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New York Liberty drop Game 1 of WNBA Finals to Las Vegas Aces, 99-81

New York was roundly outplayed in a tough second half, where Las Vegas pushed all the right buttons to take a 1-0 lead in the 2023 WNBA Finals

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2023 WNBA Finals - New York Liberty v Las Vegas Aces Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces kicked off one of the most anticipated matchups in WNBA Finals history on Sunday afternoon in Vegas. You likely know the backstory: the Aces entered 2023 as defending champs, added Candace Parker, and despite losing the future Hall-of-Famer to injury midway through the season, rolled into the Finals with zero playoff losses.

The Liberty added three future HOF’ers this offseason to form an entirely new juggernaut, and thus, their success was not as inevitable, having to overcome various individual and team-building hurdles to defeat two tough-as-nails opponents on their way to the Finals.

But they made it, and WNBA fans got the matchup they were promised, the superteam showdown six months in the making.

In many ways, the first half was exactly what we expected: a breathless, contested offensive showcase that finished with the Liberty taking a 49-46 lead. Each team shot at least 40% from three, and scored double-digit fast-break points over the game’s first 20 minutes.

New York’s front-court was often overwhelming. Jonquel Jones feasted in the paint with 12 points and nine boards, while Breanna Stewart added 10 & 5. Three Aces — A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young — reached double figures in the first half, operating as they usually do: Wilson from the midrange, Young pulling up from deep, and Plum relentlessly driving into the paint.

Plum’s 14 points were first-half high, but she shared that mark with the game’s biggest surprise: Marine Johannès. Now, given Johannès’ performances against Vegas, including 17 points in New York’s Commissioner’s Cup victory, Vegas fans could’ve seen this coming. As Becky Hammon said, “Apparently, Johannès really likes to play against us. She hits tough ones.”

“Tough” may be underselling the four triples the Frenchwoman hit in the first half, each of them more ridiculous than the last...

...culminating in a one-legged heat check that one can only laugh at:

Yet, despite Vegas’ familiarity with Johannès entering the Finals, her 14-point, first-half barrage came after scoring just five points total in five playoff games to this point. She was a non-factor, supplanted by Kayla Thornton and even Stefanie Dolson off the bench in earlier playoff rounds, yet entered Game 1 of the Finals with all the confidence in the word.

Perhaps Sandy Brondello saw the future in pregame, when she said, “Marine is good to go. We talked, she understands [her role], and this has been a good matchup for her.”

Yet, Johannès got little-to-no support from her fellow backcourt members, Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu in the first half, an alarming trend that continued when play resumed after the break.

Johannès cooled down in the second half, not scoring another point as the Aces aggressively trapped her — “Which is probably what I would’ve done too,” said Brondello — and the Liberty’s guard production dropped to near-zero. Ionescu struggled to contain Jackie Young, hardly an unforgivable sin, but was also invisible offensively, scoring just seven points on 2-7 from the floor.

Vandersloot looked out of sorts for the second game in a row, scoring ten points on 4-11 shooting while leading the team with six assists, but providing much less impact than the box score may suggest. Her decisions were slow, especially when given the opportunity to shoot, and as a result, the Aces crowded the paint on defense, toughening life for everybody else.

In sum:

Conversely, the Aces guards took the game over, particularly in a third quarter that the home team won 26-16. Young, who finished with 26/5/4 and three steals on 9-15 shooting, was everywhere, as her stat-line would suggest.

“She’s scoring on on different levels, being able to shoot the three, being able to get downhill,” said Jonquel Jones of a player who made a total of 36 triples throughout a three-year college career. Fast-forward to the 2023 Finals, and Young canned five in Game 1.

“This is a young player continuing to work on her game to get better,” said Brondello of Young. “When she came into this league, she was a right hand driver, a mid-range shooter. Now she’s a really lock-down three-point shooter, so it’s credit to the work that she puts in to get better and it makes her a harder guard.”

Yet, the Liberty Head Coach did concede that her defense gave Young far “too many open looks,” particularly in transition. The Aces pushed off of New York’s 11 turnovers, — “which felt like a lot more,” said Brondello — and they pushed off of long rebounds, of which there were many — New York shot 9-29 from three, with just a single make in the second half.

It would be overly reductive to blame one factor for the Liberty's poor second half. Vegas won both the third and fourth quarter by ten points, at first executing concepts like defensive communication and offensive spacing more sharply than New York. Ultimately, it snowballed into a total collapse for the visitors, and the game was over long before the final buzzer:

“We’ll learn,” said Sandy Brondello, sounding far from panicked in postgame. “I mean, we’ll go back, we have to learn. There are things we can get better at. And we didn’t play our best today, we know that. And they did, they played really well.”

Stewart finished with 21 points as New York’s leading scorer, shooting a middling 8-of-19 and constantly hounding by double teams and aggressive help. Jones, after a monster first half, scored just four points and grabbed a measly board in the second half to finish with 16 and ten, as the Aces boxed her out with tremendous intensity as the game wore on.

Betnijah Laney had a few nice moments, including defending Chelsea Gray well in the first half and shooting 5-of-8 from the floor in Game 1. Yet, Laney’s performance was merely acceptable, and certainly not enough to swing New York getting roundly outplayed in the second half.

For Vegas, Young was supported with not only excellent team defense, but another 26 points from Plum, a 19/8/2/3/2 line from Wilson, and 20 points from Gray, who overcame Laney’s tough defense to hit some contested daggers in the second half.

Las Vegas’ 17-point win was nothing abnormal for these two teams, whose average margin of victory in four regular-season contests and the Commissioner’s Cup was 19.2 points. Now having had six meetings in 2023 and splitting them down the middle, the Liberty, despite a big loss, won’t be too despondent heading into Game 2. Yet, they certainly have problems to fix, or else this will be a short, celebratory series for the Aces.

Final score: Las Vegas 99, New York 81.

Stick with it

2023 WNBA Finals - Game One Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It was a pretty rough game for Courtney Vandersloot. The General only went 4-of-11 from the field in 25 minutes, and passed up a lot of open opportunities throughout the game. On Twitter, Richard Cohen of Her Hoop Stats made this pertinent observation

Towards the end of the game, Sloot started finding her shot and went a perfect 3-3 in the fourth quarter. In post, we asked Sandy Brondello about Sloot’s aggressiveness and how it will help the team in Game Two:

“Yeah look, she’s a veteran. You know, there were some shots, she had some open shots [and] she knows she can make them,” said Brondello. “I just want her to be confident and play her game, and there’s certain things that we can do to help her. She’s great at getting downhill, they went under a lot of screens, so we’ve got to be better at how we screen to allow a little bit more penetration. But I liked that she stayed with it. She made some shots, there’s no hesitation and I think she will the next game as well.”

Outside of Johannes, the Liberty didn’t have much success from deep as the rest of the club went 5-of-22 from downtown. As Brondello noted, the team will need to make some adjustments for game two. Luckily for Liberty fans, the team has shown high levels of resilience and tends to bounce back at the right time.

Nets show up en masse

The Brooklyn Nets found themselves in Las Vegas as well Sunday as they conclude their training camp and open preseason ... and as they showed up en masse to cheer on the Libs.

Practice permitting, we assume we’ll see some Liberty players Monday night when the Nets take on the Lakers at the T-Mobile Center.

Next up

2023 WNBA Finals - New York Liberty v Las Vegas Aces Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

We do it again Wednesday night. Tip after 9:00 p.m. ET.