Practically, ever since the conclusion of this year’s free agency period, a good number of onlookers within the WNBA family were predicting that the Finals this year – and the next few years – would feature the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty.
Both teams in the semifinals held up their end of the “super team” bargain. The Aces advanced to the Finals via a sweep of the Dallas Wings and the Liberty made it to the big dance after defeating the Connecticut Sun in a 3-1 result (after dropping the first game on their home floor).
The significance of this matchup for both teams could not be any more different. Las Vegas is in their third Finals in four years. The Aces were in the Finals in 2020 but lost to the Seattle Storm and last season vs. the Sun where they won a championship. The Liberty were last in the Finals in 2002.
Las Vegas is thinking about a potential dynasty while New York is finally looking to cross an item off its list that has yet to be crossed off – winning a WNBA championship.
There are many ways that this matchup will be analyzed and dissected over the next week given Game 1 takes place on October 8 at Michelob Ultra Arena. Here is our Starting Five preview of what should be an epic five-game classic for the W’s biggest prize.
Let us start with, of course, the players for both teams – starting with the defending champion Aces. Of course, everything with Las Vegas starts with their Core Four.
That Core Four, of course, is A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young. It was supposed to be a fab five that included Candace Parker prior to her injury.
Plum, Young and Gray are all guards while Wilson, of course, plays the role of more of a forward/center hybrid. Wilson is difficult to contain as are Plum and Young. But we were re-introduced to how clutch Gray can be last season as she made a big impact in the Aces run to a championship last season. Gray was also part of the 2016 Los Angeles Sparks that won a championship.
No team gets in position to claim another ring without a supporting cast. There is a reason why Alysha Clark, who won championships with the Storm, won Sixth Woman of the Year. Let us add Kierstan Bell and Kiah Stokes as well.
On to the Liberty. When this New York team was assembled during free agency, the plan was for this team to contend for a championship. Mission accomplished, but the real one will be once the Liberty get three more victories.
The Liberty do have a fab five of stars. That includes Breanna Stewart, who won two championships with the Storm, Courtney Vandersloot, who won a ring with the Chicago Sky, Jonquel Jones, who played in two Finals with the Sun, Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu.
It can be argued that the most consistent players for the Liberty have been Jones and Laney. Stewie, who won MVP this year, has been off and on these playoffs. It was a big game from Jones who put a lid on the Sun’s 2022 season. Laney has been the Liberty’s x-factor throughout these playoffs. When she has a big game, New York wins. When she is put in check, New York is in the win column. Meanwhile, Ionescu has had games where she looks like a veteran and others where she has looked like it is her first time in the playoffs.
Add in Stefanie Dolson, Marine Johannes and Kayla Thornton off the bench and the Liberty have all the makings of a team closing in on history.
Tale of the Tape
May 13 (84-77)
These two teams first meet during the preseason in Sin City where the Aces picked up a 84-77 over the Liberty.
June 29 (98-81)
These two teams first got together for real in late June at Michelob Ultra Arena. Las Vegas defended its home court well and made a statement that the road to a championship still went through Vegas.
The result was a 98-81 win over the Liberty. Plum led the Aces’ scoring charge with 18 points in addition to eight assists. Wilson added 16 points to Vegas’ efforts. Parker and Young each scored 15 (Parker also added six rebounds and five assists, Young added six assists with five rebounds).
Stewart led the Liberty’s scoring efforts with 16 points with five rebounds. Jones finished with 13 points and six rebounds. Johannes and Vandersloot each tallied 10 points with Sloot also adding five assists.
A big reason for the Aces’ win was outscoring the Liberty 27-14 in the third quarter.
August 6 (99-61)
When the scene shifted to Barclays Center, the result was very different than the first contest at Michelob Ultra Arena. At that point in the season, a few weeks removed from All-Star weekend in Las Vegas, the Liberty made a massive statement.
The Lib not only defeated the Aces, they ran the Aces off the gym at Atlantic and Flatbush. The final result was a 99-61 drubbing of Las Vegas. Ionescu tallied 31 points, dished out seven assists and hauled in five assists. As for Stewie, she scored 23 points, sent out six assists and sent out five assists plus three blocked shots. Laney added 13 points in a winning Liberty effort. She was one board shy of a double-double with nine rebounds. Jones’ double-double came virtue of the 14 rebounds and 12 points plus four assists. Sloot scored 10 points, dished out six assists and grabbed four rebounds. Kayla Thornton also added eight points, seven rebounds and three assists.
For the Aces, Young finished with 16 points. Gray contributed 15 points and six assists to Vegas’ efforts. Plum finished with 12 points but was 4-16 from the field. Wilson only had nine points and was 2-14 from the field.
The Liberty outscored the Aces 50-17 in the second half.
August 15 (Commissioner’s Cup – 82-63)
Even though the Commissioner’s Cup may not have counted towards the regular season standings, it was still significant for obvious reasons in furthering the budding Liberty-Aces rivalry.
It was also an opportunity for the Liberty to make a statement that they can defeat the Aces in Las Vegas’ home building. Statement made with the result being 82-63 in favor of New York. Marine Johannes led the scoring charge for the Liberty with 17 points. She was one of five Libs who finished with double-digit point totals. Jones, who won Commissioner’s Cup MVP, finished with another double-double of 16 points and 15 rebounds plus two blocks. It was a 13 point, seven rebound, two block effort for Stewie. New York also got 12 points, eight rebound effort for Sab. Sloot contributed to the Liberty’s efforts with a double-double of 11 points and 10 points.
