Las Vegas Aces earn top seed in new WNBA playoff format

Chicago Sky v Las Vegas Aces
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A’ja Wilson and the Las Vegas Aces will begin their quest for their first WNBA title a lot sooner than top seeds have done in the previous few years.

The Aces clinched homecourt throughout the playoff on the regular season’s final day by earning the top seed in the WNBA postseason that begins Wednesday.

Before this year, Las Vegas would have a bye until the semifinals. The league changed the playoff format to best-of-three series in the quarterfinals instead of the single-elimination games in the opening two rounds it had been using since 2016.

“We’re not done yet. This is the beginning,” Wilson said after the Aces clinched the top seed on Sunday. “The regular season was nice, but now it’s real. It doesn’t matter what number is by your name in the playoffs. It could be anybody’s night on any given day.

“It’s playoffs, either you want it or you don’t.”

The top four seeds — Las Vegas, Chicago, Connecticut and Seattle — will all host the first two games of their series with a potential decisive game three on the home court of the lower seed.

Breanna Stewart was happy that the league changed the playoff format.

“I think in the WNBA all teams are deserving of a series,” she said. “It’s a respect for the teams that make it. Striving for greatness throughout the whole season shouldn’t finish with one game on the line. We’re a professional league. It should be exciting and will be interesting with the 2-1 best of three.”

Stewart will try to help teammate Sue Bird head into retirement with a fifth WNBA championship. The fourth-seeded Storm have a tough first round matchup against Washington.

“This league continues to elevate the game and get better and better,” Stewart said. “Everybody knows there’s players on each team that can go off.”

HEALTH STATUS

Dallas played without Arike Ogunbowale (abdominal issue) the last few games and Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi was sidelined down the stretch with a quad injury. Both teams will be hard-pressed to advance without them in the lineup. Phoenix also could still be without guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who missed the last couple of games because of personal reasons.

BACK-TO-BACK?

Chicago is trying to become the first team to repeat as champions since Los Angeles won consecutive titles in 2001 and 2002. The Sky host New York in the opening round.

EXCITING FINISH

New York and Phoenix didn’t secure postseason berths until the final day of the regular season. The Liberty knocked off Atlanta and Phoenix advanced when Minnesota lost to Connecticut earlier in the day, ending the career of WNBA great Sylvia Fowles.

UNDER THE RADAR

The Connecticut Sun finished with the league’s third-best record, behind Las Vegas and Chicago. The Sun closed out the season with eight wins in their final 10 games and will try and are seeking to capture the franchise’s first title.

Presumptive No.1 pick Wembanyama set to make stateside debut

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson have been linked constantly over the last couple years, with just about every prognosticator anointing them as the top two picks in the 2023 NBA draft.

Thing is, they don’t know each other.

That’s about to change. Wembanyama – officially listed at 7-foot-2 but scouts often say more like 7-foot-4 – and the Paris-based club Metropolitans 92 are in Las Vegas to take on Henderson and the G League Ignite in a pair of exhibitions, the first on Tuesday and the second on Thursday.

“We’re playing against an NBA team, with NBA rules, on an NBA court,” Wembanyama said Monday. “This is really going to be a first for me. I’m curious to know how it’s going to go. I know it’s going to go well, but I’m still curious.”

Victor vs. Scoot. Scoot vs. Victor. They’re not playing 1-on-1, but they are the clear headliners and the reasons why these first-of-their-kind games were put together.

Wembanyama is listed as a center but plays all over the floor with guard skills in a big-man frame; Henderson is a point guard who has been getting tons of attention for years.

“Out of all the prospects I’ve heard about in our class, I think he’s my favorite one,” Wembanyama said. “I think he’s the most reliable that I’ve seen. He’s really a great player. If I was never born, I think he would deserve the first spot.”

Henderson – a five-star recruit from Georgia who signed with the Ignite last year and played in 10 games – sees these two games as an opportunity, downplaying the 1-on-1 storyline.

“People always try to compare and contrast whoever. I don’t look at it like that,” Henderson said. “I look at it as two good ballplayers.”

The Ignite program exists to develop young prospects in preparation for the NBA Draft, mixing them with veteran talent to help guide them along the way. It has featured three eventual top-10 picks – Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga last year, Dyson Daniels this year – in its first two seasons.

