The Las Vegas Aces host the Dallas Wings—the former team of All-WNBA center Liz Cambage—Saturday night in the second game of a stretch that has them playing at home for six of seven.
That stretch started and ends with the Washington Mystics. Last season’s runners-up handed the Aces a 95-72 loss Thursday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
“An experienced basketball team kicked the crap out of an inexperienced basketball team,” Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer said postgame. “I thought Washington played very well. They understood this was a big game. If we’re going to try to make the playoffs, this is a team we’re going to be competing with. They came into our building and just beat us up. They played very well and we didn’t.”
Saturday’s game won’t just be about Cambage playing against the Wings in an Aces uniform for the first time after she requested a trade this offseason and was acquired by Las Vegas just prior to the start of the regular season.
More importantly, the Aces need to start stringing some quality efforts together. This homestand will be one of the team’s best chances to do so.
Laimbeer has noted that his team needs to learn how to win. Before they host the Mystics again two weeks from now and get a chance to rise to the level of a clear-cut championship contender, the Aces will be tested by a flurry of hungry teams.
The Wings playing without their two best point guards in Skylar Diggins-Smith (maternity leave) and Moriah Jefferson (temporarily suspended list, unknown injury), the Seattle Storm playing without All-Star point guard Sue Bird (knee) and Breanna Stewart (Achilles), the Indiana Fever just two wins away from reaching last season’s win total, the Chicago Sky seeking a playoff birth after back-to-back years in the lottery—each would be happy to bolster their own playoff chances at the expense of a team working through some growing pains.
This seven-game stretch features a trip to Los Angeles to face the Sparks, another team working to bring pieces new and familiar together as soon as possible.
Mystics head coach Mike Thibault is familiar with Laimbeer’s situation. He acquired superstar forward Elena Delle Donne prior to the start of the 2017 season. The Mystics, in many ways, have come together as a model of what the Aces hope to become.
“You have to have the right balance and shots to go around,” Thibault told High Post Hoops Thursday. “[Laimbeer] is just trying to figure out the chemistry of his team right now and how many minutes people should play. He’s got a great starting five and he’s got some good bench players, but it takes a while for people to play together.
“It took us a while with our team. We didn’t really figure it out until the end of last year. With coaching at this level, when you’ve got some new players, it takes some patience, too.”
Washington introduced a rookie wing to their starting group last season. Ariel Atkins was a bit of a surprise early contributor, but her exceptional two-way play has already become a core component in what the Mystics do well.
The Aces have 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jackie Young, who has handled some tough defensive assignments and excels in transition. Her success within the halfcourt offense has not come easy.
That was one topic that came up as part of a long film session on Friday.
“It’s a matter of her understanding what her responsibility is,” Laimbeer told reporters. “We talked about that. [Kelsey] Plum talked about how hard it was for her in her first year—having the ball in her hands and having to make stuff happen for other teammates as well as herself, which is very difficult.
“[Young] attacks. She needs something good to happen for her. She made a couple of really nice drives [on Thursday]. Ball didn’t go in. I told her at the end of the game that you’d better shoot that shot or I’m not going to play you. And she came off a screen and shot a three-ball right in somebody’s face. She can do that. She just has to have the confidence to do it.”
Young knocked down that 3-pointer as well as two on inside-out passes earlier this season on the road against the Phoenix Mercury. More of the same will complement her driving game and make her more of a threat spotting up around Cambage and A’ja Wilson.
Cambage is still the headliner. She dominated the entire league last season efficiently and with such force in a way that few, if any, will ever replicate.
Is a 30-plus point outburst on the horizon?
Will a matchup with her former team, which happens to be relatively small on the front line at times this season, help bring that to the surface on Saturday?
“I’m just trying to work on my outside game more,” Cambage said. “My shots haven’t been dropping. I know I’m shooting the right shots and they will come. But other than that, it’s just working on little things here in practice.”
Laimbeer has expressed nothing but patience with Cambage as she familiarizes herself with new teammates, a new coaching staff, a new city.
“We talked today,” he said. “I told her she’s not the same player she was before. She lost a significant amount of weight, is coming off of an injury. So it’s going to take time to get her stamina, which is one of the issues that we have to keep her in the game longer periods of time.
“But she also has to work on individual post moves because she used to just be able to beat on people in there and now she has to use more of a skill set, which is going to take a bit more practice.
“I think she’s gonna work on it. She has a lot of pride in her game, a lot of pride in being successful. She’ll get there.”
The season is still young. The Aces—the same franchise that was 1-7 at this point last season—enter Saturday’s game with a 4-4 record.
Cambage still keeps in touch with several members of the Wings as well as assistant coach Erin Phillips. One of those former teammates, second-year forward Azura Stevens, promised to block her shot when they faced off this season shortly after the trade went through.
Does Cambage think Stevens follow through?
“We’ll see,” Cambage said with a smile. “I think I’ll be blocking hers.”