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Aces destroyed Liberty in 1st meeting, but much has changed

The most recent meeting between the Aces and New York Liberty, the WNBA’s two best teams, resulted in nothing short of domination.

Led by one of their most balanced scoring outings of the season, the Aces breezed to a 98-81 win June 29 at Michelob Ultra Arena. All five starters scored in double figures. Coach Becky Hammon’s team assisted on 32 of its 40 made field goals, forced the Liberty into 17 turnovers and at one point led by 27.

Both teams have changed significantly in the intervening 38 days.

“Our camaraderie and chemistry is a little different,” said All-Star point guard Chelsea Gray, who had 14 points, six assists and three steals against the Liberty. “We’re getting more familiar playing with each other.”

The Aces (24-2) and Liberty (21-6) face off for the second time this season at noon Sunday, this time at the Barclays Center in New York.

The biggest difference for the Aces is the absence of Candace Parker. The two-time MVP, out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on a fracture in her left foot July 24, played one of her best games of the season against the Liberty.

Parker scored 15 points on 50 percent shooting and went 3-for-4 from 3. She also had six rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block to finish plus-21 in just 24 minutes.

The Aces won’t have any of that help this time around against New York.

“Every team is going to be different,” Gray said. “Rotations are different than they were before, so I’m excited for it.”

Of course, Parker’s absence is nothing new. The Aces have won all eight games they’ve played without their prized offseason acquisition, who hasn’t played since July 7.

Gray praised the play of forward Kiah Stokes, Parker’s replacement in the starting lineup, and wing Alysha Clark, whose defensive versatility has allowed the Aces to continue piling up wins.

Both players played big minutes in the previous game against the Liberty. Stokes scored seven points and was perfect from the floor to go along with five rebounds. Clark added nine points on 50 percent shooting to go along with two rebounds, two steals and an assist.

Stokes was plus-9 in just under 18 minutes, while Clark was plus-7 in more than 20 minutes. The other Aces reserves were each minus-9. Stokes and Clark are each averaging around 22 minutes per game without Parker in the lineup.

“Defensively, we’ve thrown a lot of things at (Clark),” Gray said. “Whether she’s switching, whether she’s acting like a post or acting like a guard, I think that’s a difference as well. That’s a difference versus New York this time. And Kiah’s in the game a lot more. … She’s cleaning up the glass.”

The Aces’ new-look rotation isn’t the only thing that’s different. New York has won seven of its past eight games, in large part because of the resurgence of Jonquel Jones.

The 2021 WNBA MVP was named Eastern Conference player of the week July 25 after averaging 18.7 points on 63.6 percent shooting with 10.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Jones scored a season-high 27 against the Washington Mystics on July 21 and has only been held to single digits twice since July 12.

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

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