How the Liberty can challenge the Aces in first of four August games

ByM.A. Voepel and Alexa Philippou ESPN logo
Friday, August 4, 2023

The Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty will clash in what might be a WNBA Finals preview, playing throughout August and starting Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App).

This weekend's matchup at Barclays Center is the first of four games between the WNBA's top two teams. The Aces beat the Liberty 98-81 in their first meeting in Las Vegas on June 29.

They play again Aug. 17 in Las Vegas and Aug. 28 in New York -- plus the Commissioner's Cup final, which is Aug. 15 in Las Vegas.

It might seem like too much of a good thing in one month. The Aces-Liberty meetings ideally would have been more spread out, but the WNBA schedule was released in November, long before the offseason moves in January and February that transformed the Liberty into the perceived top challenger for the defending champion Aces.

"You're going to have to get better by watching film," Aces guard Chelsea Gray said of the multiple matchups with the Liberty in a short time span. "With this type of scheduling, there's a lot of times when you're not going to have that much practice time. If you are, you're getting shots up and going through things at 50 percent because you want to save your bodies for game time. Learning on the fly and learning by watching is going to be important."

So let's zero in on the Aces (24-2) vs. the Liberty (20-6). While it feels like league-leading Las Vegas could be penciled in for the Finals, the Aces have dealt with some adversity: Center/forward Candace Parker is out indefinitely after foot surgery and guard Riquna Williams is suspended from team activities after her arrest on domestic violence charges.

New York is in second place, but only one game ahead of the Connecticut Sun, the team that seems best positioned to possibly disrupt an Aces-Liberty showdown for the title.

At this point, the Liberty have more to prove against the Aces -- who clinched a playoff spot Tuesday -- than the other way around. But could that change by the end of August? ESPN examines the matchup and how they might play out.

What made the difference in the first meeting?

Voepel: Three big things went the Aces' way. They had just seven turnovers to the Liberty's 15. They were 40-of-69 shooting (57.9%) from the field to the Liberty's 31-of-65 (46.6%). And they took over the game in the third quarter, expanding a seven-point halftime lead to 20 by outscoring New York 27-14.

"Turnovers are obviously huge, especially when you're playing against Vegas," New York guard Sabrina Ionescu said. "They'll make sure to capitalize on any turnovers and that usually leads to baskets. So we're going to have to make sure we're taking care of the ball, getting good looks at the basket, taking good shots as well to then help us get into transition defense."

Parker played in that first game, getting 15 points, six rebounds and five assists. As Alexa detailed last week after the news of Parker's surgery, her absence impacts the Aces' depth, experience and defensive versatility. However, they are so talented, so far it hasn't been an issue. But the Liberty might be able to make it one.

The Aces can counter with the steadiness of center Kiah Stokes, part of their championship team last year, and as Gray said, "You'll see our small lineup a lot more. We've been playing with that the games that [Parker] has been out. Our attack defensively and offensively is just going to be a little bit different. Our small lineup is going to have to be efficient."

Philippou: Allowing a team to score 98 points is a pretty good way to guarantee a loss. In fact, when comparing the so-called superteams statistically, one of their biggest differences is how they fare on the defensive end. The Aces boast the top defensive rating in the league (96.0 points allowed per 100 possessions); the Liberty are near the middle of the pack (100.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) behind the Aces, Connecticut Sun, Washington Mystics and Dallas Wings.

It has been difficult for any team to contain the Aces' historically potent offense (of note, Las Vegas scored fewer than 80 points in both of its losses). But if the Liberty want to dethrone the reigning champs, they're going to have to defend much better collectively and one-on-one than they did in late June. They have excellent defenders in Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Betnijah Laney, and so much of good defense is based on communication and chemistry/trust -- intangibles New York should theoretically improve on over the course of the season as it plays more together.

Since their June meeting, both teams have lost to Dallas. What did we learn from those games?

Voepel: The Wings took eight more shots than the Aces and 10 more than the Liberty in their victories over Las Vegas and New York on July 7 and 19, respectively. In both cases, Dallas -- which leads the league in rebounding -- won the boards battle with the Aces and Liberty.

New York is second in the league in rebounding, so perhaps that could be a key for the Liberty in facing the Aces, too, especially with Parker out. New York wants to play better defense than in its last meeting with the Aces, for sure, but the Liberty also want to give themselves more chances to score.

