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Aces face win-or-go-home Game 5 against Phoenix Mercury

Updated October 7, 2021 - 6:24 pm

Bill Laimbeer certainly didn’t celebrate Wednesday night after the Aces forced a Game 5 with a 93-76 road victory over the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA semifinals.

In fact, he hardly smiled.

“We haven’t won anything,” the coach said said. “It’s 2-2. We’re where we’re supposed to be. We played the whole regular season to play (Game 5) at home. They had their chance tonight. We’ll have the chance to win the series on Friday night. Let’s go throw the ball up and see what happens.”

Las Vegas can advance to the WNBA Finals for the second straight season with a win Friday at Michelob Ultra Arena. Here are three keys to victory against a veteran Phoenix squad.

Slow Brittney Griner

Obvious, right? But easier said than done.

In the first three games of the series, Phoenix’s All-World center averaged 23.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.0 blocks while shooting 61 percent from the floor. The lane on both ends belonged to her, and she posted or pick-and-popped her way to easy baskets on offense and protected the rim on defense.

But the Aces were much more physical guarding her Wednesday and held her to 13 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Sure, she missed some shots that she would normally make. But Aces centers Liz Cambage and Kiah Stokes battled with her early in possessions to prevent her from catching the ball deep in the lane.

Dearica Hamby and A’ja Wilson also guarded Griner on occasion.

Drop-step layups turned into contested hook shots, and the Aces finally won the battle of the boards (37-35) to ignite their offense on the other end.

“Because (Griner) is so good, you have to do your work as early as you can,” said Aces guard Kelsey Plum. “It’s one of those things where maybe it’s not instant success, but throughout the game, it helps.”

Play with pace

Phoenix is preparing for its seventh game in 15 days, and fatigue is bound to set in at some point amid the travel as well. Starting wing Kia Nurse is out with a right knee injury and top reserve Sophie Cunningham is questionable with a left calf strain.

The Aces are younger, deeper and prefer to play faster anyway — averaging a league-high 80.8 possessions per game during the regular season.

A breakneck pace could serve to further fatigue their foes and create scoring opportunities in transition and in the halfcourt.

“Fast turnaround for both teams,” Laimbeer said. “I’m sure fatigue is going to be a part of the situation. Hopefully our depth with shine forward for us.”

Unleash Chelsea Gray

Games like this are why the Aces signed Gray away from the Los Angeles Sparks in February. She was in total control of their offense Wednesday night, finishing with 22 points and six assists.

As a three-level scorer with rare court vision, poise and moxie, Gray has all the tools to dissect any kind of pick-and-roll coverage and the scoring skills to punish any defender.

When she plays well, so, too, do the Aces. She relishes the pressure of win-or-go-home games.

“Just be the aggressor on both ends of the floor, offensively and defensively,” Gray said of the team’s Game 4 approach. “Offensively, (we got into) the paint. Just played a lot better off of each other.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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