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Basketball

How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Aces?

The Wings' prize for winning a playoff series is squaring off with one of the most dominant teams in WNBA history. Here's the blueprint for a possible upset.
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Two-time MVP A'ja Wilson is just one of several Aces who can give Dallas fits. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Wings just won a playoff series for the first time since the team moved to Arlington. Their reward? A meeting with a Las Vegas Aces group that’s coming off of a historically good regular season.

What does “historically good” mean? Let’s look at some numbers real quick. The 2023 Aces finished the season with a net rating of +15.7, which means the team was 15.7 points per 100 possessions better than its opponents. That’s the third-best mark in league history, behind only the 1998 and 2000 Houston Comets. Those Comet teams, led by legends Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper, are widely regarded as the best the W’s ever seen. And on offense, the Aces were even better than them. Las Vegas finished with the highest offensive rating in league history this season, scoring 111.5 points per 100 possessions. 

Don’t let those offensive numbers fool you into believing Vegas wins only with offense. The defense didn’t post numbers that rank up with the top units in league history, but part of that is because offenses are better now. For example, of the 10 best seasons by defensive rating, only one came after 2002. What the Aces defense did do was lead the WNBA in defensive rating this season, allowing 95.8 points per 100 possessions. 

So, one team had the league’s best offense and the league’s best defense. That’s happened only six times before, and Vegas is the first to do it since the 2017 Lynx.

Like I said, historically good.

That’s what the Wings are up against as they try to reach the WNBA Finals for the first time since the team relocated to North Texas. 

And Dallas knows firsthand how good Vegas is. The two teams met four times in the regular season, with Vegas winning three of those games, including a 20-point victory the last time these teams squared off, in August. But Dallas also figured out how to slow Vegas down in two of those four games, picking up an 80-78 win on July 7, two days after they played Vegas close and lost 89-82.

That said, it’s hard to really draw too much from those early July games. That Aces team still had Candace Parker, who fractured her foot in the loss to the Wings and hasn’t played since. Teaira McCowan was able to make a big impact up front in that one, scoring 14 points and pulling down 12 rebounds. The Wings were a +13 with McCowan on the floor, while the Aces were a -9 with Parker on. Parker’s absence has led to Kiah Stokes taking over as the team’s center. On paper, that should make it easier for teams to take down the Aces. And, well, it has, even if that didn’t translate to wins for Dallas in its two post-CP3 meetings with Vegas, with the Aces scoring over 100 points in both contests.

With that said, Stokes had the lowest plus/minus of the Aces starters in the July and August meetings with the Wings. That means Dallas’ first step toward pulling an upset is attacking her with McCowan early and often when she’s on the floor. That strategy won’t fly when Vegas deploys two-time MVP and newly minted two-time Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson at the five and surrounds her with four shooters; McCowan isn’t mobile enough defensively to keep pace with that lineup. But when Stokes is out there, Dallas has an advantage in the middle.

One matchup won’t win the series, of course. But defense could. Vegas just enjoyed the best regular season ever offensively; the team was 31-0 when scoring at least 86 points. In addition to Wilson, the team has arguably the best point guard in the league, Chelsea Gray, plus two former No. 1 overall picks, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum. The former has developed into one of the league’s best shooters over the last two seasons. The latter is capable of getting hot and taking over games.

So if the Wings think they’ll be able to win a shootout, they’re wrong. Teams don’t beat Vegas in a game like that. Even if you buy into the notion that Dallas’ offense is peaking at the right time—over the last 10 games of the season, the Wings were second in the league in offensive rating at 112.2, while Vegas was third at 109.2—it won’t matter if the Wings defense can’t get stops. And they haven’t lately. Over the final 15 games of the season, Dallas ranked 11th out of 12 teams in defensive rating. 

Still, defeating the Aces looks more doable now than it did earlier in the year. Vegas may have only lost six games, but half of them came over the final 10 games. And of those three losses, two came in games that became low-scoring slogs. (The other was to the Liberty, with the Aces scoring 85 points, the highest point total all year for the team in a losing effort.)

It’s on coach Latricia Trammell to figure something out defensively, because that’s how you beat the Aces. You apply pressure. You jump the passing lanes. When the Mystics defeated them on August 26, the team finished with eight steals, and Vegas committed 17 turnovers overall. The Wings have to disrupt the Vegas offense, and, in theory, they have the personnel for that, too. Natasha Howard is a former Defensive Player of the Year. Satou Sabally has the ability to be an elite 3-and-D wing.

One thing Dallas might try to help slow down Vegas is playing Awak Kuier more. If the Aces go small, Kuier’s athleticism makes her an intriguing matchup on Wilson. She played 19 minutes in Game 2 against the Dream, recording two steals and three blocks. Her energy could be crucial in this series.

So: establish McCowan in the post. Agitate on defense. Get Arike Ogunbowale cooking on offense, since her jumper will go a long way toward deciding whether Dallas wins any playoff series. And then, if we’re being honest, hope Wilson goes cold, because she’s perhaps the scariest offensive threat in the game, shooting 71 percent in the restricted area and pairing that with 53.4 percent shooting on mid-range attempts. There were 15 players to take at least two field goal attempts per game both at the basket and from the mid-range. Of those 15, Wilson ranks third in field goal percentage at the rim and first in field goal percentage in the mid-range.

Got all that? Defeating Vegas is a tall task, and it won’t be an indictment of the Wings or their season if they can’t accomplish it. As Mike Piellucci wrote on Wednesday, “The Wings are better than they ever have been.” Losing to arguably the greatest non-Comets team of all time won’t change that. But beating them will change how we view Dallas’ season. It was already a success, but a trip to the WNBA Finals can redefine what this franchise is and, more important, what it can be going forward. 

The Wings’ second-round series against the Las Vegas Aces tips off Sunday at 4:00 p.m. Game 1 will be broadcast on ESPN 2

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