A series featuring some of the best offensive stars in the WNBA has so far been defined by ... defense?
Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson have played like the two best players in the league as Seattle and Las Vegas split the first two games of their best-of-five semifinal series. But the games have come down to which team had the better defensive effort.
The Storm were better in their 76-73 win in Game 1 by figuring out a way to keep Wilson from dominating. The Aces were better in Game 2, pulling out a 78-73 victory using a smaller lineup and limiting Stewart’s supporting cast.
All of which has laid the groundwork for Sunday’s pivotal Game 3 with the series shifting back to Seattle.
“We’re going to continue to do whatever we need to do schematically to limit their potent offense,” Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said. “But to hold this team under 80, I don’t know if that’s been done twice in a row this year. We will take that and continue to build on that.”
To answer Quinn’s question: only once in the regular season were the Aces held under 80 points in consecutive games. Las Vegas scored 79 in a win over Los Angeles and followed up a few days later by scoring 78 in a loss to Seattle.
Even with that one game where Seattle kept Las Vegas in check, defense was not expected to define the series. Las Vegas won three of the four matchups in the regular season, and in every game the winning team scored at least 85 points. That included the regular season finale, a 109-100 Aces victory.
It’s usually the case that defense intensifies in the playoffs, but it's notable that neither of the two teams has topped 80 points through the first two games.
“It’s about each possession what is your smartest move, what is going to put you in the best position defensively,” Aces guard Chelsea Gray said.
The Aces averaged 90.4 points during the regular season and 98 points in a first-round win over Phoenix. Seattle shot 44% from the field as a team in the regular season, but shot 41.3% in Game 1 and 40.6% in Game 2.
One of the keys for Las Vegas was the defensive effort by Gray in Game 2, when she was asked to play against post players defensively as the Aces went with a smaller lineup.
“That stretch that we went small, put Chelsea Gray on the post, her activity really changed the momentum of the game,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “That’s one of the things we want to be defensively is active and disruptive. Physical. Aggressive. I thought she really set the tone for us.”
Wilson and Stewart have in some ways offset each other. Stewart had 24 points in Game 1 and 32 points in Game 2. Wilson was limited to just eight points and 12 rebounds in Game 1, but responded with 33 points and 13 rebounds in the next game.
Part of the reason Wilson’s efforts in Game 2 resulted in a win was the Aces’ ability to keep Jewell Loyd from being a factor on offense. Loyd had 26 in Game 1; she had eight in Game 2.
Seattle is hoping to get a boost ahead of Game 3 with the possibility that Gabby Williams will be able to return after sitting out the first two games because of a concussion. Williams was a second-team All-WNBA defensive team selection this season.
“We did that without Gabby, and that’s what I’m most impressed with ... so we’re encouraged,” Quinn said.