WNBA playoffs 2022: Storm steal Game 1 over No. 1 Aces, 76-73, in series already living up to hype

All eyes have been on the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm meeting up in the playoffs after the regular season finale that felt like a postseason precursor. And Game 1 of their best-of-five semifinal series lived up to all that hype.

Storm MVP candidate Breanna Stewart and Aces "point gawd" Chelsea Gray exchanged unguardable shots. Retiring point guard Sue Bird showcased her sharp eye with full-court transition passes. Kelsey Plum ensured her dawg came out to play. And the Storm held on to take Game 1, 76-73, at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas on Sunday.

The Aces announced a record sellout crowd. Game 2 will be Wednesday (10 p.m. ET on ESPN2) in Vegas. The No. 2 Chicago Sky and No. 3 Connecticut Sun are playing on the other side of the bracket with Game 1 scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on Sunday.

Jewell Loyd's 3-pointer gave the Storm their lead back at 1:45 and a deep jumper steps inside the arc pushed the lead to three, 76-73, at 34.6. Tina Charles secured the defensive rebound on a missed 3 by Plum and Loyd killed the shot clock, but missed her 3 to give the Aces a chance with 6.8 on the clock. They set it up out of a timeout for Plum to tie, but the attempt bounced long.

Loyd led all scorers with 26 points (10-of-19), scoring nine in the fourth. She was 4-of-10 from range. Charles dominated on the boards with a 12-point, 18-rebound double-double. Stewart added 24 points and three blocks. And Bird dished 12 assists with zero turnovers, tying the postseason record for most assists without turning it over, according to Across the Timeline. The record is also held by Cynthia Cooper and Diana Taurasi.

Seattle started out to a double-digit lead and led by as many as 12 in the first half. It was a 43-36 lead heading into the locker room after Stewart and Gray added entries to their Game 1 highlight packages.

Las Vegas took its first lead of the game, 65-64, with 6:09 to play by none other than a bench player in Riquna Williams. The Aces have received a league-record output from their starters throughout the season, prompting fair critique of their bench’s ability to show up when needed. The lead from either end never grew to more than three.

How Storm won Game 1 in Las Vegas

The biggest concern for the Storm coming into the series opener was the loss of Gabby Williams, who sustained a concussion in Game 2 of the first round and did not make the trip to Las Vegas. Stephanie Talbot moved into the starting lineup in her place for only the second time this season and proved key for Seattle in its early 15-4 lead. Talbot turned a steal into a transition bucket on the Aces' second possession, hit a 3-pointer a few minutes later and stuffed Williams on a corner 3 attempt by the 3:35 mark.

The fifth-year forward had to head to the bench with 4:43 left in the third after grabbing her fourth foul.

Charles controlled the boards and Bird turned them into long transition passes on target for the Storm to control the game in transition. The Storm served more assists in total, 23-16.

"Sixteen [to] zero in transition points?" Aces head coach Becky Hammon told reporters afterward. "No, I'm not happy with the defense."

The Storm were 41.3% from the field, surviving a 5-of-22 day from behind the 3-point arc. They average 36.1% this season, same as the Aces to lead the league. Las Vegas was 6-of-23 (26.1%).

But Charles missed a few easy buckets at the rim and in a series like Aces-Storm, every one of those opportunities matters. The 6-foot-3 center was 6-of-18 and helped out by similar Aces' misses on easy looks.

What went well for Las Vegas

Hammon, awarded Coach of the Year honors on Friday, warned it might be a sluggish start for each team since both swept their first-round series and hadn't played for a week. That was true of the Aces, who struggled from the field in the first quarter and into the second. That's not a common occurrence for a team that averages 90.4 points per game.

Hammon told reporters it was like her team felt it had the weight of the world on its shoulders. Gray said they might have played too passively to start.

Plum is the head dawg of that beast averaging 20.2 per game and shooting 46%, including a near-identical 42% mark from 3-point range. After a 0-for-5 start, she progressed up to her 2022 All-Star self quickly, shooting 4-of-6 on a streak to halftime. She scored 20 points despite a rough outing going 8-of-23 (34.8%) and 2-of-10 from 3.

Las Vegas was able to keep better pace in the second quarter and climb to within two early in the third by better defense, the calling card Hammon has hammered since training camp. A'ja Wilson, a leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year, was a key part of that. The Storm were 4-of-15 (27%) when Wilson was the primary or help defender in the first half, per ESPN Stats and Information.

Wilson, the lead MVP candidate alongside Stewart, will need to make more of an offensive impact going forward. She was 3-of-10 for eight points and took five of those shots outside the paint. She did bring down 12 boards.

Gray scored a team-high 21 with five assists, tying Jackie Young to lead Las Vegas. She was 9-of-15 (60%) and Young was 3-of-6. The rest of the club (excluding Iliana Rupert's one make) went 15-of-46 (32.6%).

WNBA semifinal schedule

Game 1: Storm 76, Aces 73

Game 2, Wednesday: Seattle at Las Vegas, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2

Game 3, Sunday, Sept. 4: Las Vegas at Seattle, 3 p.m. ET on ABC

Game 4*, Tuesday, Sept. 6: Las Vegas at Seattle, TBD on ESPN2

Game 5*, Thursday, Sept. 8: Seattle at Las Vegas, TBD on ESPN2

*if necessary