LAS VEGAS—Becky Hammon's mind was reeling. The Las Vegas Aces coach sat at the podium frustrated following WNBA Finals Game 1 against the Connecticut Sun. Her team had struggled offensively. They were stagnant, they shot poorly and they had gotten outworked on the glass.
Adjustments needed to be made, and quickly.
"Tonight we struggled a little bit, and we'll be better in Game 2," she said. "I already know what we're going to do."
Contrary to Hammon’s tone, the Aces didn’t lose. They defeated the Sun 67-64, but she knew that their opponent had imposed its style upon the game. Connecticut outrebounded Las Vegas and earned more second-chance points, highlighting its advantage in the hustle statistics.
Though they came away with the victory, why were the Aces getting outhustled for rebounds in the Finals on their home floor? Was it because of the Sun's size and their three All-Star post players? According to Hammon, that had nothing to do with it.
"When the shot goes up, you go find a body and you put yours on it, and then go grab the ball," she said. "You have to have a mindset that I'm going to go get the ball. I'm going to block you out. ... I'm going to go get the ball, that's it. You don't have to be the biggest and baddest. Be smart. Play with your feet. Be intentional about what you're doing and then at the end of the day, it's all of us."
In the other locker room, the Sun came out of Game 1 disappointed but encouraged. Connecticut held Las Vegas, a team that averaged a league-leading 90.4 points per game during the regular season, under 70 points.
While the Sun mustered just 11 fourth-quarter points, 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones doesn't believe her team has reason to be concerned. Imposing their low-scoring, gritty style of play is exactly how the Sun advanced past the Chicago Sky in the semifinals.
"I don't think it ever felt tight," Jones said following the loss. "We were shooting shots, and they weren't going in. But ultimately, we were playing great defense as well, and that's one of the things I talked about, finding the wins within the game. Yes, we weren't hitting the shots we know we can hit, but we were also playing good D. Ultimately, we'll be all right."
Will the Sun prove Jones right? Can the Aces address their stagnant, inefficient offense? In Game 2 on Tuesday, both teams will look to counter the punches of their opponent.
For Las Vegas, everything starts with getting its high-flying offense back on track. The Aces opened Game 1 by hitting five straight shots, but it was it was a slog from there. They put up just nine points in the second quarter on the way to four-point halftime deficit and ended the afternoon at 39.7 percent from the field, including just 5-of-24 on three-pointers.
Kelsey Plum, who went 1-of-9 from the field with six points and two assists, was far from the only player who struggled against Connecticut's defense, but her stat line was representative of the challenge Las Vegas faced. Like Hammon, Plum was frustrated and hardly satisfied with the win, feeling like her team barely walked away with the victory.
"They pack the paint, they make it stagnant," Plum said. "You have to give them credit. Defensively, they've always been one of the best teams in the league. They switch a lot. They trap a lot. They kind of get you out of your rhythm."
Although the Sun finished the game with 18 assists to the Aces' eight, the Sun weren't in rhythm either, especially in the second half. Following an impassioned halftime speech from Hammon—"I was lit," she said—the Aces turned the tide. They switched to a zone to counter Connecticut's larger lineups that featured 6'4" wing DeWanna Bonner alongside some combination of Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas.
"I thought, at times, we got their zone to shift the way we wanted it to," Sun head coach Curt Miller said. "But didn't always take advantage or at least certainly didn't make some shots.”
Miller noted that guard Natisha Hiedeman made a corner three midway through the fourth quarter, and because of the zone, Aces guard Jackie Young was late to contest the shot. Connecticut just didn't get enough of those zone-exploiting shots to fall.
The Sun also missed offensive opportunities in transition, an area where they’ve excelled all season.
"We just couldn't take three on three, four on three, three on two," Miller said. "We didn't find baskets when we did have those opportunities to run."
Connecticut also committed three shot-clock violations, which according to Sun assistant coach Chris Koclanes was a function of how loud the sellout crowd of 10,135 was at Michelob Ultra Arena on Sunday afternoon.
"We'll have to have better clock awareness," he told B/R. "It's loud in here."
The Sun's guards, namely veterans Bonner and Courtney Williams, will also have to demonstrate improvement in Game 2. Both were cold on Sunday, combining to score eight points on 3-of-18 shooting. Connecticut is going to need more from both of them to have a chance at claiming the title.
Las Vegas and Connecticut came away from Game 1 with differing mindsets about the result, but which one will lead to victory in Game 2? Will it be the Aces' angst and anger, or the Sun's confidence and calm?
On Tuesday night, we'll find out.
Prediction: The Sun even the series at 1-1 before traveling back to Uncasville for Game 3. Williams moves a bit more without the ball and finds open spaces, while the Aces double-team the Sun’s most efficient players in Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones. Kelsey Plum finds her shot in Game 2, but it won't be enough.