Aces-Liberty 2 games this week a test of how 'locked in' the sides are ahead of postseason

NEW YORK — It was a “good, old-fashioned ass whoopin’” that Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon said her team endured in a stunning 99-61 loss to the New York Liberty a week ago.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing; at least for the reigning champion Aces, it’s not. It’s one game in a regular season of 40 and they hold considerable ground on the field. It was only their third loss of the season, they already clinched a playoff spot and only two teams are within 10 games of them. It’s fuel for the final stretch and a shot at a repeat championship.

“I don’t mind getting our ass whooped every now and then,” Hammon said. “It’s a good reminder that you’re still human and you gotta go out, you gotta prove it every moment you’re out there. Lord knows we’re going to see them plenty this year.”

This year? More like this month alone. The Aces (27-3) host the Liberty (24-6) in the Commissioner’s Cup final on Tuesday (Prime Video, 9 p.m. ET) in a game that does not count toward the standings. They’ll square off again at Michelob Ultra Arena for their third regular season meeting on Thursday (Prime Video, 10 p.m. ET).

In a quirk of the WNBA schedule, those are the only games of the week until Friday night. They’ll play a fifth time overall in a final regular season game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Aug. 28. And all eyes are on the super-teams, who lead the league standings and along with the Connecticut Sun hold considerable ground on the rest of the field.

This week’s games will be a showcase of coaches’ tactical counterpunches as Hammon and New York’s Sandy Brondello prepare for what happens to be set up as if it’s the start of a postseason series playoff format. Both have clinched spots in the postseason with seeding still to be determined before the season ends on Sept. 10.

The Liberty players viewed the win as their most complete game that they can replicate when locked in for a full 40 minutes. The Aces saw it as a one-off with credit to New York, but assurances it was more of an off day for their squad that won’t happen again. And the statistics tell it as a tale of defenses heading into two different directions.

This week’s games will be a battle of which side’s postgame comments were more applicable to the rest of the season series. And may end up being a sign as to which team could raise the trophy in October if those issues aren’t ironed out.

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu is defended by Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young on Aug.  6, 2023, at Barclays Center in New York. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Liberty lock in, find identity they like

Liberty center Jonquel Jones saw the possibilities in certain quarters of games, and even entire halves, but the super-team had yet to put on such a clinical decimation of a quality opponent as it did against Las Vegas. It was an identity the team had been looking for with the offseason additions of Jones, Courtney Vandersloot and Breanna Stewart. But it had been absent until that game.

“I kind of felt like the games that we played earlier in the season were games that will kind of help us to kind of form our identity,” Jones said. “And then as the season progressed, I kind of felt like, ‘Whoa, is this actually our identity in terms of letting teams come back into games and stuff?’ It kind of became a little worrisome a little bit, but I think we’ve had a lot of growth as a team and tonight was a perfect example of what we were able to do.”

They were able to get up on the Aces early, clog the paint and hit 17 3-pointers en route to the victory. Aces point guard Chelsea Gray said she felt her team was trying to play catch-up from the start and were reactionary to everything.

“They brought it to us in the beginning,” Gray said. “Their intensity on both ends of the floor, they were intentional.”

Intentionality has not always been New York’s strong suit. The Liberty could go up by 15 in the early part of the fourth quarter and end up in a close game at the finish, the complete opposite of when the Aces went up by double digits on a team. Hence the net rating difference of nearly 10 points between the league’s best in the Aces and the Liberty at No. 2.

No door was ever shut, though that went the Liberty’s way, too. The rebounding advantage (+24) last week and made 3s (compared to +4 and eight 3s in the first meeting) were the statistical keys, but it was always about this group being healthy and fully focused.

New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones and Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes box out for a rebound in the first quarter at Barclays Center in New York on Aug. 6, 2023. (Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports)

The Aces “are the best team in the WNBA right now and they were coming on to our home floor. They kicked our butts last time we saw them,” Vandersloot said. “There’s an extra level of focus that it takes. And this isn’t a team that you can just come in and show up and roll the balls out and play. You really have to game plan and execute and I think that we did a good job at that tonight.”

