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This week, Above the Break previews the WNBA Finals, breaking down the advantages in the frontcourt, backcourt, depth and more.
After months of basketball, the WNBA is down to its final two teams in the quest to win the 2022 title. On Sunday, the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun will start their five-game series to determine which team wins the title.
Neither of these teams has won a WNBA title before. The Aces last appeared in the Finals in 2020, when they were swept in three games by the Storm, while the Sun last appeared in the 2019 Finals, losing in five games to the Mystics.
As we prepare for the Finals, let’s talk about some of the key things to watch in this series.
Who won the regular season matchups between the Sun and Aces?
The Aces beat the Sun 89-81, the seventh win in a row for the Aces, who opened the season 9-1. A’ja Wilson had 24 points and 14 rebounds in the win, while Jackie Young added 21 points and Kelsey Plum scored 18. The Aces were just 6-for-25 from beyond the arc but still made enough shots.
Connecticut was led by DeWanna Bonner’s 14 points, while Jonquel Jones took just four shot attempts in the game, going 3-for-4 with eight points and 13 rebounds.
The rematch of these teams came just two days later, with the Sun winning 97-90. Jones was more assertive in the win, going 7-for-9 for 20 points. Five Sun players scored in double figures, with Alyssa Thomas recording a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
The Aces shot better from deep, going 10-for-25. But A’ja Wilson was held to 13 points and the Aces got just five points off the bench, all from Theresa Plaisance. Jackie Young led the team in scoring with 26 points.
The Aces won the most recent meeting of these teams 91-83. It was another game where the Aces shot poorly from 3, going 9-for-36, but three players scored at least 20 points, with Chelsea Gray putting up 21 points and nine assists. The team got 13 points from the bench.
The Sun were without Jonquel Jones in that game, but DeWanna Bonner’s 19 points led the team. Alyssa Thomas was the only starter to not score in double figures, and she finished with just five points on 1-for-6 shooting but added 14 rebounds and six assists.
How these frontcourts stack up
For the Sun to win this series, they have to leverage their advantage up front.
The Aces have the best player in this series in A’ja Wilson, but you can then argue that the next three best bigs all play for the Sun.
Connecticut’s best chance here is to bully the Aces up front. Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones are all players who can just run a team over.
Per Synergy, the Sun had the league’s third-most points per possession on post-up attempts at 1.017, behind only the Lynx and the Sky. They’ve leveraged their size this year into having one of the best back-to-the-basket games in the W. Post-ups aren’t the most efficient type of play to run, but in a short series when you have a size advantage as the Sun have, it’s a nice thing to have in your arsenal.
It’s especially useful in this series because the Aces rank ninth out of the 12 teams in the league in defending post-ups, allowing 0.967 points per possession this season against that play type. (It’s worth noting that the Sun have been worse at defending post-ups, allowing 0.978 point per possession, but that matters less here since the Aces haven’t been particularly good at scoring on post-ups.)
For the Sun to upset the Aces in this series, they’ll need to make some shots at the basket.
That was an issue earlier in the Sky series, but the Sun really clamped down over the last two games. Overall, the Sun have the second-worst field goal percentage in the restricted area in these playoffs at 56 percent, but they improved that to 59.4 percent in the last two games.
Their percentage in the restricted area will naturally be lower than other teams though, solely from how many attempts they take there. The Sun have averaged 31.3 attempts per game in the restricted area in these playoffs. The Aces have averaged 11.8.
This is a Sun team whose path to winning is to get the ball and get it to the basket. The Storm shot 67.3 percent in the restricted area against the Aces in the last round, so there’s definitely something that can be exploited there for the Sun.
Of course, none of that could matter if two things happen. The first is that A’ja Wilson just continues to be A’ja Wilson. She’s averaged 20.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game in this postseason on 55.4 percent shooting. She struggled with her efficiency against this team in the regular season, but if the Aces can dial up plays that create one-on-one chances in space for Wilson, a lot of the Sun advantages disappear.
And speaking of disappearing, the biggest thing that the Sun need is for Jonquel Jones to not disappear. There have been some curious usage patterns with her this year — games where she just barely takes shots or games like we saw in the series against the Sky where she comes off the court in crunch time.
Alyssa Thomas is good. She can bully anyone on both ends. But Jonquel Jones is the most skilled player on this Sun team. They have to get her going. Whether it’s letting her shoot to help negate the big shooting advantage that the Aces have or it’s running plays to get her going downhill to the basket, Curt Miller’s got to get the ball in her hands. If they don’t, the Aces win.
Chelsea Gray is the x-factor in the WNBA Finals
The Aces have a clear advantage in the backcourt, so much so that I’m not going to talk about Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum, and I’m not going to talk about Courtney Williams and Natisha Hiedeman. Those players are all good. Williams can make some big shots. Young has shown massive improvement and won Most Improved. Plum would have been in the MVP conversation if A’ja Wilson wasn’t on the Aces.
But this is about Chelsea Gray. She’s had arguably the best postseason in league history. She can’t miss. If the Sun can’t find a way to slow her down, then this series is already over.
Through six playoff games, Gray is averaging 24.0 points per game on 62.6 percent shooting, with a 59.5 percent mark from 3. She has a 75.8 true shooting percentage.
Looking at Across The Timeline’s data explorer, there have been just two instances of a player having a true shooting percentage over 70 while averaging at least 20 points per game in the playoffs (five-game minimum), which was in 2016 when Diana Taurasi averaged 23.6 points on a 71.5 true shooting percentage.
Gray has done that while also dishing out 46 assists in these playoffs. Taurasi had 14 assists in her five-game sample. To put it simply: no one has done what Gray is doing. Taurasi came the closest, but she wasn’t adding the playmaking on top of things.
Chelsea Gray can’t miss right now. And it’s not even like she’s taking a bunch of uncontested shots. Per Synergy, 52 of Gray’s possessions this postseason ended with a dribble jumper, while just 12 ended with a catch-and-shoot, and just three of those catch-and-shoot looks were unguarded. (She is shooting 100 percent on those three attempts, though).
Tough shot-making. Smart passes. If Chelsea Gray does to Connecticut what she’s done all postseason, then congratulations to the 2022 champion Las Vegas Aces.