Late in the fourth quarter of a close game between the Las Vegas Aces and the Washington Mystics on Saturday, the Aces’ Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson combined for six straight points, forcing Washington head coach Mike Thibault to call timeout.
A visibly fired-up Wilson yelled to her teammates as they headed to the huddle: “I just told them, ‘Come on’ and ‘don’t let up,’ because this was a tough game.” A few possessions later, awaiting a Washington sideline out-of-bounds, Cambage and Wilson took their positions in the paint, stared intently ahead, and, nearly in unison, rolled up the bottoms of their shorts. It wasn’t quite slapping the floor, but their intensity was clear. “That’s us,” Wilson said after the game. “We really lock in. We [know] our team needs us.”
“Us” was enough for a win on this occasion, 85-81 against a Mystics team that had beaten the Aces by 23 in Las Vegas three weeks prior. Last week, the Mystics jumped out to a 15-point lead in game two of the season series, but the game was stopped at halftime due to an earthquake. (The league has yet to announce when that game will be finished.) “I’m sure [the Aces] were looking for that revenge factor,” Thibault said after Saturday’s game. Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer didn’t go that far in a pregame conversation with High Post Hoops, but he explained that, in the previous two meetings, “we weren’t ready to play a big game. That’s what I want to see tonight.”
Saturday’s showdown definitely qualified as a big game, as the teams entered with the two best records in the WNBA. It also turned out to be arguably one of the best of the season so far. Here are three takeaways—and a plea for a rematch in the playoffs.
Expect the unexpected
For much of 2019, everything has come up aces for Las Vegas, which has an 11-5 record and three All-Star starters in Wilson, Cambage, and guard Kayla McBride. But little has gone according to plan when the Aces and Mystics have squared off in the past two seasons. Last August, the Aces forfeited a game against the Mystics due to travel delays; last week, the earthquake hit; and on Saturday, an issue with the game clocks delayed the opening tip by several minutes. (Apparently, a heavy rainstorm earlier in the week caused some flooding that affected the wiring. The game was played using an air horn and with the public address announcer counting down the last ten seconds of the shot clock.) “There’s never a simple game with us [and Washington],” McBride said wryly. “It’s always something extra.”
While the officials worked on the clocks, the teams got in a few more warm-up shots and showed off their dancing skills. Asked about how her team handled the latest delay, Wilson said, “We just have fun. We [were] just trying to stay loose, trying to stay warm, and I think that’s just who we are.” Washington’s Kristi Toliver shrugged off the delay, saying, “It’s just a matter of focusing and staying ready.”
Feed the post
These two teams have some of the best post players in the WNBA, including the two All-Star captains in Wilson and Washington’s Elena Delle Donne. In Washington’s win on June 20, Delle Donne scored 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, combining with backup forward Tianna Hawkins for 44 points on 18-27 shooting. But Cambage and Wilson nearly matched that, scoring 42 on 17-24 shooting.
In this game, the one-on-one matchups looked a little different as Hawkins struggled (1 point on 0-8 shooting) and Delle Donne missed her second straight game after injuring her nose on July 7 against the Los Angeles Sparks. Instead, the frontcourt stars for the Mystics were Emma Meesseman, who missed the previous two games against the Aces but scored 15 points in this one, and Latoya Sanders, who was the only player on either team to record a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds). Meanwhile, Cambage and Wilson scored 30 points for Las Vegas and added 13 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals.
Las Vegas also won the battle of the boards, grabbing 41 rebounds to Washington’s 33. Cambage led the way with nine and reserve forward Dearica Hamby had eight. However, the Mystics’ hustle was on display all night as they corralled one more offensive rebound than the Aces, 12-11, with Meesseman securing four.
This game was Meesseman’s first with the Mystics since June 5 because she and teammate Kim Mestdagh were overseas playing for Belgium in the FIBA EuroBasket tournament. The pair had an abbreviated practice on Thursday and practiced fully with the team on Friday.
While it was an inopportune time for the Mystics not to have Delle Donne, given how she torched Las Vegas in the teams’ first meeting, it was a luxury for Thibault to be able to call Meesseman’s number instead. In addition to her 15 points, Meesseman had 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block. After the game, she said of defending Cambage and Wilson, “They’re big. But I thought we did a good job, too. They had some problems with our lineup.”
Part of the reason for that is because Meesseman is such a dynamic, versatile player, much like Delle Donne. Early in the season, when Delle Donne missed time with a knee injury, I asked Thibault about the similarities between the two players. He explained, “They’re so similar in a lot of ways because they’re close to the same size. They both can pass; they both are high-percentage shooters. Both are improving defenders. … They’re interchangeable in a lot of ways.” In just a bit of an understatement, he added, “They both have worked out.”
Five more games, please?
Washington versus Las Vegas is the WNBA Finals matchup that I’ll be rooting for, preferably with both teams at full strength and with the cooperation of Mother Nature and the Federal Aviation Authority. It’s simply unfortunate that these teams will not meet in the season’s final weeks with playoff seeding and home court advantage at stake. But all will be forgiven if the playoffs give us Thibault versus Laimbeer, Delle Donne and Meesseman versus Wilson and Cambage, Kristi Toliver and Kelsey Plum draining threes, and Jackie Young and Natasha Cloud pushing the pace in transition.
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