LAS VEGAS — Kelsey Plum wasn’t herself and A’ja Wilson could sense it. So the two-time MVP tapped into her evolving leadership skills and went at the dawg the way she knew would be the most effective.
“I told her she needed to get her s*** together,” Wilson said after she, Plum and Chelsea Gray combined to score 67 points and torch the Connecticut Sun, 85-71, in Game 2 at Michelob Ultra Arena on Tuesday night.
Wilson and Gray have been dominating all postseason and all series. Plum less so, particularly in a close Game 1 win. Wilson knew her direction sounded harsh, but it also seemed to work in what she described as a “statement game” that put people on notice to the 5-foot-9 guard. Plum scored 20 points on a crisp 7-of-13 night with seven assists, one off of Gray’s team-high, three rebounds and a steal.
“Today, I saw KP, and I realized even in myself, like, I haven’t been talking to trash to KP lately,” Wilson said. “So that’s what got me to say what I was saying.”
Plum didn’t hit a shot until 4:30 left in Game 1 and finished with only six points while going 1-of-9 overall and 1-of-7 from 3-point range. Her postseason clip is down from the regular season and she’s had peaks and valleys in different lines. The glaring contrast is her 3-point shot has been largely absent (26.1%) after being money in the regular season (42%).
“A lot of times I'm hard on myself and I feel like I've been a little bit frustrated [with] how I’ve performed throughout the whole playoffs,” Plum said. “I’m glad that they have been carrying it and I decided to join the party.”
The Aces juggernaut heads East to Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, for Game 3 on Thursday night. One more win will clinch the franchise’s first championship and the first title for the city of Las Vegas, besting the NHL’s Golden Knights and NFL’s Raiders, who are also owned by Mark Davis.
Plum’s ability to attack the basket helped lead the Aces to a crucial 45-37 halftime lead and she kept tacking them on to keep the Sun from making any late pushes. She was 4-of-6 for 13 points in the first half, an efficiency trailing only Wilson’s 7-of-9 for 18.
“You have to respect her three-ball,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said. “Right there you get to attack closeouts every time because you don't want to let her just shoot threes. Even though she's been a little off this series, just the threat of her, you don't want to let her get rolling from there.”
She was 1-of-6 from 3-point range in Game 2, but those completed drives were more important. And they were filthy. By game’s end, she had a playoff-high 12 points in the paint while the Aces crushed the Sun, 46-28, in their paint-point specialty.
“There were some slips and other things, but it was mostly off the bounce,” Sun head coach Curt Miller said. “And a lot of times, not every time, but a lot of times it was just one-on-one. And Kelsey led the charge there [and] just was relentless in the paint.”
The ability of multiple Aces to go one-on-one with high success rates was highlighted by the newly retired Sue Bird earlier in the day on ESPN Daily. With “Plum Dawg” back barking, it gave the Sun’s defense too much to handle to corral Plum, Gray and Wilson.
“You know, shooters shoot. Just stay aggressive,” Plum said. “I don’t think [there’s] anything necessarily that I’ve done differently, you know, just my same routines. I eat the same thing. I go to bed at the same time. Sometimes shots fall, sometimes they don’t, and for me, I feel like it’s been a growth opportunity to how I can impact the game in other ways besides shooting the ball.”
Plum hasn’t been as impactful in the points column in the playoffs, but she’s rebounding more (from 2.7 rpg up to 4.1) and dishing out important assists. In Game 3 of the semifinals against the Seattle Storm, a game that proved to be the turning point, she had seven of each. The only time she came close to that line was the season opener. She’s also helping shut down the Sun guards.
“There were things that she was still doing that kept her on the floor and I think that’s the growth, too, not just like, she’s back and she’s hitting shots,” Gray said. “She’s been who we needed her to be. We need her out there on the floor.”
Part of having her out there is the threat. Because teams know her shot is “going to come back around,” Gray said. She had only that one 3-pointer in Game 1, but it turned a one-point lead into a four-point one that the Sun couldn’t make up.
Plum’s story has been that of growth and bounce-backs. She left Washington as the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader and was drafted No. 1 in the 2017 WNBA draft by the San Antonio Stars, which relocated to become the Aces. She wasn’t the superstar everyone wanted out of the gate and earlier this season, she spoke publicly for the first time about dealing with depression and anxiety. In 2020, she tore her Achilles and missed the season. And if the 2020 Tokyo Olympics hadn’t been postponed a year, she would have missed her run to a 3x3 gold medal.
“I feel like in years past, I might have dropped my head and just gone deeper into a hole,” Plum said. “But through a lot of the things that I’ve been through throughout the years, it’s just taught me that I’m always going to bounce back and I know that about myself, and just going to keep shooting.”
She’s coming off a Sixth Player of the Year season and moved into the starting lineup to average 20.2 points per game, second only to Breanna Stewart (21.8), in Hammon’s first season. She had redemption in Chicago after a “brick” All-Star 3-point contest outing to tie Maya Moore for the game’s scoring record. And her bounce-back “statement” game in what could be the final contest in Las Vegas for 2022 might be the decider in the series.
“The growth that you see in KP is incredible,” Wilson said. “The story that she has, it’s crazy to even think about. She’s such a strong-minded, willed person that is not going to stop until the job is done. I’m so glad she’s in our locker room because she would be a pain in the ass if she wasn’t.”