WNBA Finals: Four ways the Las Vegas Aces can turn things around

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

This is a familiar situation for coach Bill Laimbeer and the Las Vegas Aces. Just like in the WNBA semifinals against the Connecticut Sun, the Aces started the WNBA Finals against the Seattle Storm without the energy and defensive prowess they hoped to have.

In their 93-80 Game 1 loss on Friday, the Aces did some things very well that they normally haven’t this year — such as make 3-pointers — but they struggled from 2-point range and allowed the Storm’s offense to take over the game. Seattle’s Breanna Stewart had 37 points, and Jewell Loyd scored 28, while Sue Bird had a Finals- and playoff-record 16 assists.

The Aces turned things around in the semifinals, winning Game 2 and eventually the series in five games. Game 2 against the Storm on Sunday (ABC, 3 p.m. ET) is pretty much a must-win. Since the league went to the best-of-five format for the Finals in 2005, no team has fallen behind 0-2 and come back to take the title. Here are some of the things to watch for Sunday.

Aces need to be themselves defensively

Laimbeer coached the Detroit Shock to WNBA championships in 2003, 2006 and 2008, so he has been down this path before. He knows series are about making some adjustments. But one big problem Friday was simply that the Aces did not play as ferociously — or even close to it — as we’re used to seeing.

Credit the Storm’s offense for a lot of that, of course. Laimbeer also said his team looked mentally fatigued, and it also hurts to not have the injured Dearica Hamby, the Sixth Woman of the Year and a primary energy source. But the Aces can’t have a similar defensive performance Sunday; it will all but end the series.

“A lot of things didn’t go our way,” Laimbeer said. “It happens. We didn’t make shots, they got run-outs on our missed shots. They got hot at certain times. But overall, I think it was a good learning experience.”

What did the Aces learn? Part of it was the extra level that’s needed for the Finals. The Storm have eight players who took part in the 2018 Finals. Only two of the Aces’ players had appeared in a Finals before Friday, and the most recent of those was in 2013.

“The first one is definitely a big one,” Aces guard Jackie Young said of her Finals debut. “Just a little bit of nerves and jitters going into it. We know what we can do, we got the nerves out.”

Laimbeer had a pretty simple message for his team.

“You have to come back the next day and be more determined,” Laimbeer said. “Create a mindset of, ‘OK, they got one, now it’s our turn. We need to get one.’ It’s a test of wills.”

Laimbeer, of course, experienced this himself firsthand as an NBA player.

“You form a bond, and you understand each other so well,” Laimbeer said. “Especially when you go on a deep playoff run, you really get to know each other. We know what to expect, everybody understands what their responsibilities are.”

Las Vegas must slow down Storm’s star scoring threats

It’s one thing to say, “Be more determined.” But considering the Aces are going up against two of the most talented offensive players in the league, they must execute extremely well. There’s little room for error. The Aces have to be more active and physical, and they simply can’t let the Storm run them off the court — which Seattle did for stretches of Friday’s game.

Loyd and Stewart were back-to-back No. 1 picks and rookies of the year in 2015 and ’16, and they already won a championship together in 2018, when Stewart was league MVP. They were the Storm’s leading scorers this season, and both can pick apart defenses. Stewart is 6-foot-4 and can shoot from anywhere. She has amazing hands: get a pass even close to her and she’s going to grab it. The 5-foot-10 Loyd is very quick, and she finds even the smallest sliver of space to attack, plus finishes well at the rim. Friday, they were a combined 26-of-41 from the field (63.4%), including 7-of-13 from 3-point range (53.8%).

“I thought we got downhill a lot in the open floor, especially early in the game,” Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “That’s where we got a lot of baskets, going to the rim.”

The Aces’ A’ja Wilson, who is a top-notch defender, said the Storm’s success at the transition game was one of the things that bothered her the most about Game 1.

“When you see that, when they’re uncontested, of course you’re going to make those shots,” Wilson said. “That probably annoys me more than anything. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of things we can fix. That’s going to be key for us going into Game 2.”

Las Vegas’ offense must fare better in the paint

The Aces made 10 3-pointers Friday, led by Angel McCoughtry’s five, which tied their season high. Yet they still lost by 13 points. While the success from long range was good, they weren’t dominating inside, where they usually do. The Storm had a 48-18 edge in points in the paint, as the Aces shot 17 of 56 (30.4%) from inside the arc.

“That’s not who we are,” Laimbeer said. “It’s an anomaly.”

Again, credit the Storm with stopping a lot of what the Aces like to do.

“We really wanted to concentrate on getting them off their spot in the deep post-ups,” Kloppenburg said. “Being able to bring another body in a trap at certain points, being there on the drive. I think we did a pretty good job of trying to limit their inside touches, and you know that’s one of their strengths.

“That’s been our philosophy all year long: trying to game-plan to take away a team’s strengths.”

MVP Wilson has to respond

Wilson had 19 points and six rebounds, which wasn’t a bad Finals debut by any means. But she was 6-of-20 from the field, and those 14 missed shots were her season high. She was 7-of-8 from the foul line.

“The shots that I was attempting weren’t out of my area I would normally make them from,” Wilson said. “They were all within my system, and my team trusted me with the basketball. I think it was just the flow of the game. My mind wasn’t switched over from [the semifinals], and I needed that to be done.

“I remember coming out of a timeout and I was just telling Bill, ‘I’ve just got to find my groove.'”

The Storm have last year’s defensive player of the year, 6-2 Natasha Howard, and this year’s unanimous pick to the all-defensive team, 5-11 Alysha Clark. Add in Stewart and 6-6 Mercedes Russell, and there’s a lot the 6-4 Wilson has to deal with defensively.

“We defended her well,” Kloppenburg said. “She’s good at getting to the line. But for the most part, we did a pretty good job trying to keep her in congestion, trying to front her, cut her touches down. You have to make that 20 points that she gets a difficult 20.”

Wilson, in her third season in the league, has every weapon except the 3-point shot. But she has reached MVP level without it, and she knows what she has to do Sunday.

“If I stop shooting those shots, then the defense wins,” Wilson said. “I can’t give it to them that easily. I’m not going to let up.”

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