Aces pull away late, force Game 4 with Mystics
LAS VEGAS—There will be a Game 4.
The Las Vegas Aces quickly added to a 10-point halftime lead Sunday afternoon and pulled away for a 92-75 Game 3 victory over the Washington Mystics.
“We knew it was a series,” Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer said postgame. “Some people didn’t. We knew in the first two games, we played with the level of intensity necessary to compete. We did the same thing tonight.”
The Mystics never got any closer the rest of the way.
“We talk a lot about games being decided, regular season or playoff, by winning two of three categories: turnovers, rebounds, and fouls,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said postgame. “We can survive some of their post play if we do a better job on our end of the court. Because now, they’re having to take it out of the net and they have to set up a little differently. They posted us early in some of their transition because we did a bad job offensively. So it’s a little bit of a balance.”
“They did their job tonight,” Laimbeer said. “That’s what they’re paid to do. It was nothing spectacular for each of ‘em. They went about their business, shot a good percentage—especially Liz. We fed her the ball at the right time in the right spots, and that’s why she was so efficient in there today.”
Washington’s eight second-quarter turnovers gave the Aces too many chances to tack onto an early lead. The physical nature of the game came to a head in the third quarter. Delle Donne hit the floor as Cambage cleared space prior to scoring on a putback. Moments later, Emma Meesseman hit the deck and Cambage was awarded a free throw as Jackie Young tossed in a layup.
Thibault was whistled for a technical foul moments later. The Aces led by 18 after the ensuing free throw.
“They switched a lot, and they just got a little more aggressive,” Mystics guard Kristi Toliver said. “They had great nail help, used their length. They had a great presence. And they got away with a lot of fouls, I think. And I think that makes a huge difference when in the first two games, those things weren’t allowed. So now it’s just a matter of adjusting. There’s always counters to what defenses they present, but they definitely picked up the physicality aspect in this Game 3.”
“They’re the more desperate team,” Thibault added. “Desperate teams tend to play more physically. I thought the physicality went over the limit a few times today, but, you know, it’s the playoffs.”
More on the Aces’ win, including a quiet night from Meesseman (6 points, 3-8 FG):
Switching, stagnating leads to…
The Aces switched more actions involving Meesseman and executed enough of them effectively to limit her catch-and-shoot looks. Did Washington need time to feel out the adjustment?
“I don’t know that we needed time to process,” Thibault said. “We practiced for it. They basically went to almost straight-out switching to keep her from getting the pop back three tonight. They did it sometimes with a smaller player on her, and we need to take advantage of that. We did it a few times, but not as many times as I think we can.
“We have to put them in more uncomfortable positions with better spacing. I don’t know if our spacing was as good tonight, too. And you have to be able to penetrate and beat ‘em off the dribble. The best way to get open shots is to make two defenders have to guard one, and we didn’t do a good job of that tonight.”
Comfort, or a lack of it, fits quite well as the word of the afternoon.
“Emma didn’t get as many shots,” he added. “They did a better job on her trying to keep her from catching the ball. [Natasha Cloud] wasn’t able to get to the rim the same tonight. They closed the lane down a little bit better, and we need to make them pay for how they played that way. But they adjusted from the other day pretty well.”
…hesitation and second-guessing
The Aces limited those looks for Meesseman, leaving a bucket of possessions in which Washington would need to do something else to work for a great shot.
“We definitely felt a little stagnant,” Delle Donne said. “They’re a big defense. If you make them move, they’re gonna struggle on closeouts. And we were kind of just keeping it on one side of the floor trying to attack mismatches, but I think we need to move it, move it and then attack a mismatch.”
“I thought we passed up some open shots trying to get maybe even a better shot,” Thibault added. “And I’m not sure there was a better shot necessarily to get. I thought we were a little bit more tentative shooting the ball. This is the first stinker game we’ve had in a long time.”
How will Game 4 unfold?
As Delle Donne noted, forcing the Aces’ defense to move more often can create some cleaner driving lanes or windows to throw the ball inside if a big is able to establish position inside against a small.
The Mystics aren’t the same team without Cloud getting into the lane to both score and distribute. They didn’t get the same contributions from her on Sunday as they did in Game 2. Toliver still didn’t look particularly eager to use her live dribble to blow right by bigger players switched onto her, though she did drill some tough jumpers off the bounce.
Laimbeer was frank in saying this kind of performance in tandem is more expected than celebrated from Wilson and Cambage. More of the same will help the Aces play with a lead once again—something they rarely did in the two games in Washington.
Tuesday night’s game will be a gut check for the Mystics.
The Aces passed theirs in Game 3.
Will we see the historically dominant offense rise to the occasion against a team with size and some demonstrated ability to deploy a switch-heavy approach to grind more possessions to a screeching halt?
A lack of ball movement plays right into the Aces’ hands. With their ability to command the defensive glass and push pace, they can probably live with getting a hand up and contesting more shots—even some from Delle Donne or Meesseman working to a spot to rise up over smaller players.
“When there’s hesitation, good things aren’t gonna happen,” Toliver said. “When we’re free and we’re loose and we’re just playing, that’s when we’re at our best…They were desperate tonight. Their season was over if they didn’t win. They acted like it.”
The Aces will always have a chance when their two superstar bigs are scoring often and efficiently. And now, only one thing matters. They’re one game away from forcing a winner-take-all Game 5 in Washington.
“It’s only one,” Laimbeer said. “You can’t win three until you win one. We won one. You can’t win three until you win two. That’s our next task.”
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