Braking Down The News

A Sun-Aces WNBA Finals Feels Fated. But Each Team’s Path Was Far From It.

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In many ways, the 2022 WNBA Finals, which tip off Sunday, are the culmination of a playoffs that predictably followed the regular season data. The matchup features the top two teams in the league by net rating, the Connecticut Sun (+9.5) and the Las Vegas Aces (+7.7). It’s the league’s best offensive team in the Aces against the second-best offense, second-best defense and top rebounding team in the Sun. These two have been trading favorite status back and forth in our computerized predictions over the past month, too.

And yet, in dramatic semifinal victories, each team demonstrated the ability to win by playing differently than its usual style, moving out of their comfort zones to defeat formidable opponents — in Las Vegas’ case, Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm, and in Connecticut’s case, Candace Parker (for the third time in four years, as Sun coach Curt Miller pointed out) and the Chicago Sky. Along the way, we’ve seen a mix of familiar producers — we are talking about a matchup featuring the past three league MVPs in A’ja Wilson, Jonquel Jones and, uh, A’ja Wilson — but also breakout performers forge the path to a finals that is guaranteed to produce a first-time WNBA champion no matter what.1

Foremost among the unexpected stars: Las Vegas point guard Chelsea Gray. Simply put, she is in the midst of one of the greatest postseasons in WNBA history, averaging 24.0 points per game with numerous cold-blooded shots that crushed the Storm’s hopes late in Game 4 of their semifinal series. Gray, so far, is just a hair from a 60-60-90 shooting performance over her six postseason games. 60-60-90! She’s knocking down 62.6 percent from the field, 59.5 percent from three (on a high volume, too — 6.2 attempts per game) and 88.9 percent from the line.

Gray is also doing this while serving as the ball-dominant distributor for the Aces at the point, making virtually no mistakes in that role either. Her 41.4 assist percentage is combined with a 12.8 turnover percentage, even as opposing coaches threw everything they had at her in Las Vegas’ wins over Phoenix in the first round and Seattle in the semifinals.

“I don’t think anyone on planet Earth can guard her,” Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said after Las Vegas clinched its spot in the finals with a Game 4 win. “She was unconscious. We did a lot of things this series to try to slow her down. [If] you limit her scoring, she has the ability to pass and play-make. She’s an incredible player.”

“I think that our team did a very good job of trying to limit her, but I think she’s been on a roll; and when a player’s on a roll like that, it’s very hard to stop.”

So if Gray keeps playing like she has in the playoffs so far, it probably doesn’t matter what Connecticut does in the finals. Think about this: Wilson and Stewart have played like the top two MVP vote-earners they were in the regular season during these playoffs, and yet Gray has somehow been considerably more potent than even these two generational players.

Gray has outplayed a list of legends this postseason

2022 WNBA playoff leaders in points per play

PlayerTeamGamesPlaysPointsPoints/Play
Chelsea GrayLas Vegas Aces61091441.321
A’ja WilsonLas Vegas Aces61071231.150
Breanna StewartSeattle Storm61411621.149
Jackie YoungLas Vegas Aces666741.121
Sue BirdSeattle Storm659611.034
Jewell LoydSeattle Storm61141151.009
Kelsey PlumLas Vegas Aces61141130.991
Brionna JonesConnecticut Sun881800.988
Kahleah CopperChicago Sky81361340.985
Jonquel JonesConnecticut Sun81191150.966

Minimum 50 plays.

Source: Synergy Sports

That the Aces can deploy both Gray and Wilson — not to mention Kelsey Plum, who is somehow seventh on that list despite a shooting slump from beyond the arc that has her accuracy at an uncharacteristically low 28.2 percent from deep in the playoffs, and the hyper-efficient Jackie Young — makes them an incredibly difficult team to guard. This was true even back in the regular season, when Gray was just a regular old four-time All-Star point guard,2 rather than a statistical impossibility in sneakers.

But no team is better-equipped to make things difficult for Wilson and Gray than the Connecticut Sun. Against Wilson, who was second in the league in points scored in the paint, the Sun can offer a three-headed post defensive attack of Jonquel Jones, Bri Jones and Alyssa Thomas; against Gray, they can throw endless traps and clog lanes. Chicago averaged a league-leading 42.1 points in the paint in the regular season, but against Connecticut, managed just 31.2. The Sun also managed to hold future Hall of Fame point guard Courtney Vandersloot to just 9.8 points per game on 43.5 percent shooting — 18.2 percent from three — while forcing her into an uncharacteristic number of mistakes all series long. In Games 4 and 5, Vandersloot — whose assists percentage leads all WNBA players who have logged at least 5,000 minutes — managed six assists, total, against seven turnovers.

The Sun have worked to make games, in Miller’s preferred phrase this postseason, “messy.” And that’ll be required once more, since a fast-paced game featuring possessions aplenty will be tilted toward a Las Vegas team that led the league in both offensive rating and pace in the regular season.

The more the Aces miss, the better Connecticut’s chances become (and not just because they’re leaving points on the table). The Sun led the league in rebounding percentage, at 55.7 percent, and actually improved upon that in the playoffs. The teams they dispatched on the way to the Finals, the Dallas Wings and the Sky, were better rebounding teams than Las Vegas, — but it didn’t matter, particularly in Game 4 and 5 of the Sky series, in which Connecticut outrebounded Parker and company, 82-51.

Connecticut appears to have figured out some key aspects to its offensive attack, notably with Courtney Williams, who has been as dangerous a freelance playmaker over these past two games as she was when she helped lead the Sun to the finals back in 2019. Miller, to the surprise of many, benched Jonquel Jones with 3:37 to go in a Game 3 loss to the Sky. But few paid attention to who he substituted in for Jones, and it was Williams, who seems to have been launched by that — in the two wins that followed, she averaged 15.5 points per game on 65.2 percent shooting, with five rebounds and four assists per game, even using her otherworldly vertical leap to block two shots in the Game 5 clincher. (For her part, Williams told us postgame on Tuesday she credits the surge of success to her new pregame outfit.)

There’s even a regular-season precedent for the Sun defeating the Aces in high-scoring, fast-paced Las Vegas style, and Williams played a key part, scoring 18 points as a starter in a 97-90 win back on June 2. The Sun held Gray to just 8 points on 4-for-7 shooting that day, forcing her into four turnovers as well. 

That was, of course, before Gray ascended to the heavens this postseason. So don’t count out the Sun, for whom winning a title would be an appropriate capstone on a half-decade of unmatched excellence in the WNBA. But it’s tough to block the shot of a clutch god — if Gray can keep up this playoff run for the ages.

Check out our latest WNBA predictions.

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