24/04/2024

Las Vegas Aces superstar and MVP contender A'ja Wilson in action against the Washington Mystics. Photo Credit: KeShawn Ennis/NBA Photos

After winning the 2022 WNBA championship, the Las Vegas Aces are on track to do it again in 2023.

Having swept through the season amassing a 34-6 record, with seven total losses including the Commissioner’s Cup final, the Aces seem to be on a collision course with the New York Liberty in the finals.

If the Las Vegas Aces were to go back-to-back, it would be the first time a team has done so in the WNBA in over 20 years, when the Los Angeles Sparks won in 2001 and 2002, breaking the stranglehold the now-folded Houston Comets had during the inaugural four seasons of the WNBA from 1997-2000.

The Inner Sanctum sat down with ESPN Las Vegas radio host Tyler Bischoff to talk about the Las Vegas Aces WNBA play-offs chances, and whether the side can go back-to-back.

“They built a super team, and the only reason I think there’s any question [whether they can repeat] is that New York decided they were going to go build a super team too,” Bischoff said.

“And so if we get Liberty and Aces, it’ll be great. It will be a tremendous match-up.

“But that’s really the only thing that will stop them.

“They’re going to go play Dallas [in the semi-finals]. Dallas did beat them once this year, but it’s very hard to believe Dallas will beat them in a series.”

A key component to how the Aces go about winning is their line-up.

A’ja Wilson is an MVP candidate and superstars like Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum can dominate if required.

Alysha Clark was named the WNBA’s Sixth Player of the Year and has been vital in stepping up when needed due to an injury to Candace Parker.

“We saw it last year with Chelsea Gray where she took over games in the fourth quarter and would just be able to drive, get to 12 feet, and was almost unstoppable,” Bischoff said.

“And Chelsea Gray might be their fourth best offensive player, but she’s one who can absolutely win them games.”

A criticism that has been levied at the Aces is the fact that coach Becky Hammon has been over-reliant on her starting five, playing them more than necessary in blow-out victories, and could be a reason the Aces struggle in the playoffs.

A weird quirk of the WNBA schedule might mean that the lack of rest becomes a non-factor.

“The funny thing about the starters being used so much is that they did it last year and won the title,” Bischoff said.

“And they did it again this year. They got the one seed. They’re the favourites again, and the way the playoffs are structured because there are so many days off, it might not matter.

“Especially if they take care of… if they sweep Dallas, they’re going to have played five games in the space of like three weeks, four weeks, something like that before the finals even start.

“So it honestly might not matter that much that she has relied so much on the starters because of how much time there is off.”

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Should the Aces beat the Dallas Wings, and the New York Liberty beat the Connecticut Sun, it will give the league the finals series most people had been predicting before the season even started, which might not be a good thing for the team from the Silver State.

Of the seven losses throughout the season, three have been at the hands of the Liberty, with one of those being the Commissioner’s Cup final.

Coincidentally, the WNBA finals are a five-game series, and looking back at the regular season, the Liberty beat the Aces 3-2 across the five games the two sides played.

Will that matter in the finals?

“I think it could be a precursor to what happens in that series,” Bischoff said.

“Assuming we get those two, you’re going to have three players that have won an MVP before, A’ja Wilson, Jonquel Jones, and Breanna Stewart.

“You’re going to have four more players between Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young, Chelsea Gray, and Sabrina Ionescu that are all All-Star players, and all players that can win the game for you.”

Bischoff noted that on Jones, the Aces have been able to deal with her effectively at points throughout the season by getting her into foul trouble and limiting her minutes as a result.

“Jonquel Jones is the key to New York’s defence. She might still be the best overall defender in the WNBA. Her rim protection and paint presence is incredibly good,” he said.

“When she’s on the floor, A’ja Wilson’s had a tough time scoring. It’s hard to score on Jonquel Jones, even for A’ja Wilson.

“You also throw in that Plum and Young have a harder time getting to the rim and finishing, that might be the biggest key to the entire series.

“How many minutes does Jonquel Jones play, or do they get her in foul trouble and get her off the floor?”

If the Aces can neutralise Jones, there are still two key factors, one external and one internal, which could prevent the Aces from winning the title in a series against New York.

“If they don’t do it, I think it will simply come down to New York being better than the Aces in maybe one or two areas,” Bischoff said.

“I think the two things that are maybe scary if they play New York, the first one is Sabrina Ionescu. She can be the sort of unstoppable game-changer.

“We saw it in some of the regular season match-ups where she drilled threes off the dribble from five or six feet behind the three-point line.

“The Aces didn’t necessarily defend it poorly. She’s just really good and if she can do that a few times and steal a game or two, that would be one way.”

The second factor is internal, and it is the injury status of Candace Parker and whether or not she is fit to play.

“Is she coming back? We don’t know. We haven’t got an official update on that,” Bischoff said.

“If she doesn’t come back, one of the things that the Liberty did well, was they would double, they would help, they were not shy about making sure they had an extra defender in the paint, and leaving sort of the fifth player [alone].

“A lot of times it’s Alysha Clark, but the Aces have their big four and if Candace Parker isn’t there, there’s a fifth player on the floor, and the Liberty weren’t shy about just leaving her and saying ‘alright, we’re not going to let A’ja Wilson get a one on one lay-up.

“‘We’re not going to let Kelsey Plum or Jackie Young drive to the rim without a second defender being in her way’, and if they can’t figure that out, then maybe they might have some problems.

“Those are really the only two ways outside of New York just being good. The Aces could play really well and still lose to New York because they’re a super team too.”

The Las Vegas Aces host the Dallas Wings in Game 1 of the WNBA semi-finals on Sunday at 2pm PT/Monday at 7am AEST.

You can listen to Tyler Bischoff on The Press Box from 7am-10am PT Monday to Friday on ESPN Las Vegas.

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