode of attack. The Mystics looked increasingly flustered as an efficient Vegas offense began getting its way and the lead narrowed—flustered enough to put the Aces in the bonus three minutes into the fourth quarter. (Which is exactly where they wanted to be; the Aces draw more personal fouls than any other team in the league.) “We’ve preached all week that if you want to beat this team, the free-throw difference can’t be a big disparity and of course it was again today,” Thibault said.
And then there was a new strength: Vegas has had an unfortunate habit of crumbling in crunch time over the last few years, but they’ve looked much better for the vision of Gray, an All-Star free agent signing this offseason and one reason the Aces have the best offense in the WNBA this year. The Aces have lacked the sort of veteran floor general they have in her now, and while she’s not an elite scoring guard (the Aces still attempt a league low 13 threes per game), she is exactly the kind of player whose talents shine while running the offense in these desperate late-game situations. You might even say she impacts winning. (Joke! Joking!!!!) In a game against the Storm in June, she hit basically the same shot, taking advantage of a Wilson screen and shaking off a very good defender—that time, Breanna Stewart. Gray’s poise, and her remarkable skill in the midrange, are tools that’ll make her very valuable to the Aces come playoff time.
The Aces sit atop the WNBA standings now, and the elite tier of the league is pretty established at this point. Barring some bizarre momentum shift, the top four seeds in the postseason will probably be the Storm, Aces, Sun and Lynx. But the exact order is anyone’s guess, and the WNBA playoff system makes the cost of finishing the regular season with the third-best record and not the second-best one pretty steep. The top two seeds are awarded double byes and avoid the single-elimination game rounds altogether, while the third and fourth seeds only get to skip one of those rounds. You can sit back and hope the more talented team pulls out a victory in a win-or-go-home game, but what the Aces said in their ferocious comeback—and what they’ve said in a season they’ve looked more championship-ready than ever—is that they aren’t going to take any chances.