We needed this break as much as the players did. Following what amounted to a showcase week for the WNBA’s two best teams, the New York Liberty quickly dismantled
some roadkill the Phoenix Mercury before settling into five days of much-deserved rest. Yet, as much as their knees and ankles needed ice, our basketball minds needed a breath. Or maybe some Pepto-Bismol to fully digest New York’s duels with the Las Vegas Aces.
What did we learn after 80 minutes of this heavyweight matchup? Should the Aces still be considered the heavy favorite to hoist the WNBA Finals trophy this fall? Was the Liberty’s decisive victory in the Commissioner’s Cup definitive proof that they’ve figured out Las Vegas, or did the rematch hold more weight? Let’s get into it.
Candace Parker’s Absence
It remains one big question mark hovering over these contests, and potential future meetings — as Becky Hammon noted in her postgame interview after the Aces win, these two teams will meet “at least” one more time. Hmm.
Whether Candace Parker recovers from her left foot fracture in time for a potential WNBA Finals meeting is currently unanswerable, a question that Las Vegas has not shed much light on. What is clear is how her absence affects her team, and how the Liberty took advantage of that last week.
Hammon spoke bluntly after New York’s Cup victory, admitting that the Libs “ignored” Kiah Stokes, Parker’s replacement in the starting lineup, and that the offense struggled without their “6’5” point guard.” Besides being unable to stretch the floor and hit outside shots like Parker can — although that’s pretty important too — Stokes doesn’t have the gravity as a screener that Parker does. Examples:
One reason why I'm not sure LVA can afford to play Kiah Stokes much? She has little-to-no gravity as a screener; watch how little regard Jonquel Jones and NY have for her on these plays... pic.twitter.com/XVP2WXtbWe— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 17, 2023
Stokes, while an impressive athlete, is shooting 18% from deep this year and does not have the passing acumen to pick apart 4-on-3 situations, although not many centers can match Parker in that regard. But New York really turned up the disrespect dial when Stokes was on the court:
One reason the Aces’ smaller lineup, with Alysha Clark replacing Stokes, was so much more effective last week was due to A’ja Wilson stepping up and becoming her offense’s main screener. With Wilson screening, and the Liberty wary of granting her any free space to roam, she paved much wider driving lanes for her guards:
...and then watch how A'ja Wilson's screens open up the court for the ball-handler, whoever it is: pic.twitter.com/GIzmSfcQw0— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 17, 2023
No, it’s not breathtaking analysis to declare that losing the All-Everything Parker hurts her team, even if her team employs as much talent as the Las Vegas Aces do. But without her rare combination of offensive skills, even in her age-37 season, the Aces suddenly have a much more obvious weakness for New York to exploit.
It’s going to be absolutely crucial for both teams, thanks to their MVP-caliber forwards.
Listen, if Breanna Stewart or A’ja Wilson can maneuver to their spots and rise up, the defense is going to have a long night. Wilson scored 53 — yes, 53 — points against the Atlanta Dream while I was writing this. Stewart has three 40-point games this season. Both are WNBA records.
But the two stars struggled in the quasi-impromptu doubleheader, with Stewart shooting 7-of-31 across two games and Wilson going just 9-of-23. Both defenses — especially the Aces — were relentless in throwing multiple bodies at the stars, not in the form of just double-teams but in the form of heavy help at all times. Neither Wilson nor Stewart could put the ball on the floor without a rogue hand reaching in for a swipe, or come off a screen without getting chipped.
In the next New York-Las Vegas showdown, it’s going to be vital for the guards of each team to move when their star forward is operating. Here, Betnijah Laney and Kelsey Plum each get clean 3-point looks thanks to their mobility without the ball:
Helping Breanna Stewart
Another huge key for the Liberty, here. A player of Stewie’s caliber doesn’t shoot a ghastly 7-of-31 simply because she’s having two off-nights, though that was certainly part of it. Early in each game, and specifically in the Cup, New York’s offense was a tad too predictable. Facing an Aces defense that leans heavily into switching, even against the best scorers in the league, the Liberty were all too happy to abandon their offensive flow and dump the ball into Stewie as soon as she saw a favorable matchup.
Unsurprisingly, the Aces were ready for that. There were far too many instances of rushed post-ups for Stewie, whether initiated by her or her teammates with neither party being blameless, without considering where and how she was posting up. Can she see the help defense or double-teams on these plays?
My answer is no, which led to some awkward off-balance attempts for the W’s second-leading scorer.
This isn’t a fatal flaw for New York, of course, just an acknowledgement that against a defense like the Aces, they’re going to have think harder than just, “give the ball to our best player.” I noted on Twitter that posting Stewart up on an empty side of the floor, rather than the middle, allowed her to see the floor a bit more clearly and take some easier shots, but that’s not the entire panacea for the Liberty.
Creating dynamic rather than stagnant situations for Stewart to attack is even more of an imperative. On this play, the defense is already moving when New York’s MVP touches it, thanks to her pseudo-screen in early offense:
Come for the closeout attack, stay for the block on the other end.
Disclaimer: I’m not here to nitpick New York’s offense, which is going to shatter the all-time assist-rate record for WNBA and NBA teams alike. It’s not a stretch to claim that these Libs produce more buckets directly off efficient passing than any professional basketball team North America, at least, has ever seen.
But I don’t see a lot of their offense being initiated from the post. New York certainly utilizes post offense, not only thanks to Stewie and Jonquel Jones but Laney’s recent work down there as well. The Liberty, however, throw it down there primarily to score, and while that’s an undeniable strategy, two plays from their doubleheader in Vegas got me thinking:
These Liberty post-ups feature serious off-ball action as well, action that the Aces struggle to defend in both cases. Las Vegas can switch like all hell, and they can overwhelm post players with their lanky help defense, just ask Stewart. But I’d be interested in seeing New York ask Vegas to do both at the same time.
My biggest takeaway from the back-to-back Liberty-Aces games was also my most boring.
Boy, this would be a fun series, not just because of the talent on the floor, but because of the chance to watch two excellent coaching staffs go back and forth with adjustments. Last week provided a sneak-peek at the fun that might produce:
here's a cool little nugget from Liberty-Aces Week -- sound on: pic.twitter.com/K4r5OyXQak— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 22, 2023
Yes, Becky Hammon even alluded to the much larger collision course it feels like the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces are on. For basketball’s sake, it would be thrilling if we got more than just the lone remaining matchup between these powerhouses that we are promised.
Even if we don’t, though, the Liberty and Aces have already given us much to analyze. Thank goodness for this break.