WNBA Finals: Kiah Stokes steps into her role as Aces offense hums to 2-0 series lead over Liberty

LAS VEGAS — Kiah Stokes knew her role coming into these WNBA Finals. She stays on the court because of her defense and embraces any physicality she can if it takes it away from A’ja Wilson.

Averaging a bucket a game, Stokes isn’t a scorer, and she doesn’t have to be. Defenses sag off the center, and it still doesn’t hurt the Las Vegas Aces. They won the 2022 championship doing it. And in Game 1, Wilson and the guards scored all but eight of the Aces’ 99 points against the New York Liberty. All those eight were from Sixth Player of the Year Alysha Clark.

“We have so many offensive threats,” Stokes told Yahoo Sports on Saturday at Finals media day. “Of course, everyone wants me to score more, and I should, and it would help a lot.”

It sure would and did. Once Stokes drained a rare 3-pointer 90 seconds into Game 2, it felt like it was going to be a long night for the Liberty. And it was. The Aces offense lit up brighter than Mandalay Bay on the Vegas strip, where another sold-out crowd played a Sixth Player role.

Everything was working in the 104-76 victory that pulled the Aces to one win away from a repeat championship and put the Liberty on the brink of elimination.

“They don’t leave me speechless very often,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said, “but they executed defensively. Offensively, [they] shared it. Everything we’ve been asking them to do.”

The triple was so rare that Stokes has hit only five in 40 games this season. She has 11 in her two-year Aces career, including one in the playoffs last season. Over her eight-year career, she has 31 3-pointers total, but 20 came in her 2020 season with New York.

Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes celebrates after making a 3-pointer against the New York Liberty during Game 2 of the WNBA Finals on Wednesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes celebrates after making a 3-pointer against the New York Liberty during Game 2 of the WNBA Finals on Wednesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

“I know my teammates have confidence in me, and they tell me to shoot it often. I just don’t,” Stokes said after scoring eight points, double her previous high this postseason. “Today, I guess I just shot.”

Against her old team, she drained a second triple 30 seconds into the second quarter. It was the fifth game of her 242-game career in which she hit multiple 3s.

All five starters hit at least one 3, joining the 2007 Phoenix Mercury as the only teams to do that in Finals history until the Liberty joined them by game’s end, per Across the Timeline. Las Vegas did it by the second quarter.

“You got to make some 3s against New York,” Hammon said. “I would say in our matchups with them, especially games we’ve lost, we didn’t shoot well.”

The Aces scored 38 in the first quarter, shooting 70% overall (14-of-20) and 60% (6-of-10) from 3. It was a 19-point lead, and though the Liberty have made a habit of coming back from large deficits, it felt insurmountable.

“Our guards struggled out there tonight. Their guards could do whatever they wanted,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said. “And when that’s happening, they just got confidence. And obviously, you got Kiah shooting some 3s in the corner, and they’re feeling good. A’ja gets one, and they’re feeling really good.”

The Liberty cut the deficit to six near the end of the first half, only for the Aces to come out on an 8-0 run to start the third. Hammon said her message to the team was simple: rebound and control the paint if you want to win.

“And that was it,” Hammon said.

The Aces cooled slightly to 52.9% shooting overall and 44.8% from 3, with 13 of them. They were perfect on their 17 free throws and assisted on 31 of their 37 makes.

“Those girls hooped today. Just hooped,” Hammon said, succinctly.

Wilson had a 26-point, 15-rebound double-double to lead the Aces’ offensive charge. Jackie Young scored 24 points with eight rebounds and four assists. She was 9-of-16 with three 3s. Kelsey Plum scored 23 and was 5-of-8 from beyond the arc with eight assists. Chelsea Gray had a 14-point, 11-assist double-double with six rebounds. Alysha Clark had seven points off the bench.

“They’re just moving the ball, but they’re open,” Brondello said. “We didn’t get as many open shots tonight because they wanted it more than us. And I don’t know. We’ll search for answers, but I know we’re way better than that. It’s our opportunity to show that in Game 3.”

Brondello and Jonquel Jones, who carried the Liberty back into a single-digit deficit, said everything was too easy for the Aces on Wednesday. The Liberty defense struggled to keep almost anyone in front of them. And when they did get stops, the ball was drawn to the Aces like magnets. At one point in the third, Wilson corralled what looked to be a pass she wasn’t expecting in the paint and scored. Breanna Stewart tipped a shot, but it redirected to the basket. Rebounds bounced deep into the hands of Aces players for easy looks.

“Honestly, I think we have to get a dig deeper, be a little bit tougher, make things a little bit harder and come out with some more grit,” Jones said.

All five Liberty starters also made one 3, making it the first time that all 10 starters in any postseason game have hit triples. But overall, the Liberty left point after point off the board. They shot 36.1%, an improvement from the first six minutes, and 8-of-35 from 3 (22.9%).

Jones had 22 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. She was 66.7% from the field and the only Liberty player to shoot better than 36%. That mark was by Stewart, who continues to struggle offensively in the postseason. She was 6-of-17 from the field and 1-of-6 from 3 for 14 points and 13 rebounds.

“Obviously, we still have a lot of basketball left to be played, but this is the Finals, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be ready to go from the start of the game to the start of the third quarter,” Stewart said. “We keep putting ourselves in these positions where we have to fight back. We need to be better, and we need to take a look from within and figure it out.”

Betnijah Laney scored 12 points with five assists and was 2-of-9 from 3. Sabrina Ionescu added 10 points (2-of-7 from 3), and Courtney Vandersloot had nine with four assists.

“Vegas is [playing] their best basketball at the moment,” Brondello said. “They play with a lot of confidence. You see the chemistry that they have. And for us, you know, we haven’t taken steps forward. You know, we haven’t shown it.”

Stokes draining 3s is rare, but the Aces’ performance isn’t. They were the league’s best offense and defense this season, and Hammon said the defensive versatility shouldn’t go unnoticed in the offensive showcase.

“The defense was superb. The offense was superb,” Hammon said. “At the end of the day, like they’ve been doing this the whole time, really.”