Can Aces avenge early-season blowout losses?
The Las Vegas Aces are getting another crack at the Washington Mystics.
Washington won two of their three regular-season meetings in convincing fashion. The Aces came away with a four-point win in Washington on July 13 as the Mystics played without Elena Delle Donne (nose).
When Delle Donne did play, the Aces got waxed. Washington won by 23 on June 20 in Las Vegas and held a 15-point lead at the half on the road on July 5. That second half was postponed and later completed on August 5 due to an earthquake. Washington went on to win that one by 29.
And yet, do we really know very much about what a matchup between these two teams looks like?
Emma Meesseman did not play at all in the June 20 game or in the first half on July 5. Kristi Toliver has been out for more than a month nursing a bone bruise. The Aces swapped Tamera Young for Kelsey Plum in the starting lineup and added Epiphanny Prince on a rest-of-season contract.
Meesseman puts so much additional strain on any opposing defense. She’s one of Washington’s most dynamic playmaking and scoring threats. They can put five real 3-point shooters on the floor at once when she shares the floor with one (or both) of Delle Donne and Tianna Hawkins.
With Toliver limited or sidelined, the Mystics will need to rely on Meesseman even more with more of the same from Aerial Powers, who has played very well starting in Toliver’s place. The Aces only played 20 minutes against Washington at full strength, though. The problem? A’ja Wilson (ankle) and Liz Cambage (DNP-mental health) didn’t play at all in that second half on August 5.
All those disclaimers aside, what can we actually take from those regular-season matchups?
Start with Delle Donne. She’s been the league’s most dominant player from start to finish, leading the charge for Washington’s top-ranked offense. The Aces switched most pick and rolls involving her in the six quarters in Las Vegas.
That’s a good start. Teams have to close off driving lanes against the Mystics or kick-out 3-pointers will come too easily. Delle Donne may get a chance to drag a smaller player into the post if another big can’t scram them out in time. Those exact moments are where the game within the game begins for Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer.
The starting lineup change put more size on the floor. Tamera Young, Jackie Young or Kayla McBride will fare much better grappling with Delle Donne, Meesseman or LaToya Sanders (the preferred and most Aces-friendly endgame) in the post than Plum, Prince Sydney Colson or Sugar Rodgers.
But how many of those sequences will we see?
Switching gives you a chance to make the shot clock your friend. If Washington doesn’t get into its action early in the clock, they may be racing to jam the ball inside without much time to play out of that.
The Aces would have a better chance to get away with sending help if the Washington player with that mismatch drawing multiple defenders sees just a few ticks left on the shot clock on the catch.
However, the lineup change will complicate things for the Aces on the other side of the floor. McBride is always a threat with or without the ball. Teams won’t guard the other two at the 3-point line. Ariel Atkins, in particular, will be frightening as a roamer digging down and clogging things up for Wilson and Cambage.
As we saw in Sunday’s round two victory, sticking with the ‘new’ starting lineup for long stretches won’t be feasible for Laimbeer. This team as presently constructed needs 30-some minutes from Plum each night to be successful. If that means she’ll get stuck on a Washington big every once in a while, the Aces will have to live with the results and hope to only allow those touches in late-clock situations.
Giving Wilson and Cambage kick-out options that will lead directly to 3-pointers could swing the series. As we saw in the aforementioned six quarters, any lead was magnified as the Aces tried to come back two by two.
Laimbeer can get a third shooter on the floor. He went to Rodgers in the first quarter of both games in Las Vegas. Prince gives him a fourth guard that opponents won’t want to leave open. One of those two needs to find a groove to make this a competitive series.
Or, the Aces just might continue to roll with Dearica Hamby at the 3. She didn’t log any minutes next to Cambage and Wilson in the three regular-season games against Washington. The Aces were plus-15 in the 22 minutes those three played together on Sunday against Chicago per WNBA.com.
Hamby has been a threat to knock down the occasional triple but offers more elsewhere that the guards can’t replicate with her rebounding, physicality driving to the rim and combination of size and quick feet to allow for more switching or to hold up as one of the team’s best options to throw at Delle Donne or Meesseman.
(Washington can play three of its bigs together, too. But which team will the aggressor? Hamby’s importance to the Aces suggests they’ll need to lean on that look regardless. So which counter works out best for Washington? Matching size with size or keeping another wing on the floor?)
Getting enough shooting on the floor and at least showing the ability to execute some switches are such important starting points because we already know where the Aces will dominate if they steal one of the first two games in Washington and even go on to win the series.
Cambage and Wilson have the size and skill to completely overwhelm Washington’s frontcourt inside. Either player getting a touch with two feet in the lane becomes a near-emergency situation.
Sanders can’t impact as many plays with her length. Cambage is too big. And the wiry center’s only discernable flaw, getting buried under the rim on duck-ins by bigger players, could be fatal in this matchup.
And the typical drop-off to the reserves will be even steeper. Remember Wilson erupting for nine points in the final four possessions of the third in that June 20 meeting?
Even if Sanders spends most of the series in foul trouble, Washington will only get tougher to guard with Meesseman and Hawkins stepping into those minutes.
Every detail matters even more with how Washington can spread teams out.
You can duck under a ball screen for Natasha Cloud but have to get over or switch one for Toliver.
Leaving Sanders open to uncork a midrange jumper is often the lesser evil. Towing that line is tricky. She can cut right to the rim or set a screen and just like that, the Mystics could be getting a layup or open triple instead.
One big concern for the Aces boils down to Delle Donne. They do have the size to challenge her in the post and contest all shots at the rim. Scrambling and rotating against these Mystics is just such an uphill slog, and that is where Delle Donne twists the knife.
Get out in time to run her off the 3-point line, and you’re still dealing with a skilled 6’5″ shooter that makes it look comically easy tossing runners in off glass, getting all the way to the rim to finish or zipping a pass out to the open shooter.
The big worry from Washington’s perspective has to come down to limiting McBride in any two-player action with Wilson or Cambage. (Related: Do we see any pick-and-pop treys from Hamby?)
McBride will never have trouble drawing two defenders in those situations. She can get loose for her own shot or fire a bullet to Wilson for an open jumper.
But the Aces get scary when they can pair those actions with Wilson or Cambage ducking in right in the middle of the lane with shooting on the backside. We haven’t seen much of those ingredients all at once from the Aces this season, but finding them won’t be difficult if Rodgers and/or Prince earn more run.
The Aces have nothing to lose. Their core group needs more time together. Jackie Young and Plum are on different timelines than their three All-Stars. There would be no shame in a series loss, regardless of its form. Just two short years ago the Mystics were Lynx roadkill in a semifinals sweep.
With time, internal growth and some new pieces, Washington has risen to prominence as a title favorite. Will this series mirror those six quarters, or are the Aces ready to put it all together now and arrive on the game’s biggest stage ahead of schedule?
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