Young led the way for the Aces with 16 points and four rebounds. Two for Las Vegas finished with 15 points. One was Gray whose performance that game also included six rebounds and five assists. The other was Plum who finished with six assists but was 4-11 from the field. Wilson had another off night from the field with only nine points and 2-11 from the field.
New York, once again, won the game in the second half. The Liberty outscored the Aces 24-14 in the third quarter and 26-15 in the fourth quarter. The seafoam, black and copper also outscored the red, black and gold in terms of bench points by a margin of 28-8.
August 17 (88-75)
The Commissioner’s Cup Final took place on August 15. The following contest between the Aces and Liberty occurred two days later in the same building – Michelob Ultra Arena. How would the Aces respond from the most previous round going the way of the Liberty?
By defeating New York by a final of 88-75. Gray spearheaded the Aces’ efforts with a triple-double. She scored 22 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and sent out 11 assists. Wilson looked more like Wilson as she scored 21 points and hauled in eight rebounds. Plum had herself another productive occasion at the office. She scored 18 points. Young finished with 16 points with four assists.
Ionescu led all Liberty scorers with 22 points with four rebounds. Laney finished with 17 points plus four assists. Stewart chimed in with 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Jones only scored eight points but was 3-5 from the field and brought down eight rebounds.
A big key to this Aces win was how they bested the Liberty in the interior. Las Vegas tallied 32 points in the paint to 18 for New York. The Aces outscored the Liberty 28-19 in the second quarter only for the Liberty to best the Aces 24-15 in the ensuing frame. Las Vegas put the game away by outscoring New York 20-11 in the final frame.
August 28 (94-85)
The last regular season matchup between the two teams saw the scene shift back to Brooklyn. It also technically saw the regular season scoreboard (including the Commissioner’s Cup) say Aces 2 and Liberty 2. One could even say Aces 3, Liberty 2 when including the preseason.
The August 28 get-together – the final one of four that month between the two teams – saw New York dispatch of Las Vegas with the final score being 94-85. Ionescu led all scorers with 25 points. The Liberty got a double-double via Stewie with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Her seven assists had her three shy of a triple-double. Both Naj and Sloot each finished with 17 points with Laney’s coming with six rebounds and three assists. Sloot contributed a double-double as hers came with 10 assists plus five rebounds.
On the Aces end of the ledger, Young scored 24 points with five assists and four rebounds. Wilson added 23 points and eight rebounds plus four blocks to Las Vegas’ efforts. Gray finished with 16 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.
The points in the paint matchup that went the Aces’ way in the previous game went the way of the Liberty on August 28. New York outscored Las Vegas by a tally of 44-36.
While the rosters for both the Aces and Liberty will get the lion’s share of the attention and hype leading up to when it is time to tip off on October 8, one must not ignore the coaching matchup.
It is as good as a coaching matchup as there can be between two teams. On top of everything else – both teams are coached by women.
Becky Hammon is looking for back-to-back championships. That would certainly continue to build a coaching resume that became well-known when she was an assistant under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs. She won a NBA Summer League championship and was passed over for a number of NBA coaching jobs including the Portland Trail Blazers. She went to the Aces and Mark Davis where she was celebrated and rewarded with the richest contract in W history. The results proved themselves last season.
Sandy Brondello has proven the value of coaching a team full of stars – something the NBA team that also occupies the Liberty’s building could learn from. The Brooklyn Nets on paper had a “super team” with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, but because they had a rookie in Steve Nash as coach, the Nets experiment did not work. Brondello is used to coaching teams with alpha women. She coached the Phoenix Mercury who had Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and (in 2021) Skylar Diggins-Smith. Brondello has credibility with veterans like Stewart, Vandersloot and Jones. That is why the Liberty are only three wins away from their first title.
This will be another overlooked element of this Finals but one has to acknowledge the two stadia that will play host to Finals matchups.
The Aces call Michelob Ultra Arena home. The Liberty call Barclays Center home. Las Vegas has already announced sellouts for Finals Games 1, 2 and 5. One can only imagine the same will be the case for the Liberty.
As great a venue as Michelob Ultra Arena is, it would be great if the Finals could occur at T-Mobile Arena, a venue with a larger capacity and the home of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, for those matchups. One would believe those would also result in sellouts.
As for New York, big crowds have been the norm for these playoff games, but only one bowl of Barclays Center has been available – the lower bowl. Gotham has not had anything like this to get excited about basketball-wise since the mid-1990s when the New York Knicks were in the NBA Finals vs. the Houston Rockets. It is as passionate a hoops city as there is. The upper bowl of Barclays Center needs to be opened for Games 3 and 4.
Not only does this Finals have the potential to set an attendance record at both Mandalay Bay and The Clays, it also has the potential to set a ratings record.
Yes, Game 1 of the Finals will be up against NFL games on Sunday. Game 3 will also be up against the NFL on Sunday plus MLB’s playoffs are getting under way. But the star power in this Finals cannot be overshadowed.
A’ja Wilson. Breanna Stewart. Kelsey Plum, Sabrina Ionescu. Chelsea Gray. Jonquel Jones. Jackie Young. Betnijah Laney. Courtney Vandersloot.
A big reason why the LSU-Iowa national championship game this spring got so much mainstream attention and attendance was because of the star power that has been developed within the college game. Iowa had Caitlin Clark as well as Monika Czinano. LSU had Angel Reese, Alexis Morris and Flau’Jae Johnson.
Between the star power, the overall growth of the women’s game and the high-profile nature of the two teams, this has the potential to be the most talked about Finals in history.
And something tells us the play on the courts in Las Vegas and New York will live up to – and surpass – the hype.