LAS VEGAS — The W.N.B.A. finals have many compelling story lines: two franchises, and two coaches, looking for their first title; a high-powered offense taking on a stingy defense.
But those story lines faded into the background Sunday afternoon, and it quickly became A’ja Wilson’s day as she led the Las Vegas Aces to a 67-64 victory over the Connecticut Sun in Game 1.
Before the game, Wilson received this year’s Most Valuable Player Award at halfcourt with her family and the league’s commissioner by her side. The M.V.P. honor was the second of her career, making her the seventh player in the W.N.B.A.’s 26 seasons to win the award more than once. As the public-address announcer called out the Aces starters’ names, Wilson ran out, high-fiving teammates amid the loudest roars for any player.
Then, when the game began, she got to the basket with ease, missing only one shot on the way to 12 first-quarter points. The Aces ended the first quarter leading by 8 points, then were buoyed throughout the game by Wilson’s dominant play. She met the moment with 24 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks and 2 steals. Game 2 of the best-of-five series is scheduled for Tuesday in Las Vegas.
“She can score the ball, ultimately,” Sun center Jonquel Jones said of Wilson, with a laugh. “She’s able to score on different levels. I think that’s a tough challenge. She’s attacking the rim really aggressively right now. So it’s tough.”
Aces guard Chelsea Gray added 21 points, and Alyssa Thomas led the Sun with a double-double of 19 points and 11 rebounds. Las Vegas’s win came on one of its worst offensive nights of the year, with the team’s lowest point total of both the regular season and playoffs. And Aces guard Kelsey Plum, who averaged 20.2 points per game in the regular season, struggled with just 6 points on 1-of-9 shooting.
“Credit to their defense, and give credit to us for missing,” Aces Coach Becky Hammon said with a smile.
Despite the loss, Coach Curt Miller and the Sun players did not seem dejected afterward, as some teams would be after losing a W.N.B.A. finals game. Miller said he was “really pleased” with how the Sun dictated the style of play to one that they were more comfortable with, forcing the league’s highest-scoring offense to struggle to find baskets. The Sun lost by a close margin despite shooting only five free throws to the Aces’ 19.
“Ultimately, I’m happy with the game that we played,” Jones said, “and we gave ourselves a good opportunity to come out there and get a win. And it just didn’t go our way, but we’re excited about Game 2.”
But the Aces were looking at the game from a similar perspective. They held the Sun to their lowest scoring total of the playoffs and, even while playing arguably their worst offensive game of the season, they still won.
“We do take a lot of pride in getting it done on the defensive side because that’s the most important side,” Wilson said. “They can hold us to however many; we have to also hold them down as well. So if we can play on both sides of the basketball and execute on the defensive end, I got us all the way.”
Two years ago, Wilson won her first M.V.P. Award, leading the Aces to their first finals appearance since moving to Las Vegas in 2018 and the franchise’s second overall. But Wilson and the Aces quickly looked like a team unprepared for the moment, as the Seattle Storm beat them by double digits in each game, including a 33-point drubbing in Game 3 to win the 2020 title. Wilson said that they were “happy to be there” in 2020 but that now they were less overwhelmed by the aura of the finals and more focused on the basketball.
“We know that feeling,” Wilson said. “It sucks getting swept. It’s the worst thing ever, but that’s the chip on your shoulder. That’s the fire. That’s the grind that you want to say, ‘I don’t want to get swept anymore. I don’t even want to have a gentleman sweep.’ You want to go out there and play for your teammates because you felt the way that you felt in 2020, and you hate it.”
On Sunday, the Aces showed their evolution in the two years since that finals appearance. After the Aces’ strong first quarter, the Sun responded by slowing the game down and using their physicality and height to make scoring arduous. The Sun outscored Las Vegas in the second quarter, 21-9, to take a 4-point lead into halftime.
Hammon was furious in the locker room at halftime, more “lit” than she had ever been this season, she said, because “everything we talked about, we didn’t do any of it.”
“I don’t even yell in my real life,” Hammon said, adding: “But when you go out there, and you don’t execute, it’s frustrating, but at the end of the day, they know it, OK. They’re smart, they get it. But they beat us in every hustle category. And that can’t happen. You can’t lose a championship or a game or quarter on hustle — that can never be the case.”
Gray and Wilson began shaking their heads and laughing before they were even finished being asked to share what Hammon had said to the team.
“We cannot. It is unedited. We got children watching,” Gray said with a smile, as Wilson laughed next to her, nearly uncontrollably shaking her head. “But she was just on us to play our style defensively. We were letting them get offensive rebounds, easy scores, turning over the ball,” Gray added. “That’s the edited version. I can’t give you everything.”
But the Aces had been in that position before during these playoffs. In their semifinal series win against the Seattle Storm, nearly every game featured dramatic lead changes and comebacks. Hammon said the Aces’ ability to “take a punch” in that series was significant.
And it showed Sunday as the Aces reclaimed the lead in the second half and held on, despite a furious rally from Connecticut down the stretch. The Aces found a way to beat the Sun at their own style of basketball to move closer to their first title.
“Tonight we struggled a little bit, and we’ll be better Game 2,” Hammon said. “I already know what we’re going to do. My mind is reeling.”