NEW YORK — The New York Liberty staved off elimination and swung momentum back in their favor with an 87-73 Game 3 victory Sunday in the WNBA Finals.
But in addition to making adjustments for Game 4, the Las Vegas Aces are also monitoring the health of Chelsea Gray. The 2022 Finals MVP and one of the greatest point guards in league history, Gray suffered an apparent left foot injury midway through Sunday’s fourth quarter. Gray exited the game with 4:15 remaining, briefly sat on the Las Vegas bench and then hopped on one foot to the locker room, where she remained for the rest of the game.
Afterward, Aces coach Becky Hammon didn’t have an update, saying she hadn’t yet spoken to the team’s athletic trainer but believed Gray had suffered a foot injury.
If Gray can’t play for the rest of the series, or isn’t totally healthy, the Aces will be missing arguably one of their top-two most important players, the other being two-time MVP A’ja Wilson. The so-called “Point Gawd” is averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 assists in the playoffs, although as she showed in last year’s Finals can go off scoring-wise at any moment.
The Aces have other capable ball handlers and facilitators in Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young, but no one at the level who would be able to replace a player as talented and experienced as Gray, who also was part of the Los Angeles Sparks’ WNBA title in 2016.
Las Vegas has relied heavily on a six-player rotation and is already shorthanded after having lost Candace Parker to a season-ending foot injury before the All-Star break in mid-July. Riquna Williams has also not been with the team following her arrest under domestic violence charges earlier this summer.
How must Las Vegas — which suffered its first playoff loss this season Sunday — respond should Gray be sidelined? How were the Liberty able to bounce back in Game 3? What other factors will impact Game 4?
Chelsea Gray heads to the bench after suffering a leg injury
Chelsea Gray hobbles to the bench in visible pain after suffering a leg injury in the fourth quarter.
If Gray can’t play for Las Vegas on Wednesday (or possibly Friday), what changes for the Aces?
Voepel: Las Vegas’ ball movement wasn’t what it normally is in this game even before Gray went out. The Aces had just 13 assists after averaging 21.7 per game during the regular season and getting a combined 52 in the first two games of the Finals. Credit New York’s improved defense for part of that, but the Aces weren’t quite the same team we saw in Games 1 and 2 in Las Vegas.
Gray doesn’t just direct the offense; she’s the most powerful voice for the Aces on court and a good defender as well. Even though the Liberty said they don’t plan to change anything for Game 4 whether or not Gray plays, they will pressure the ball more if she’s not in the lineup.
Chelsea Gray is a game-changer. A series-changer. Hoping her injury isn’t as serious as it looked. pic.twitter.com/LUrIVlURtr
— Rebecca Lobo (@RebeccaLobo) October 16, 2023
In that case, Plum is likely to handle the ball as much as possible; she was second in assists for the Aces during the regular season at 4.5 per game. Young was third at 3.8. Plum has taken a lot of pride in the past two seasons in being a better playmaker; after a 10-assist game earlier this season, she talked about being a reformed ball hog. Young had two games this season in which she had eight assists.
If Gray can’t play, the Aces might start WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year Alysha Clark, a veteran forward known for defense. They also have second-year guard Kierstan Bell and veteran guard Sydney Colson.
But depth has been a concern, especially with a post player like Parker, who is so adept at ball handling and playmaking, out as well.
Gray, who missed the end of both her junior and senior seasons at Duke with knee injuries, might be able to play. But if she’s not, things get a lot more difficult for the Aces.
What was the biggest difference between Games 1 and 2 and Game 3 for the Liberty?
Philippou: The Liberty allowed 203 Aces points on 53.7% shooting across Games 1 and 2 versus 73 points on 33.3% shooting in Game 3, and it seemed like the ways in which they switched up their defensive matchups contributed to their success on that end of the floor.
We saw it from the start of Game 3, with Breanna Stewart guarding Chelsea Gray, Betnijah Laney on Jackie Young and Sabrina Ionescu defending Kiah Stokes. Earlier in the series, Laney was mostly matched up against Gray, Ionescu on Young and Stewart had to focus a lot on slowing down A’ja Wilson (on Sunday, Jonquel Jones assumed most of those responsibilities). Plum was able to go off in Game 3, nearly hitting 30 points. But with quieter nights from Wilson, Gray and Young, the Aces weren’t able to repeat their offensive performances from last week in Las Vegas.