Henderson is a huge draw for the Ignite this year. The Ignite also have Shareef O'Neal, the son of Shaquille O’Neal. But much of what the Ignite would ordinarily be doing right now would be barely noticed nationally; hence, the games against Wembanyama were put together.

The Los Angeles Lakers are playing in Las Vegas this week, a pair of preseason matchups against Phoenix and Minnesota. Wembanyama is going to those as a fan; he’ll have a slightly different view of NBA games next season.

“He’s one of those type of players, honestly, where you say like there’ll never be like another Shaq or there’ll never be another that,” Ignite coach Jason Hart said. “He’s that. You’ll never see another one of those. The scouting report on him is tough. … I’m honored that I’m getting to play him at 18, because at 24, he’s going to be something different.”

Wembanyama has been a pro for three seasons already, spending last season with ASVEL in France – a club owned by San Antonio Spurs legend Tony Parker. He made the decision this year to join Metropolitans in part to be coached by Vincent Collet, who also coaches the French national team.

Collet is welcoming the chance.

“I think he’s the best prospect we’ve ever had in our league,” Collet said. “He’s amazing, not only by his size, but incredible skills. Despite that, he still needs to learn the game. He’s very young. … We will try to give him this experience. That’s the deal we have together, him and me. We want to give him the experience before he gets to the league. It’s most important to get him ready for what will follow next year.”

Watch Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard score first buckets in returns

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It’s only preseason. But if you’ve sat out an entire season with an ACL injury,  just getting on the court feels like a milestone.

And getting your first bucket back feels memorable.

That happened for the Nuggets Jamal Murray and the Clippers Kawhi Leonard on Monday night.

For Murray, the bucket came on a corner 3 in transition.

Murray also showed flashes he’s getting his handle and wiggle back, something that made him a great fit with Nikola Jokic.

Leonard wasted no time, scoring the Clippers’ first bucket by lulling his defender to sleep and then shooting the pull-up 3.

I feel we’re going to see a lot more of that this season.

The NBA is just better with these two back on the court.

 

Cavaliers Evan Mobley out 1-2 weeks with sprained ankle

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The Cleveland Cavaliers might have the best frontcourt in the East this season with All-Star Jarrett Allen and the emerging star Evan Mobley, but it may be a few weeks before we see them together.

Mobley is out 1-2 weeks with a sprained right ankle, the Cavaliers announced a couple of days before their preseason opener. Mobley stepped on a teammate’s foot and rolled his ankle during practice, according to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com.

Mobley, who finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds a game in his first campaign, but his more significant impact was on the defensive end. Mobley earned All-Defensive Team consideration as a rookie — an incredibly rare feat — and with Allen formed an impressive backstop for teams trying to drive the paint.

Reports out of Cavaliers training camp rave about the improvements made in Mobley’s offensive game, but we’ll have to wait a few weeks to see that for ourselves now. Mobley, with a more consistent face-up game and jumper, has the potential to develop into a top 15, maybe even top-10 player in the league. The Cavaliers are banking on the young core of Mobley, Allen, Darius Garland and the just acquired Donovan Mitchell to be able to take the team far in the next few years, with Mobley’s improvement key to just how far they can go.

It sounds like Mobley will be good to go for the start of the season.

Karl-Anthony Towns just cleared to walk Saturday following non-COVID illness

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Karl-Anthony Towns has not been in camp with the Timberwolves, sidelined by a non-COVID illness. Beyond that, there were not a lot of details other than his girlfriend Jordyn Woods saying on social media that she had taken him to the hospital.

Towns spoke to the media for the first time this season on Monday and said he was just cleared to walk again on Saturday, but did not get into detail about whatever illness he is dealing with.

First, it is Towns’ right if and when to disclose what he went through. This is not an on-court injury leading to a loss of playing time, and it is his call to talk about.

Towns has been sidelined before by illness, including COVID. After losing his mother and other family members to the disease, he also had a long battle with it. Fortunately, this is not that virus, but whatever it was it sidelined him for a couple of weeks.

That missed training camp is a setback as the Timberwolves try to get used to a two-big lineup with KAT and Rudy Gobert, plus some other new faces. Still, Towns and Minnesota should be good to go by the start of the season, a team thinking playoffs and much more after spending big this offseason.