WNBA semis: A must-win, a dominant defense and red-hot Aces

ByMichael Voepel and Alexa Philippou ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 26, 2023

One of the so-called superteams lived up to the nickname Sunday in the opening games of the WNBA semifinals. The other didn't come close.

The Las Vegas Aces beat the Dallas Wings 97-83, shooting 53.6% from the field and outrebounding the bigger Wings 36-29. The Aces had a week between the conclusion of their first-round series and Game 1 of the semifinals but showed no rust. It was business as usual for the top-seeded defending champions.

The opposite was true for the No. 2 seed New York Liberty, who lost 78-63 to the Connecticut Sun, with season lows in points and shooting percentage (33.8). Coach Sandy Brondello called it the Liberty's worst game of the season, promising a better performance Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN The App) to avoid going down 0-2 with the series headed to Connecticut.

The Aces' second game won't feel as "must-win," but Las Vegas doesn't want to leave the Wings any opening, either.

Here is what all four teams will focus on for Tuesday's doubleheader.

What must the Liberty do to even the series?

The intangibles, or the things they can control, are always a good place to start. Multiple Liberty players said they lacked energy Sunday, which was apparent most of the game as the Sun dictated how it would go and New York didn't offer much of a response.

Connecticut has thrived for years off gritty play, which is spearheaded by Alyssa Thomas' toughness. The Liberty will need to match, if not supersede, that to win this series.

It's easy to point to New York needing to handle Connecticut's defensive pressure better, and for good reason -- if the Sun can consistently keep the Liberty to fewer than 65-70 points this series, New York is in trouble.

But Brondello's squad would also benefit from doing better on the glass and defensively. That in turn could help the Liberty get easy transition points and start opening up things on the offensive end. -- Philippou

What's been working so well for the Sun this postseason?

We detailed Sunday how the Sun's defense has been a strength all season. On the other end of the floor, Thomas and DeWanna Bonner were the team's sole All-Stars, and much has been made about how Thomas, a MVP candidate, had to do so much on a team with mostly role players, specifically since the season-ending injury to Brionna Jones.

The pair has had its big moments in the playoffs (where Bonner is averaging 21.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game), but so too have Tyasha Harris, Rebecca Allen, Tiffany Hayes and Natisha Hiedeman. Coach Stephanie White said Sunday the Sun will go as far as their guards take them -- as playmakers, shotmakers and great defenders. And that's a big reason Connecticut has the second-best net rating in the postseason (plus-17.4 points per 100 possessions), only behind the Aces (plus-25.9). -- Philippou

How do the Wings stop the Aces from shooting so well?

Isn't that what every team would like to know? The Aces got the shot selection they wanted Sunday, and made the most of those opportunities. That's partly just what Las Vegas has done so well the last two seasons, but also can be attributed to the Wings not making it a little more difficult for the Aces.

Then again, what can you do when forward A'ja Wilson shoots 71.4% on the way to scoring 34 points and guards Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum combine for 10 3-pointers? The Aces have outscored their playoff opponents by 64 points, the most by any team in WNBA history through three playoff games.

"When [Wilson] gets the ball one-on-one, that's tough. She's bound to score. She's a great player," Dallas guard Arike Ogunbowale said. "So we need to make it more about team defense. We can't just leave it to the bigs to try to contain her. A little more help-side [defense] but obviously they have shooters, too. They were really comfortable, so we have to try to make them uncomfortable." -- Voepel

Can the Aces control the second game as well as they did the first?

It's possible if they defend and rebound the same way. Ogunbowale is the Wings' second-leading scorer this season, but was limited to 12 points on 4-for-14 shooting, and never got a chance to get into a groove Sunday.

Ogunbowale was 3 of 10 on contested shots and 0 of 8 off the dribble. She faced seven different primary defenders from the Aces.

"It's really just great focus," Aces coach Becky Hammon said. "Not only our guards, but our bigs being up on her. We want to make sure we have bodies in front of them all the time and make their looks as difficult as possible.

"You can play perfect defense and they're still going to make some. But over the long haul of the game, the wear-down factor if we play defense well is exhausting for the other team." -- Voepel

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