Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The Las Vegas Aces entered a July 7 game against the Dallas Wings looking almost unbeatable. They were 16-1 at the time, the only loss having come June 8 at Connecticut, and Las Vegas had responded to that setback by winning nine straight, mostly in blowout fashion.
• When: September 17, noon
• Where: Michelob Ultra Arena
• Tickets: $12-$100, axs.com
• Television: ESPN
The Aces were somehow looking even better than the version that won the WNBA title a season before.
But that night in Dallas put a damper on the Aces’ dominance. Not only did they lose 80-78 to the Wings, but prized free agent acquisition Candace Parker suffered a foot injury. Parker later had surgery and remains out indefinitely.
Parker elevated the Aces when she was on the floor, but they won the championship without her last year, and there’s growing confidence they can do it again. Las Vegas narrowly maintained its spot at the top of the league standings without Parker, finishing with a 34-6 record to earn the No. 1 seed in the playoffs for the second straight year.
That means the Aces will have homecourt advantage throughout the postseason, including in their best-of-three first-round series against the Chicago Sky, which tipped off September 13 and continues September 17 at Michelob Ultra Arena.
“We’re at a point of our season where the days don’t matter; games do,” forward A’ja Wilson says. “We’ve got to be ready for the approach of that game when the ball goes up.”
No team begins the season with eyes on being the best of all-time, but the Aces were mentioned in that category with their hot start and gladly accepted the challenge. Winning 16 of their first 17 games put them in rarefied air.
They looked like a legitimate threat to top the 1998 Houston Comets for the best winning percentage in league history (.900) and were well on pace to smash the 2014 Phoenix Mercury’s all-time wins mark of 29. They ultimately achieved the latter but fell short of the former, largely because of the WNBA’s schedule expansion this season.
The Aces were averaging an all-time best 93.4 points on 50% shooting through those 17 games while boasting the league’s best defense at 78 points allowed per game. But efficiency slightly tailed off without Parker.
Las Vegas still finished with an average of 92.6 points per game, but it gave up three more points per game and lost five times in the second half of the season. The Aces’ advanced metrics are still ahead of the rest of the league, but the second-place New York Liberty closed the gap significantly after Parker’s injury.
It doesn’t seem like a major cause for concern inside the Aces’ Henderson headquarters, though. The goal of the regular season was to claim the top seed, and they achieved it.
“This group, I feel, is ahead [of last year’s team],” Aces coach Becky Hammon says. “Last year [was] the first year under the system. This year, they have familiarity with my expectations with how we’re going to play. They really bought in on the defensive end.”
Even though the Aces wouldn’t face New York until the WNBA Finals, the Liberty stand out as the greatest challenger to Las Vegas’ back-t0-back quest. New York’s trio of superstars—Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu and Jonquel Jones—have given the Aces fits.
The two sides technically split the four-game regular-season series, but the Liberty also beat the Aces in the final of the Commissioner’s Cup—the league’s in-season tournament, in which the championship game doesn’t count in the standings.
An Aces vs. Liberty final has been expected ever since the offseason signings that landed Parker with New York and Stewart with Las Vegas. If Parker can return in time for the potential Finals matchup, it would help the Aces significantly in slowing the Liberty’s explosive offense.
Even without her, however, adversity hasn’t affected the Aces much this season. They did go 2-3 during one stretch in August, but that was during the busiest part of the schedule, when they played 12 games in a span of 22 days.
After finally getting a five-day break from September 2-8, the Aces looked rejuvenated. They closed the season on a four-game win streak—with all the victories coming by double figures—to fend off the Liberty’s late-season rally up the standings by two wins.
Las Vegas is now the odds-on favorite to become the first repeat WNBA champion since the Lisa Leslie-led Los Angeles Sparks did it in 2001 and 2002.
And no matter who winds up in their lineup throughout the playoffs, the Aces sound ready to try to make history.
“Forget everything that happened in the regular season. It’s a different season,” guard Kelsey Plum says. “It doesn’t matter, 8-seed versus 1-seed. We’ve got to treat it as a one-and-done type of thing in terms of our sense of urgency.”
This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.