LAS VEGAS — Aces coach Becky Hammon was prepared for the Sun to make the 2022 WNBA Finals a “sludgy” affair. She expected Connecticut to “muck the game up” and have it be a “slugfest,” and that in a series of contrasting styles her team had to find ways to be successful matching the physicality of what is very likely the league’s best frontcourt. Hammon’s team was able to do just that Sunday, as Las Vegas claimed Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, 67–64.
Before Sunday’s contest, sparklers and flames shot out from above both basket stanchions in a show of theatrics inside Michelob Ultra Arena, a display fitting for the series opener’s setting. And immediately after tip-off, the Aces, in the words of Sun coach Curt Miller, “shot out of a cannon,” jumping out to a 21–9 lead just under six minutes into the game as the league’s best offense emerged in full force.
But aside from Las Vegas’s opening crescendo, Game 1 was played in a tune more to Connecticut’s liking. “Really pleased with holding that high-powered offense down and got the style of play we wanted,” Miller said. “So we are encouraged, but I’m disappointed that it didn’t equate to a win.”
Las Vegas’s 67-point output in Game 1 was its lowest of the entire season. But at this juncture in the season, with both teams eyeing their first-ever title, Hammon is willing to trade a sub-par showing on that end of the floor for a victory. And despite the contest being played in a manner that would usually favor Connecticut, that’s exactly what transpired.
“Happy that we won,” Hammon said succinctly. “It’s better than losing, but there’s a lot of things that we can do better.”
Heading into the series opener, Hammon stressed that her team needed to limit Connecticut’s points in the paint, impact on the glass, second-chance opportunities and transition opportunities. “You can go down the list, we didn’t do any of them,” she said. “Until the second half.”
Entering the locker room down 38–34, having scored merely nine second-quarter points, Hammon said she was more animated than usual, and tried to light a fire under her players.
“I was lit,” she said.
“We have children watching,” added star Aces guard Chelsea Gray when asked to elaborate on what Hammon’s message was. “She was just on us to play our style defensively. Offensively, we were letting them get offensive rebounds, easy scores, turning over the ball … That’s the edited version. I can’t give you everything.”
Still, while Las Vegas seemed to take their coach’s message to heart early in the third, it didn’t immediately erase the four-point halftime deficit. Instead, it took Hammon inserting All-Star forward Dearica Hamby into the contest for the first time (Hamby suffered a right knee bone contusion on Aug. 9 and played less than eight combined minutes in Las Vegas’s semifinal series win over Seattle) for the Aces’ fortunes to start to change.
The home crowd roared as the two-time Sixth Player of the Year got off the bench to check in with 4:33 to go in the third, with her team trailing by six. It restarted a round of raucous applause as she turned an offensive rebound into a put-back layup on her second offensive possession, assisted a three made by guard Riquna Williams on her third offensive sequence and forced a steal on the ensuing defensive possession.
“I just got to the point where I was like, my biggest, baddest beast is sitting over there,” Hammon said. “I’ve just got to throw her in. They want to play a rough game. She’s my girl.”
And yet it wasn’t until newly crowned league MVP A’ja Wilson made a pair of free throws with 1:43 to play in the period—two of the 12 she would make, and 14 she would attempt, on the night—that the Aces regained the lead.
Holding a two-point advantage as the game turned to its final period, Wilson and Gray tried to pull Connecticut out of the mud. The duo scored 16 of Las Vegas’s 21 points over the final 10 minutes. Wilson finished with a game-high 24 while Gray added 21, and multiple times prompted Memphis Grizzlies star guard Ja Morant, who was seated courtside, to stand in disbelief as a result of her difficult shot-making.
She entered the series averaging 24 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in the playoffs, on a torrid 62.6% shooting from the field and 59.5% from three, but she had to claw for every basket and ended the night with twice as many turnovers (six) as assists (three). “Nothing came easy for Chelsea,” Miller said.
Nevertheless, while Gray’s offensive fireworks were at least slightly diminished, it was a defensive play—drawing a charge on Connecticut guard Courtney Williams with 57 seconds to go and the Sun trailing by five—that Hammon lauded as her most pivotal contribution in the win.
For the Sun, forward Alyssa Thomas finished with a double-double of 19 points and 11 rebounds, while adding five assists and three steals. 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones notched 15 points and nine rebounds, and Sixth Player of the Year Brionna Jones contributed 12 points off the bench. Five Connecticut players scored in double figures, but collectively, they too struggled to find a consistent rhythm, especially in the second half.
They shot just 37.4% from the field, and a more dismal 27.8% in the fourth quarter. A potentially game-tying shot by forward DeWanna Bonner in the contest’s waning seconds was well off the mark, providing a fitting ending.
Playing in front of a sellout crowd of 10,135 people, which the Aces announced as a record in their new arena, Hammon said her team “felt like we had to get punched in the face” before reacting.
The Sun threw out a series of first-half jabs and dictated much of the night’s action. And in the end, they lost by a one-possession margin. But, Hammon said that once her group knew it could “take a little stinger,” it woke up.
On Tuesday night, it will be Connecticut’s turn to punch back.
“It was good to have a game underneath our belt,” Wilson said. “The crowd was great and now we have to get ready for Game 2.”
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