After Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday — a narrow, three-point win by the Las Vegas Aces over the Connecticut Sun — two-time MVP A’ja Wilson approached Las Vegas teammate Kelsey Plum and “told her she needed to get her s— together.”
Plum, the team’s leading scorer in the regular season (averaging 20.2 points per game), had struggled most of the playoffs to find her groove, hitting just 39% of her shots from the field and 26% from 3 through Game 1. And prior to hitting a key 3 late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, she started 0-for-8 from the field.
Getting cussed out by Wilson, which Plum said she welcomed, led to a “statement game,” in Wilson’s words, from the 2017 No. 1 overall pick on Tuesday night, helping propel the Aces to an 85-71 victory that positioned them one win away from clinching their first WNBA title.
“[I made] sure she understood that we need her to make shots,” Wilson said, “and I know it sounds harsh, but KP is a pro, and she went out there and took care of business.”
While the series now moves to Uncasville, Connecticut, for Games 3 and 4 (if necessary), no team in the history of the WNBA playoffs has come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a best-of-five series.
Aces coach Becky Hammon said Plum’s ability to get downhill was the difference in Game 2. The former University of Washington star made six of her seven shots in the paint to join Wilson and Chelsea Gray as 20-point scorers, while also dishing out seven assists that tied for a personal high this postseason.
“A lot of times, I’m hard on myself, and I feel like I’ve been a little bit frustrated with how I’ve performed throughout the whole playoffs,” Plum said. “I’m glad that they have been carrying it, and I decided to join the party.
“I feel like in years past, I might have dropped my head and just gone deeper into a hole. But through a lot of the things that I’ve been through throughout the years, it’s just taught me that I’m always going to bounce back, and I know that about myself and just going to keep shooting.”
Wilson and Gray continued their historic postseason tears, the former (26 points, 10 rebounds) by recording her fifth straight game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, tied for the longest such streak in WNBA history, including regular-season and playoff games.
“You can say it’s a run, but she’s just done that all season,” Plum said of Wilson. “I felt like she’s been the most consistent player night in, night out offensively and defensively in this league, and that’s why she’s MVP. It’s tremendous.”
Gray (21 points, eight assists) compiled her fifth game in the playoffs with at least 20 points and five assists, one shy of the record for most in a single postseason.
“Chelsea Gray makes contested shots. She makes incredibly difficult contested shots,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “It’s just really separating her right now.”
The Aces’ big three of Plum, Wilson and Gray (67 points) nearly outscored the Sun (71 points) on their own.
Las Vegas used big first and third quarters to build its lead, and though the Sun made it a three-point game early in the third, the Aces used a 31-14 run to pull ahead by a game-high 20 midway through the fourth.
“It starts on the defensive end,” Hammon said. “Our defense sucked. They went out and didn’t suck.”
At one point in the game, a miked up Hammon was shown saying she was “so happy” the Aces were beating the Sun in the paint (24-12). Behind Plum and others, Las Vegas continued to dominate that phase of the game, ultimately outscoring the Sun inside 46-28; with 54% of their points coming from the paint, it marked the Aces’ highest rate of paint scoring for any game this postseason.
“They really want to congest the lane, so I think we play higher, wider, set good screens, have good angles and make good reads,” Gray said. “A lot of times they are going to put two people on the ball, and how do we deal with that once we see that and play out of those actions. Once we have good spacing, we can get a lot of different things in the paint or kick out for shooters.”
Hammon’s former boss during her time as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, NBA legend Gregg Popovich, attended Tuesday’s contest and visited the Aces in the locker room following the win.
“You don’t need me, but it was great watching you guys play, it’s been great watching you on TV,” Popovich said as captured in a video of the interaction posted on Twitter. “The way you execute, the way you play physically, it’s just beautiful to watch, honestly. You just play great basketball, and it’s about consistency, so you’ve got to keep it going.”
He then reminded the team which victories are the sweetest: “the ones on the road.”
The Sun now have 10 losses in Finals games, tied for the most in WNBA history with the Minnesota Lynx, while still searching for their franchise-first title. But they’re trying not to fixate on their 2-0 deficit as the series returns to their home floor.
“You’ve got to drill it down, and we’ll get back to work with our preparation for Game 3, and all we talk about is Game 3,” Miller said. “In particular, all we are going to talk about is the first quarter, and that’s our approach. I think if you start thinking we have to win three in a row, we have to do those kind of things, it becomes big.”