Friday, July 19

‘This one’s sweeter’: Las Vegas Aces capture second straight WNBA championship

NEW YORK — As A’ja Wilson and Alysha Clark attempted to field questions at the postgame dais, a chorus started to build outside the interview room. The noise picked up, and suddenly the door swung open. A train of Aces filed in, oversized speakers in hand, music blasting, triumphant.

It made no sense for these two players to be alone, celebrating this franchise’s latest historic accomplishment in a relatively silent room. The entire roster — and most of the organization — needed to be present. On a night when Las Vegas flexed its depth in unprecedented ways and two little-used bench players made championship-worthy contributions, when the Aces became just the third franchise in WNBA history to repeat as champions, they had to find a way to cherish this moment as a team.

“Everything we’ve done all year, we’ve done together,” coach Becky Hammon said. “We win together, we lose together. But we fight doing it together, always. And we don’t splinter.”

Las Vegas was given every opportunity to come apart, every excuse to back down and let this series go back to Michelob ULTRA Arena for Game 5. Already without Candace Parker most of the season, the personnel shortages were compounded in the finals by the injuries that sidelined Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes, two starters whose contributions anchored the offense and defense, respectively. Only eight Aces players were healthy. Four were not regular rotation players, and one had never played minutes outside of garbage time for the Aces. It was a skeleton crew, one that seemed outmatched — at least on paper — by New York on the Liberty’s home court.

But that wouldn’t be the story of this year’s Las Vegas Aces. Facing the biggest challenge of their season on the league’s biggest stage, they produced one of the most unlikely performances in WNBA history, a shorthanded victory for the ages that cemented a wire-to-wire run as the best team in the league in 2023. The Aces trailed by 12 with 7:30 to play in the third quarter of Game 4. From that point, they outscored the Liberty 28-9 over the next nine minutes to take control, and they hung on in the final seconds as Courtney Vandersloot’s baseline jumper went long to earn a 70-69 victory and secure the title.

Wilson led the way for Las Vegas with 24 points and 16 rebounds, earning Finals MVP honors while single-handedly outscoring the New York frontcourt in the closeout game. Jackie Young bounced back from a disappointing Game 3 with 16 points and seven assists compared to two turnovers, as she capably stepped into lead ballhandling responsibilities. Kelsey Plum and Alysha Clark added another 17 points and 16 rebounds in total.

But those contributions were to be expected from All-WNBA players and a two-time champion. What came as more of a surprise to the general public, and to the Liberty, was how the so-called shallowest team in the league found even more production off its bench.

Cayla George took over for Stokes in the starting five after playing six total minutes in the first three games, becoming only the second player in WNBA history to earn her first start of the season in the finals. The Aces prioritized containing Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, and Sabrina Ionescu and had George nominally guard Betnijah Laney so that she could sink in to help in the lane. It worked to the tune of three steals and four defensive rebounds; the combined defensive efforts from Wilson, George and Alysha Clark inside limited the Liberty to 24 points in the paint, compared to 44 for the Aces.

George also spread the floor for the Aces in a way their other bigs couldn’t. She attempted 10 3-pointers, a total only eclipsed by Plum for Las Vegas during the 2023 season, and canned three of them, including two back-to-back when the Aces had fallen behind by 12. She said Hammon gave her the green light to shoot, and the only way her presence on the court would matter is if she heeded the words of her coach.

The 34-year-old has been a successful player abroad, winning the MVP of the WNBL in Australia this past season, and she’s won three World Cup medals as a member of the Opals, but that production has never really translated to the U.S. She had started three games in her WNBA career entering Wednesday and was in and out of the rotation in Las Vegas, but mostly out during the playoffs. However, when her number was called in the finals, George delivered her best game of the year. Hammon said that George was in the hotel weight room when she notified her that she’d be starting in place of Stokes, ready for whatever opportunity was presented.

GO DEEPER

Trotter: Becky Hammon was built for the championship moment, just like her players

It was exactly what general manager Natalie Williams envisioned when she scouted George at the 2022 FIBA World Cup.

“For whatever reason, I knew she was going to be a perfect fit for this team,” Williams said. “She probably didn’t play out the way she would have liked in regards to she didn’t play as much as she would have liked to, but I knew that her leadership and her professionalism, and the fact that she was an Olympian could come in handy, and here it did on the most important game of all.”

The other missing spot in the rotation went to Sydney Colson, the so-called face of the league who takes pride in her contributions to the team culture, even if her impact hasn’t been seen on the court. “The way that she practices with us is the reason you see Jackie and Kelsey and Chelsea so unfazed, because of what Sydney Colson does every single day in practice against them,” Clark said. “And she and I study (film), the way I study, she studies the same with me.”

Colson’s defensive impact was finally on display outside of practice. Although she was hard on herself postgame for picking up some unnecessary fouls (she ended the game with five), she had the highest plus-minus on the Aces at plus-17 thanks to her ball pressure on Ionescu. Her confidence was overflowing to the point that she successfully completed a behind-the-back pass in transition to Clark during the Aces’ third-quarter run.

Las Vegas had relied heavily on its top six for the bulk of the season, and the results justified the approach. And when those players were unavailable, the Aces knew what they had in the reserves, even if the rest of the world didn’t. That’s why the wounded warrior Aces found themselves piled on top of each other at center court after the buzzer and later blaring “Knuck if You Buck” as they entered the press room, supporting one another in their final act of the season as celebrated a second straight title.

“This one’s sweeter, it just is, it’s harder to do,” Hammon said. “It’s not easy to be great, it’s not that easy to win that many games. We had a lot of adversity. We haven’t been whole this whole year, and it doesn’t matter what the bump in the road is, these guys just keep buckling down together.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Trotter: Becky Hammon was built for the championship moment, just like her players

(Photo of A’ja Wilson: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)