Becky Hammon challenged her team.
Sure, the Las Vegas Aces sit in first place in the Western Conference and looked early on like they could run away with the WNBA title during their 13-2 start to the season, but Hammon saw the flaw that could trip her team up on the way to that title:
Las Vegas was just average on defense.
Hammon challenged the Aces. They were in a championship game Tuesday — the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup Final against the Chicago Sky, a potential Finals preview — would they step and play championship-level defense?
“We hooped,” was how Commissioner’s Cup MVP Chelsea Gray put it.
They hooped and they defended from the opening tip. The Aces were disruptive, getting in passing lanes and tipping balls, rotating quickly, keeping the ball on one side of the court and not letting the Sky quickly swing it, then contesting everything.
The steals and long rebounds early let Las Vegas get out and run to a 13-0 lead to open the game.
WHAT A START! 😲
The @LVAces start the #CommissionersCup Championship presented by @coinbase on a 13-0 run with Kelsey Plum (@kelseyplum10) contributing to 9 of those points! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/yCoMqSBIgq
— WNBA (@WNBA) July 27, 2022
Then a 25-4 lead. The Aces led by 19 after one quarter and never surrendered that advantage (as they had done in a previous meeting when they blew a 28-point lead to these same Sky). Chicago made runs and got the lead down to single digits, but the Aces made the tough shots and got the big blocks — A’Ja Wilson had six of them by herself — when they needed them on the way to a 93-83 Las Vegas win.
It’s not THE WNBA championship, but it is a championship — of the WNBA’s mid-season tournament (like Adam Silver wants to do in the NBA) — and it showed the Aces the path to the biggest of prizes.
“Defense, it doesn’t take a lot. You don’t have to be necessarily talented to play defense, you just have to want it…” Wilson said. This doesn’t have to be just a Commissioner’s Cup game. This can be an every game thing for us, but it’s just a shift of the mindset.”
“It’s just all about defense,” Hammon said, saying the team had a come-to-Jesus-meeting about their defense after a difficult couple of weeks. “If you want to play, you’re gonna play defense. So give me some people that want to compete on that end of the floor and I feel like our offense will take care of itself.”
The offense did take care of itself. Wilson had 17 points and 17 rebounds, Kelsea Plum had 24 points including six 3s, and Jackie Young had 18 points. But it was Gray, who finished with 19 points, who was making the big plays in the clutch for Las Vegas.
Chelsea Gray came up BIG in the fourth and is your 2022 #CommissionersCup MVP @cgray209: 19 PTS, 5 AST, 4 REB 🔥 pic.twitter.com/8fQxjkB0av
— WNBA (@WNBA) July 27, 2022
Candace Parker had 20 points to lead the Sky, while Kahleah Copper added 18. The Sky settled into the game and made their runs, but the Aces — who have struggled in the second half this season — had answers.
“But really, it boils down to like that first quarter, getting outscored like that 33-14, because honestly, from that point on we outscored them by nine,” Candace Parker said. “So I’m mean we gotta go back to the drawing board. We got to get better.”
Both sides tried to deny it, but this is a potential WNBA Finals preview — these are the two best teams in the league right now. The Sky are the defending champs and bring a top-four offense and defense to the party. They are a very well-rounded squad.
The Aces are in the conversation because they have the best offense in the league — and when they defend, watch out.