In the nine days since, the Liberty notched a win against the Sky, 89-73, in backup center Stefanie Dolson’s first game back since injuring her ankle on June 23. On Sunday, they defeated the Indiana Fever, 100-89, with their second-best offensive rating of the season and Stewart’s third 40-point game. It set the franchise record for wins in a season.

The starting lineup of Vandersloot, Stewart, Jones, Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney has an offensive rating of 119.3, the best of any five-player lineup in WNBA history to play at least 300 minutes. It is better than the 118.3 offensive rating of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who set an NBA record with 73 wins.

The Aces’ preferred starting lineup of A’ja Wilson, Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Candace Parker has a 116.0 offensive rating playing 239 minutes together. With Kiah Stokes in for Parker, who remains out indefinitely, it’s 114.7 over 213 minutes.

Aces: Rebounding, bad shooting won’t happen again

Neither Hammon, Wilson nor Gray were altogether concerned about the 38-point loss, the largest in franchise history. Wilson said the Aces “just didn’t have it today” and credited the Liberty, who she said “shot the s*** out of the basketball.” It was their lowest-scoring game of the season and they’ve lost every game in which they’ve scored 78 or fewer points.

“Like Becky said, it’s just a good, old ass whoopin’,” Wilson said. “That’s what it was. That’s what it is. We just didn’t have it today. And you gotta credit them.”

The Aces were 32.9% from the field (21-of-70), their worst of the season by 8% and lowest of the Hammon era (36.6% against Atlanta in July 2022). It was also the fewest made baskets (23) of the last two years. Wilson is averaging 21.2 points per game this season, but scored nine, one off a season low, shooting 2-for-14 (14.3%).

“Twenty-one of 70 [is] not going to happen again,” Wilson said. “Please God, don’t ever let me shoot like that again.”

She answered in the way a two-time MVP retorts back. In their first game after the loss, she dropped 28, tied for third highest, with 14 rebounds (tied for second highest) on Dallas in a 104-84 shellacking. Her 40 points against Washington on Friday night was a season high. Against Atlanta on Sunday, she filled the box score with 21 points, nine rebounds, three assists, five steals (a season high) and two blocks. They won, 86-65, without Alysha Clark (back injury).

The Aces are collectively high-efficiency shooters and unlikely to shoot as poorly as they had on open shots against the Liberty again. They rank last in offensive rebounding rate (18.5%), and that proved problematic when the shots weren’t falling. Their 33.3% rebounding rate was their worst of the season by 14% and their 5.1% offensive rebounding rate was also the lowest.

Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson drives to the basket in the third quarter against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center in New York on Aug. 6, 2023. (Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports)
Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson drives to the basket in the third quarter against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center in New York on Aug. 6, 2023. (Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports)

Hammon called the rebounding issues “completely on us,” and Gray said she wanted to see everyone involved. Only Wilson and Clark had more than three rebounds.

“Guards have to come in and snag some of those rebounds,” Gray said. “When you see our guards getting five, six, seven rebounds, that’s when you know we’re engaged defensively.”

In all three games they’ve had 26 or fewer rebounds, and 22 or fewer defensive ones, they’ve lost. In three of their four worst rebounding rate outings, they’ve taken their Ls.

Plum, Gray and Young collectively average 10 rebounds per game, but against the Liberty had six. In the loss to Dallas, they had eight and in the loss to the Sun, they had seven. Even though in their first meeting with New York their 27 rebounds ranked fourth-worst of the year, their guards reeled in 10. Parker had six with five assists.

“We didn’t do a lot of good things today,” Hammon said after the Liberty loss. “We just didn’t. We didn’t come to play. We didn’t show up. I don’t know if we thought we were just going to show up and beat a team like this, but like I said, we’re going to see them a few more times.”

