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3 takeaways from Aces’ win: Domination as season hits midway point

Tuesday marked a milestone in the Aces’ campaign to become the first team to repeat as WNBA champions in two decades.

Their 98-72 win against the Phoenix Mercury was the Aces’ 20th matchup of their 40-game season. They still have one more game before the All-Star break, but coach Becky Hammon’s team has passed the halfway point of its season.

Asked to evaluate the campaign so far, reigning MVP A’ja Wilson praised the group’s defensive growth, but said there’s still room for improvement.

“I don’t think we’re at our peak of playing our best basketball,” Wilson said.

The Aces (18-2) breezed past the Mercury (4-15) on Tuesday at Michelob Ultra Arena. The sold-out game drew a franchise-record 10,281 fans, which included NBA stars in Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George, Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell, as well as Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.

All-Star wing Jackie Young led all scorers with 23 points and had six assists, All-Star guard Chelsea Gray had 21 points and 11 assists, and Wilson poured in 20 points on 64 percent shooting. Veteran center Kiah Stokes, starting in place of the injured Candace Parker, scored seven points and grabbed four rebounds.

The Aces extended their home winning streak to 16 games. They also broke the 90-point threshold for the 15th time this season.

Reserve forward Michaela Onyenwere led the Mercury with 18 points in 23 minutes. All-Star Brittney Griner was held to 13 points. Young and Gray by themselves outscored the Mercury starters by seven points.

The Aces play the Los Angeles Sparks at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles before the All-Star break.

Three takeaways from the Aces’ win:

1. All-Star backcourt shines

Young led the team in scoring, but the Aces’ All-Star backcourt of Gray and Kelsey Plum put in another strong performance.

The guards, who were announced Tuesday as teammates for Friday’s All-Star skills challenge, combined for 38 points and 15 assists while shooting 48 percent from the floor. Plum, coming off her franchise-record 40-point game Sunday, was also 4-for-4 from the free-throw line.

2. Second-quarter lockdown

The Aces entered the second quarter leading by only four points despite a strong start on offense. By the time halftime arrived, they were ahead by 18, thanks in large part to their defense.

The Aces held Phoenix to just 12 points in the second quarter. The Mercury shot 25 percent, went 1-for-6 from 3-point range and committed four turnovers. Young scored 10 points in the quarter, almost equaling Phoenix’s entire roster.

“We were just up,” Gray said. “Being the aggressors defensively is always important, and we were able to rebound and run. When we’re able to set our defense, we’re really hard to score against.”

3. Attacking the paint

The Aces were already leading by almost 30 when they started making their 3s. They went just 1 of 5 from 3 in the first half. Their first two shots from beyond the arc were made by centers Cayla George and Stokes.

Instead, the Aces built their lead by attacking the basket. They outscored Phoenix 50-32 in the paint and shot 57.4 percent on two-point field goals. Wilson, in particular, had success in the midrange. Hammon also said her team did a good job cutting when Phoenix went to a zone defense.

“We were able to get downhill in the first half,” Hammon said. “You loosen up the defense a little bit, and then the 3s start going.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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