UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Tuesday’s showdown between the undefeated Las Vegas Aces and then one-loss Connecticut Sun was among the most hyped games in the young WNBA season, a rematch of the 2022 Finals and a meeting between the top two teams in the league standings.
But before the halftime buzzer sounded, the Aces reminded the league why they’re the defending champs and favorites to run it back, jumping ahead by as many 19 points and, with their ultimate 90-84 victory, handing Connecticut a rare defeat at home.
“It wasn’t like anybody was on a burner or anything,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said after the game. “We just played really solid collectively.”
They meet again Thursday and Connecticut has vowed to return to playing its level of basketball. But the way the Aces dictated most of the game solidified that, despite all the superteam talk this preseason and through three weeks of play, it’s still the Aces world and then everyone else. They’re more than capable of snapping the league’s 20-year drought without back-to-back champions. Las Vegas might be better than it was last year.
Rebecca Allen‘s six second-half 3-pointers and some clutch play from DiJonai Carrington helped the Sun tighten the final score, but Tuesday’s game wasn’t close for the most part. Las Vegas led by double digits from the end of the first quarter until midway through the fourth. The Aces capitalized off 12 early Sun turnovers, scoring 15 first-half fast-break points. They also assisted on their first 13 field goals, which, according to ESPN Stats & Information, is the longest consecutive streak to start a game for any WNBA team this season.
Through Tuesday’s competition, Las Vegas’ 19.1 net rating is far and away the best in the league, with the New York Liberty ranking second at 5.2. The Aces’ 7-0 start also ties the fourth-longest win streak to begin a season by a defending league champion. Only two of those victories came at home.
Two-time MVP Candace Parker and two-time champion Alysha Clark were Las Vegas’ big free agency additions, but given the strength of the players around them — two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, 2022 Finals MVP Chelsea Gray and 2022 All-WNBA first-team selection Kelsey Plum — the duo has served more so as complementary performers. It could change as they settle with the team. Parker is averaging 7.4 shot attempts in 22.5 minutes per game, which would both be career lows if they hold.
As Sun coach Stephanie White noted prior to the matchup, the new additions, along with an uptick in playing time for reserve Kiah Stokes, add versatility and depth to an already stacked team. The Aces won the game down the stretch against the Sun with a small-ball lineup featuring the starting five with Clark instead of Parker. The duo might be particularly helpful on the defensive end, as Parker is a former defensive player of the year and Clark is considered one of the league’s most underrated perimeter defenders.
The Aces were known for their high-octane offense last year, but Hammon continuously harped on the team’s defense needing to be better. The Aces finished the 2022 regular season No. 6 in defensive rating, and so Hammon’s goal for them this summer, according to Wilson, is to be a top-three unit. That won’t be achieved just by bringing in players like Parker and Clark, but also through a collective buy-in based on trust and communication.
“My challenge, when I went back and reevaluated everything from last year going into this year, is being an average defensive team wasn’t good enough,” Hammon said. “And so I’ve challenged them. These women are not average at anything that they put their hand to. So why would we settle for anything less than great defense every night?”
Though it’s a sample size and not opponent-adjusted, the Aces were No. 1 in defensive rating entering Wednesday’s games. Hammon was pleased with her team’s defensive effort in stretches Tuesday, particularly in the first half when they limited the Sun to 12 points in the paint (compared to 28 of their own). Allowing Allen single-handedly to score more triples than the entire Aces team, however, was less satisfactory.
“These women are not average at anything that they put their hand to. So why would we settle for anything less than great defense every night?”
Aces coach Becky Hammon
On the other end of the floor, 2022 was Plum’s breakout year, while Gray’s hot streak during the playoffs helped solidify their championship. But Jackie Young has been this year’s burgeoning megastar.
The 2019 No. 1 pick had already taken a big step from 2021 to 2022, and that growth has continued to start 2023. Her team-high 21.9 points per game are up from 15.9 last season, and she’s making shots at a blistering 59.1% clip from the field (including 46.9% on 3s).
Tuesday was yet another complete performance for the former Notre Dame standout, who stuffed the stat sheet with 22 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three steals. “I don’t know but I think people tend to forget that Jackie is a No. 1 draft pick,” Wilson said after the game, “and she is playing like one.”
Hammon said she’s “kicking [Young] in the butt mentally” and pushing the guard to be an “absolute two-way monster.”
“My challenge to her was just to be great, because I think great is in there,” Hammon said.
“For me, it’s always been a mindset thing, and so if I come in aggressive and confident, then good things happen,” Young added.
The Aces have much to prove. Aside from consecutive games versus the Sun, Las Vegas’ schedule has been fairly forgiving, as the Seattle Storm, Indiana Fever and Minnesota Lynx are in the bottom quarter of the standings, while the Atlanta Dream and Los Angeles Sparks sit at .400 and .500, respectively.
The Aces allowed the Dream and Sun to erase big deficits and struggled to pull away against the Fever. And the Aces’ 3-ball, a hallmark of Hammon’s system, hasn’t been as effective as last year, their 34.3% accuracy down from 36.1% in 2022, which was tied for the best mark in the league.
“That worm will turn, no doubt,” Hammon said about the offense. “I’m more concerned with the defense.”
Still, in Hammon’s mind, it’s a good sign that “we’re scoring 90 points on off nights.” To her, the best is still yet to come.
“I don’t think we’re playing our best basketball. I’m kind of happy we’re not playing our best basketball yet,” Hammon said. “But we always want to be improving and learning and building good habits.”
Are the reigning WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces even better in 2023?