Jones headlines New York’s win with 27 points and four 3-pointers, but she limited Wilson to 4-for-13 shooting as her primary defender, also coming away with two steals and three blocks.
Matched up against Stewart, Gray uncharacteristically had just two assists, didn’t find her shot and the Aces’ ball movement wasn’t where it was earlier in the series. Young had a much tougher defender on her in Laney and finished 2-for-9 overall and 0-for-3 from beyond the arc. Now the ball is in Becky Hammon’s court to see how she counters New York’s adjustments.
New York’s improvements on the offensive end also helped keep things going in the right direction defensively. Making shots helps a team get back and get its defense set. It was notable that the Liberty held the Aces to just two fastbreak points while scoring 12 of their own. That, combined with better 3-point shooting (13 3-pointers), spelled a comfortable win for the Liberty.
Breanna Stewart’s epic block on A’ja Wilson sets up a Jonquel Jones 3
Breanna Stewart rises for an outstanding block on A’ja Wilson, then Jonquel Jones buries the triple to pad the Liberty’s lead.
Voepel: Laney said the Liberty were much more aggressive and physical Sunday than in the first two games of the series. Sounds simple, but New York looked more like the team we’ve seen almost all season.
“They are a great team, but I think a lot of the things we did [in Games 1 and 2], we beat ourselves,” Laney said. “Today we came out and self-corrected.”
There also seemed to be more fire from Stewart, who thrilled the crowd with one play in particular: a one-on-one block of Wilson.
Stewart brought her 2-year-old daughter, Ruby, to the Liberty news conference. Asked if Ruby was aware that New York won, Stewart joked, “Ruby probably knows, because I think my mood would be a lot different [if the Liberty lost].”
Has the championship series gotten its mojo back?
Philippou: Since Game 2 didn’t go their way, the Liberty kept bringing up how much they thought playing in front of the Barclays Center crowd would help as they looked to stave off elimination and get back to playing Liberty basketball. New York players did the hard part in executing on both ends in Game 3, but between the sellout crowd (with the upper bowl open, no less) and all the celebrities that swung by (Joan Jett, Robin Roberts, Sue Bird, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Sudeikis and Lil’ Kim), all seemed to help the Liberty get their swagger back.
It remains to be seen what that means for Game 4, especially depending on Gray’s availability. It isn’t an exaggeration to say her status is series-changing. Last year the Aces dropped Game 3 versus the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun and ended up winning it all anyway by taking Game 4.
We still haven’t seen a game decided by single digits this Finals, but with New York finally playing more like itself, it seems more likely that we could finally get a tight finish Wednesday.
Voepel: I remember laughing while watching Joan Jett direct her voodoo doll at the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2002 Finals at Madison Square Garden. Seeing the famous rocker sitting courtside at Barclays on Sunday next to former Liberty player Sue Wicks, plus other past New York greats like Teresa Weatherspoon, Vickie Johnson and Crystal Robinson also in attendance, brought back so many memories of the Liberty’s early days and their fans’ affection for them.
That’s exactly the energy the Liberty needed to get this series back on track. After the game, Sabrina Ionescu was talking to a group of reporters outside New York’s locker room. Weatherspoon — who hit the famous winning halfcourt shot in the Liberty’s last Finals game victory, in 1999 — reached in to shake Ionescu’s hand.
Weatherspoon was recently hired as the Chicago Sky’s new coach, and she also has a soft spot for friend and former Liberty teammate Becky Hammon, now guiding the Aces. But in this series, Weatherspoon’s heart is ultimately with the Liberty.
“We played for one another tonight, and I think it showed out there,” Ionescu said. “Obviously, we had our backs up against the wall … we didn’t want it to end tonight. The fans were absolutely amazing. Just being able to hear from when we went out there to warm up how much support we had. That really helped us continue to push. It was electric; I had goosebumps the whole time.”