LAS VEGAS — Chelsea Gray had a little pre-birthday dancing and celebration a day early on Saturday. She knew when she woke up Sunday, now 31 years old, she would be too locked into competition mode to think about anything but basketball.
Her fellow Las Vegas Aces starting guards Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum joined Gray in taking over Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, won by the defending champions 99-82 over the New York Liberty. The guard trio had 72 of the Aces’ points.
“You see the growth from our guards: We’re patient,” Gray said. “If we get into the paint and nothing is there, we kick it back out and go to the second action. We’ve taken things a level up.”
LeBron James, Tom Brady (who has an ownership stake in the Aces) and Mark Wahlberg were among the celebrities in attendance at sold-out Michelob Ultra Arena to see the WNBA’s Nos. 1 and 2 seeds kick off their best-of-five series.
Plum said she teased Brady about “finally showing up” for an Aces game, but in fact she was thrilled to have him courtside on an NFL Sunday. Both the Aces and Liberty had a week or more since their semifinal series ended, but didn’t look rusty in an entertaining and close first half.
But then the teams continued a pattern from their previous five meetings this season — including the Commissioner’s Cup final — in which the average victory margin was 19.2 points. While the so-called “superteams” are both very good, they really haven’t been equally effective throughout the same game this season.
In this case, Las Vegas went into another gear in the second half, and New York didn’t.
The Aces were behind 49-46 at halftime; they finished tied for the largest margin of victory after trailing at halftime in a WNBA playoff game. The 2011 Minnesota Lynx won Game 2 of the Western Conference finals by 17 after trailing at the break. That Lynx team went on to win the league title.
Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon said the Aces players gave themselves a “D” grade for the first half. She wasn’t quite that harsh: more like a C-minus. Then the second half was all Aces, especially their guards.
Young and Plum both scored 26 points, while Gray had 20 points and 9 assists. Combined, they shot 53.2% from the field and grabbed 16 rebounds, a point of emphasis for the Aces going into this series.
“We know when to push each other, when to relax a little. There’s a trust factor,” said Gray, who has played the past three seasons with Young and Plum. “If we’re yelling, ‘You gotta do this!’ it’s coming from a good place of just wanting to win. There’s just a kind of chemistry there with us.”
Hammon complimented them, “Our trio of guards, I thought, were pretty ridiculous.”
The Aces guards made it very hard on New York counterparts Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot. Las Vegas hit 11 of 12 shots from the field – 4 of 4 from 3-point range – when contested by Ionescu or Vandersloot.
“We know when to push each other, when to relax a little. There’s a trust factor. If we’re yelling, ‘You gotta do this!’ it’s coming from a good place of just wanting to win. There’s just a kind of chemistry there with us.”
Aces guard Chelsea Gray
“Their movement got us out of position a little bit,” New York coach Sandy Brondello said. “One-on-one defense was critical for us, and they got the upper hand in this game. We know we can defend better.”
Meanwhile, the Aces primarily used a combination of Alysha Clark and Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson to guard Liberty forward Breanna Stewart, this year’s MVP. Stewart finished with 21 points on 8-of-19 shooting.
Guard Marine Johannes had 14 points for New York, all in the first half. The Aces trapped her in the second half and shut down her effectiveness.
“Their defense was as good as I’ve ever seen it,” Brondello said. “But we’ve got to play more poised.”