Defense will determine results

When each team’s offense is clicking, they are the most formidable teams in the league with strong scoring threats at all five positions. Defense has been the difference.

The Liberty’s best and worst defensive ratings are against Las Vegas. Same for their net rating. In the first meeting, the Liberty rated a season-worst 127.3 defensively and -27.3 net, whereas last week it was a season-best 74.4 and +47.8.

“[It] was a great example of what we can do when we want to do it, for one, and when we lock in on what our matchups are and what the defensive schemes are,” Jones said.

Defense relies on good chemistry, particularly with switches that require solid and simple communication and a trust in where teammates are located. It makes sense then that it has taken a little longer for the Liberty to work together better on that end, and put into practice everything the coaching staff harped.

“We really kind of showed what we can do defensively against the best offensive team in the league,” Vandersloot said. “It had always been we talked a lot about defense, and we hadn’t been performing up to our standards on the defensive end for several games. And so that was a focus, like we talked about just like really being locked in on the defensive end, because we knew that we weren’t gonna beat this team unless we defend.”

Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson shoots the ball while defended by New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones on Aug. 6, 2023, at Barclays Center in New York. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson shoots the ball while defended by New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones on Aug. 6, 2023, at Barclays Center in New York. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s the same thing Hammon pointed out repeatedly last season. Even after big-time wins of large margins, Hammon noted her team needed to play better defense. They took large strides by adding defensive stalwarts Parker and Clark in the offseason, and had the best defensive rating (96) of the WNBA heading into August. It was arguably the most terrorizing thing about them: they added stifling defense to an All-WNBA cast of sharpshooters.

But the defensive rating margin between the Aces and second-place Connecticut Sun slimmed to a half-point before Sunday’s games. Over their last five games heading into Sunday, Las Vegas’ defensive rating is 105.1 and ninth in the league over that span. Part of that is playing the Wings (twice) and the Mystics. The Liberty led the pack at 88.5 with two games against the Sparks, and one each against the Sky and Lynx.

In the 12 games since Parker left the lineup, the Aces sit at 99.1 (fifth) — a slight improvement after their 21-point win against the Dream on Sunday — and the Liberty at 98.9 (third). In the 18 games heading into her last game on July 7, the Aces led the league at 95.1. It was clear the Aces were missing Parker’s presence in the paint, and her outing against the Liberty in June was one of her best of the season.

If Clark remains out, the Aces are at more of a disadvantage on that end.

Charters and cash

The Commissioner’s Cup is the third time out of three meetings that New York has played on the road two days prior and traveled either across the country to Las Vegas or halfway across the country back home to face the Aces. Las Vegas has either been in a home stand, as it currently is, or flew into New York two days ahead of the game because of a gap in the schedule.

This time it’s a little different as the Liberty took a charter from Indianapolis to Las Vegas after their Sunday afternoon win against the Fever. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert approved charters for the Cup championship game last year and broadened it to the full postseason schedule this season. That will be beneficial for each of these teams if they meet in the playoffs.

The final meeting of the two later this month will be at the end of a two-game home stand at Barclays. The Aces play that Saturday and will have to travel on Sunday for the Monday night game.

The cash will have each side locked in since there’s $500,000 on the line for the winning team. Players on winning teams make at least a $30,000 bonus, a significant total since minimum contracts start at $64,154 and supermax deals top out at $234,936. It is almost half of the annual salary of players like Aces reserves Kierstan Bell ($67K), Cayla George ($74K) and Sydney Colson ($74K), and even Stokes ($81K), per Her Hoop Stats data.

Four regularly rostered New York players make less than $90,000, including Ionescu. Ionescu is making $86,701 on the last year of her rookie-scale contract and will jump up to $202,000 in 2024.

The Aces won the 2022 Commissioner’s Cup, 93-83, against the Chicago Sky, which featured Parker and Vandersloot. Gray was named MVP with 19 points and five assists.