WNBA semifinal takeaways: Is this finally the year of the Aces?

Two teams remain in the WNBA post-season as the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun are heading to the Finals.

Las Vegas dominated the Seattle Storm in what was Sue Bird’s last run at a title, while Connecticut knocked off the defending-champion Chicago Sky.

Here are four takeaways from the second round of the WNBA Playoffs.

Can anybody stop Vegas?

Becky Hammon at head coach may have been Las Vegas’ missing piece, but so was unlocking another level of A’ja Wilson, who joined the likes of Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes by winning a second MVP title in three years. Wilson was also named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

There’s no answer for a player like Wilson — averaging a near double-double of 19.5 points and 9.4 rebounds this season, shooting 50 per cent from the field, totalling 17 double-doubles and leading the league in blocks per game with 1.9.

Add Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young to the mix, and the Aces have an unmatched starting rotation.

Gray kicked it into another gear in the playoffs, averaging 24 points per game along with 7.7 rebounds — dubbed “The Point Gawd” for a reason — and shot 59.5 per cent from three-point range during the first two rounds of the post-season.

“It’s just in her DNA — she is just stone-cold with the game on the line. It’s a luxury — you just put the ball in her hands and let her go to work,” said Hammon of Gray.

Plum, who led the league this season in three-pointers made and converted at least 40 per cent from three while taking five or more attempts per game, is averaging a modest 18.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game in the playoffs.

Young has impressed as the league’s Most Improved Player, and has continued her excellence adding 12.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, but is also averaging a steal per game as she attempts to play defence to her DPOY teammate’s high level.

With Dearica Hamby slowly making her return to the team, key bench players in Riquna Williams and Kiah Stokes stepped up to play starting minutes for the Aces and proved that no matter who Hammon puts on the floor, they play to win.

As a team, the Aces are scoring an average of 12 points more than their opponent in the playoffs, averaging 92.3 points to their opponents’ 80.3, shooting almost 12 per cent better from the three-point line at 42.6 per cent compared to 30.9, and out-rebounding their opponents defensively, averaging 31.7 to 26.5 boards.

When Wilson won her 2020 MVP, the Aces lost to the Storm in the Finals. Now that they’ve taken one giant down, they look like a team that won’t let anyone stand in their way again.

Sue says goodbye to Seattle

Seattle will not be the same without Sue Bird, who played her entire career with the franchise, won four titles and multiple other accolades in a Storm jersey and became an idol for young women in basketball while living out her professional dreams with the team.

The Storm didn’t have the same fate against the Aces as they did in 2020 — instead of lifting the WNBA Finals trophy, they were sent home in the semi-final round, losing in four games to a dominant Aces squad.

Bird leaves behind a legacy that’s truly as good as you can get. She’s the WNBA’s all-time leader in assists and games played, and even Hammon recognized the bittersweet feeling of sending a legend because she has “so much respect for Sue.”

Luckily, Seattle isn’t short on talent remaining after Bird’s departure, and their brilliance was seen on the court as they tried to force a Game 5 before eventually falling 97-92 in Game 4.

Breanna Stewart tied the WNBA playoff record with 42 points, becoming just the fifth player to score 40 or more points in a post-season game, and at 28 years old remains one of the best basketball players in the world. She finished as the runner-up MVP candidate behind Wilson.

Jewell Loyd added 29 points for Seattle and was instrumental to the team’s playoff run, averaging 19.2 points per game in the postseason. Gabby Williams contributed 10 points, four rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.

Tina Charles was also a huge factor in Seattle’s success after joining the team from the Phoenix Mercury mid-season. She averaged almost a double-double in the playoffs with 11.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.

Still, Bird’s playmaking ability, court vision, leadership and all-around game will leave a gap in Seattle’s team.

Sun take down the Champs

One year removed from a season where Jonquel Jones was named WNBA MVP and Brionna Jones was named the league’s most improved player, the Connecticut Sun fought to take down the team which sent them packing last year — the defending champion Chicago Sky.

Chicago swept all four of the regular-season meetings between the two teams, and Connecticut was in its second winner-take-all game of the post-season after defeating Dallas in the first round.

In Game 5, Chicago had a 10-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, with Kahleah Copper scoring 22 points, including three triples, while adding four steals.

But instead of folding, the Sun decided to become the team they knew they always could be. Connecticut outscored Chicago 25-5 in the fourth quarter after scoring just eight points in the previous quarter.

Jonquel Jones had 15 points and 10 rebounds, leading the team alongside DeWanna Bonner, who also had 15 points.

Natisha Hiedeman added 14 points, and Courtney Williams and Alyssa Thomas each added 12. Thomas tallied another double-double with 10 rebounds of her own as the Sun put on a well-rounded team performance.

Chicago collapsed in the final quarter, and outside of Copper, Emma Meesseman and Courtney Vandersloot, no other Sky player scored in double-digits — in fact, the rest of their bench added just 15 points in the loss.

When adversity hits, sometimes we fold,” said Hiedeman. ”We’re not folding no more … we picked up right back up once again. Now we’re going to the championship.”

Connecticut went on an 18-0 scoring run to end the game, the longest scoring run any team has tallied to finish a playoff game in WNBA history. The Sun want to continue to make history and get the franchise their first title.

Have we seen the last of Candace Parker?

After her last game as a Los Angeles Spark in 2020, Parker made a statement about how falling short in the playoffs wasn’t what she wanted as a WNBA champion, as a professional athlete, and as a player who wants to be the best she can be.

“At the same time, we gotta get better. Can’t keep saying ‘next year.’”

In that “next year”, she went home to Chicago, won a WNBA title, made history, and in 2022 was on the verge of a repeat.

The 36-year-old was still a force to be reckoned with during the 2022 playoffs, averaging a double-double of 14.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, as well as 4.6 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.4 steals in Chicago’s eight games.

Parker again has found herself in a spot where her next move is not certain — she remains one of the greatest basketball players of all time whether she choses to return or not, an MVP, a seven-time All-Star, a defensive player of the year, WNBA champion with two different franchises, and simply put, an icon.

Parker became the first player in WNBA history to reach 6,000-plus points, 3,000-plus rebounds and 1,500-plus assists in her career during the 2022 season. She has changed the way the forward position is played in the WNBA.

If Parker does choose to walk away from the game, it will be left a better place than she found it.

“I’m going to go back and reevaluate whether I’m able to continue to play at the level that I hold myself to,” Parker said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, I don’t ever want to cheat the game. I won’t cheat the game.”

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