Saturday, September 24

Wilson, Aces prevail in duel with Stewart, Storm

LAS VEGAS — They were the All-Star Game captains this season and one of them will be the WNBA’s season MVP when that award is announced Sept. 7. On Wednesday, in what felt like a must-win game for Las Vegas, the Aces’ A’ja Wilson and the Storm’s Breanna Stewart both played brilliantly. But Wilson’s team came out on top 78-73 to even this WNBA best-of-five semifinal series at 1-1.

“Obviously a couple of individual great performances by the two best players in the league,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said afterward.

Wilson had 33 points and 13 rebounds; Stewart had 32 and seven. Each had three blocked shots. It was just the third time in WNBA playoff history that two opposing players had 30-point performances in a game. And it was the first time two playoff foes did that plus had at least three blocks.

Both were No. 1 draft picks, Stewart in 2016 and Wilson in 2018. Stewart was the league MVP in 2018, and Wilson in 2020. This year, that award will come down to the two of them again, just like it did in 2020, when they met in the WNBA Finals won by the Storm.

In August, Stewart turned 28 years old and Wilson 26; they are not just the league’s brightest stars, they are also right in the prime of their careers.

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“That’s what grows the game. Everyone loves a good matchup,” Wilson said. “Everyone loves to be like, ‘Oh, what’s gonna happen here?’ I think that’s what draws fans and attention to us. When you look at the NBA, when you look at football, anything, there’s always a good matchup that everyone’s tuned into no matter what.”

For Stewart, who went 12-of-23 from the field and 5-of-5 from the foul line, this was her eighth consecutive playoff game scoring at least 20 points. She had 24 points in Sunday’s Game 1 Storm win.

Wilson went 12-of-18 from the field and 8-of-11 from the line in getting her career-high scoring total in a playoff game. It’s also the second-highest total in franchise history for the playoffs, second only to the 35 points her coach, Hammon, scored in 2008 when the team was located in San Antonio.

Wednesday’s game was Wilson’s answer to a disappointing playoff opener. She had eight points Sunday, although she did add 12 rebounds. The Aces went with a smaller lineup for a good part of Wednesday’s game to help open things up and give Wilson more room to work.

She and point guard Chelsea Gray make a dynamic pick-and-roll combination, especially with Gray being perhaps the hottest player in the postseason. Gray had 19 points and seven assists Wednesday and is shooting 66.7% from the field (65% from 3-point range) in the Aces’ four playoff games. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Gray has accounted for 44% of Las Vegas’ 151 points in this series either by scoring or assisting on them.

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“When you look at great guards and great posts, the whole thing is you’ve got to figure out how to guard it,” Wilson said of the pick-and-roll. “You have to pick your poison. What are you going to do? Once we mastered that, it’s like Play-Doh in our hands at that point.”

There were also the 18 points that guard Kelsey Plum got for the Aces, which contrasted with the Storm having only two players score in double figures: Stewart and Tina Charles, with 17. Guard Jewell Loyd, who led Seattle with 26 points in Game 1, was held to eight in Game 2.

“I think it’s just about her rhythm,” Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said of Loyd going 2-of-10 from the field Wednesday. “The first couple didn’t go in, and she has a tough defensive assignment. I think getting Jewell in her comfort spots, getting her off the ball a little bit more — which we’re trying to do — and kind of get her going early.”

The series will go to Seattle for Game 3 on Sunday and Game 4 on Tuesday. The Aces lost the semifinals to Phoenix last year in five games. But under Hammon — who received the Coach of the Year award from WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert before Wednesday’s game — the Aces feel like they have a little more confidence and cohesion this season. That came into play in Game 2.

But the Storm also have to be feeling good. As the No. 4 seed, they opened the series with a split on the road against the No. 1 seed. That’s usually the lower-seeded team’s goal in a playoff series. And they couldn’t ask for more from Stewart, who didn’t score from 3-point range Sunday but hit three treys Wednesday.

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“I think matching up against A’ja, you’ve got to respect everything she has done and what’s she capable of,” Stewart said. “It’s just a battle. It’s what motivates you, what keeps you going, what makes you want to be better. It’s competitive.”

Gray said that even though she’s in the middle of the action herself, she is still marveling at Wilson and Stewart.

“I’m watching it during the game,” Gray said. “I’m like, ‘Stewie just scored; A’ja, what are you about to do?’ Those matchups, a lot of attention is on it, and there is a lot these players are going through with all that pressure to be that spotlight. But it’s good for the fans, it’s good for the sport and it’s good for them. It raises their level of play. They get better by challenging each other.”

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