Philippou: Dallas is constructed differently than both the Aces and Liberty, but one commonality in the Wings' victories over those top teams is they dominated paint scoring (46-22 in their win over the Aces and 50-36 in their win over the Liberty). The Aces tallied 50 points in the paint against the Liberty in their June matchup compared to 42 by New York. Safe to say whoever does a better job containing the paint is more likely to win on Sunday.

Outside of Breanna Stewart, which Liberty players most need a big game vs. Las Vegas?

Voepel: Courtney Vandersloot had a season-high six turnovers in the first meeting with the Aces, and we mentioned how critical the giveaways were in that game. Vandersloot and Ionescu were 6-of-17 from the field in that game, with only one 3-pointer between them. The Liberty have to get better production from their backcourt to take down the Aces.

Ionescu said she thinks the Liberty's chemistry, floor spacing and confidence are all better than in the first meeting. She mentioned specifically Laney's size and ability to create mismatches, Jones' post presence and Vandersloot's leadership.

"I think we've figured out our identity a little bit more," Ionescu said.

Philippou: Totally agree with Voepel's point, and the backcourt productivity is going to have to come on the defensive end as well. Ionescu was minus-25 in the first New York-Las Vegas matchup after struggling on both ends, and there's little doubt she'll be motivated to come out with a much stronger performance this time around.

Echoing Voepel's earlier note on rebounding, Jones only had six boards in the June 29 game. She has been playing much more like her former MVP self after the All-Star Game, with five double-doubles in the past eight games; if she can have a big game on the glass and in the paint, it'll better position the Liberty to come away with the win.

"When we're not scoring the ball, they're just running so fast in transition, so we're not really able to load up and really affect the ball defensively the way we want to," Jones said of the need for offensive boards. "So I think rebounding is going to be a huge key."

Will the outcome of these Aces-Liberty games decide the regular-season MVP award?

Voepel: This a three-player race between the Aces'A'ja Wilson(winner in 2020 and 2022), the Liberty's Breanna Stewart (winner in 2018) and the Sun's Alyssa Thomas. Wilson and Stewart are in the top five in the league in scoring and rebounding, while Thomas leads in rebounding and assists and is second in steals. Thomas has five triple-doubles this season, an unprecedented feat.

Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are primarily responsible for the Sun's success. That and her triple-doubles definitely could swing the MVP to Thomas. But if the Sun finish outside the top two with a regular-season record, historically the odds won't be with Thomas. Six times, the MVP has gone to a player whose team finished with a record that was third-best or lower. But five of those were before 2009.

In the past 14 seasons, the MVP has come from a team that finished with the best or second-best record every year except 2015: Elena Delle Donne won it while with the Chicago Sky, who had the WNBA's third-best record that season. But Thomas right now is making a strong case to buck the trend.

Stewart, Wilson and Thomas were the top three players in ESPN's midseason top 25 rankings last month.

Philippou: If the ultimate Aces-Liberty season series result is lopsided, that could definitely sway MVP voting toward either Wilson or Stewart. That said, the profiles of all three players represent something different. Wilson is the heartbeat on both ends -- yes, even if she's surrounded by other all-WNBA talent -- for one of the greatest WNBA teams to ever take the floor. In Stewart's case, she's the unstoppable, most consistent and clutch force on a still developing New York team. And Thomas is a unicorn putting up historic numbers and propelling her team into contention despite player departures and injury.

If all three stars continue to play at this level, MVP balloting might come down to personal philosophy among the voters more than anything, as each of these players would be deserving.

Which team will win Sunday?

Philippou: At this point I have seen little reason to doubt the Aces' ability to win (this game, and the championship come October), even though they're down a few players. And the Liberty haven't totally proved their struggles with playing a full 40 minutes are behind them. The Aces will win this one, albeit by a narrower margin than in June.

Voepel: The Aces probably won't take all four matchups this month with the Liberty, because that's a lot to ask even for a team as good as Las Vegas. That said, the fact that the Liberty have another game before facing Las Vegas on Sunday -- at Minnesota on Friday -- doesn't help New York, either. Agree with Alexa: This one goes to the Aces, but it will be close. And the atmosphere at Barclays will feel like the postseason.

"It will be exciting," Ionescu said. "Anytime you're able to go up against the best team in the league, it's a challenge. I think it's going to prep us for a playoff run."

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