“I think it’s going to come down to the wire,” Hammon said in her pregame meeting with the media. “I don’t see any team either way allowing much separation tonight.”
It might have been the Aces’ only wrong call of the evening.
Las Vegas got off to an avalanche of a first quarter, allowed the Liberty a small hope of a comeback in the second period and then slammed the door shut tightly in the second half.
Hammon was left with little to point out wrong by her Aces, who have a 2-0 series lead and are on the brink of their second consecutive title. The teams head to New York for Sunday’s Game 3 at Barclays Center (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App), where the Liberty will attempt to change what has been a lopsided series so far.
“Vegas is playing their best basketball at the moment,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “We’re very disappointed, because we’re a way better team than we’ve shown.”
How did the Aces turn Game 2 into a rout, and gain all the momentum in the WNBA Finals? We look at all that went well for Las Vegas and what didn’t work for New York.
Aces catch fire with 19-2 run to start to Game 2
The Las Vegas Aces pick up where they left off in Game 1 with a 19-2 run in the first quarter against the Liberty.
Blazing out of the gate
New York was determined to start strong after Sunday’s 99-82 loss at Michelob Ultra Arena. The exact opposite happened.
Kelsey Plum made a step-back 3-pointer on the Aces’ first shot 17 seconds into the game. Then another 3 swished, this one by center Kiah Stokes, who had made just five from long range during the regular season and none previously in the playoffs. That showed what kind of night it would be, as Las Vegas raced to a 19-2 lead.
By the end of the first quarter, all five Aces starters had made at least one 3-pointer, the team had shot 70% from the field and they already had 12 assists in taking a 38-19 lead. It was Las Vegas’ highest point total in a quarter this season.
“Things were just a little too easy for them,” Liberty forward Jonquel Jones said.
It was also the highest first-quarter point total in WNBA Finals history. And it was second for any quarter in the Finals to the 39 points the Detroit Shock scored in the fourth quarter of Game 1 in 2007 in a 108-100 victory over the Phoenix Mercury.
The Liberty shot 30% from the field in the first quarter, including making just 2-of-10 from long range. New York was the top-shooting 3-point team in the league during the regular season, but the Aces have outshot the Liberty 22-17 from behind the arc in the first two Finals games.
One sequence was classic Aces basketball. A’ja Wilson briefly lost control of the ball, got it back, had to fight to gain possession again and then started a string of passes that led to a 3-pointer by Chelsea Gray just as the shot clock expired.
“Great defense, playing [offensively] out of our defense, unselfish,” Gray said in describing the opening quarter. “Our physicality went up another level starting the game.”
New York cut the lead to single digits by outscoring the Aces 25-14 in the second quarter. But it took a lot of energy to get the margin to eight at halftime, and the Liberty’s hopes were squelched early in the third quarter.
“We wanted to be disruptive,” Brondello said. “They move extremely well, they pass the ball extremely well, they’ve got playmakers everywhere. But we had no resistance.”
Chelsea Gray caps historic 1st quarter with buzzer-beater
Chelsea Gray drills a jumper to give the Aces a WNBA Finals-record 38 points in the first quarter.
As Brondello said, the Aces can sling the rock. They finished with 31 assists, led by Gray’s 11, and had five more assists than the Liberty had baskets. It is the 10th time a WNBA team has had at least 30 assists in a playoff game. The Aces, the Seattle Storm and the Chicago Sky are the only teams that have reached that assist total in the postseason more than once.
The Aces shot 19-of-26 off passes from Gray or Plum. One of Gray’s gems was a no-look pass that hit Stokes in stride for a layup. Former Sacramento Monarchs point guard Ticha Penicheiro, third in assists in WNBA history and known for her passing wizardry, said on social media during the game that Gray was an even better passer than her.
For Gray, who grew up in California following the Monarchs and was a fan of Penicheiro, thought it was the ultimate compliment.
“That’s amazing words from a legend,” Gray said. “She also was a person who paved the way for me to do what I do.”
One big difference since August’s matchups
Aces guard Jackie Young had 24 points, including some drives in which she was well-defended, but it didn’t matter. In two WNBA Finals games, Young is 13-of-20 (65%) on contested shots.
Hammon pointed out that when the Aces lost three of four games (including the Commissioner’s Cup final) to the Liberty in August, they struggled with shots that were contested or came late in the shot clock. That has changed in the Finals, and Young is a key reason why.
“She’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Hammon said. “And her teammates have the utmost confidence in her.”
Shrinking the paint
The Liberty were at their best Wednesday when Jones got the ball inside, as she shot 8-of-12 from the field for a team-high 22 points. League MVP Stewart was limited to 14 points on 6-of-17 shooting.
The Aces, behind two-time Defensive Player of the Year Wilson, Stokes and Alysha Clark, were successful in limiting the Liberty’s touches in the paint as much as possible. In the two Finals games combined, the Liberty are shooting 54% when they get a touch in the paint on a possession versus 29% when they don’t. In Game 2, New York was at just 19% when it didn’t get a paint touch.
“It’s really about buckling in, understanding personnel and knowing about the little things in a series,” said Wilson, who had 26 points and 15 rebounds. “They’re going to have counters and know how to maneuver through defense, because that’s what great players do. But if you can just make it a little bit harder, that’s how you can create that difference.”
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.