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Aces focus on defense after disappointing road trip

Aces coach Becky Hammon knows her team doesn’t have the element of surprise anymore.

“Now people have got a little bit of a beat on us,” she said after the Aces’ 91-85 win against the Minnesota Lynx Friday. “So it becomes an execution game — a game of making reads and making the right basketball play.”

The Aces return home Wednesday to play the New York Liberty (8-12) for the first time this season. Tipoff at Michelob Ultra Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m. The Aces are trying to head into this weekend’s All-Star break on a positive note after a recent string of losses has brought them back down to earth.

Through the first 15 games, the Aces (15-6) sprinted out to a 13-2 start. Hammon’s new offensive system befuddled opponents, and the defense, anchored by fifth-year forward A’ja Wilson, also clamped down even without a traditional center when facing teams with more traditional, inside-oriented players.

“We were getting wins just because we were playing so fast,” eighth-year point guard Chelsea Gray said Friday. “People were just like, ‘What do they do? Who do they have?’ We caught some people off guard.”

Even the Aces losses had reasonable explanations. They dropped their first game of the season after a long travel day filled with delays and logistical problems. Their second defeat came after All-Star Jackie Young twisted her ankle and missed most of the fourth quarter against a title-contending Connecticut Sun team.

Since the blistering start, the Aces have struggled. They are just 2-4 in their past six games after Sunday’s 102-71 loss to the Lynx. Fifth-year guard Kelsey Plum, reserve sharpshooter Riquna Williams and Wilson all say the Aces recent slump has been more self-inflicted than caused by external sources.

“It’s on us,” Wilson said. “I don’t think they’ve changed anything. I think we’ve changed. We’ve got to get back to ourselves, get back to the basics, start from square one and keep it moving.

“It’s a long season. We’ve got time.”

Gray, Wilson and Williams say the team’s approach on defense has been the biggest factor in their recent losses.

Wilson said there’s been a lull in energy compared to the Aces’ efforts early in the season. Gray consistently emphasizes how important the team’s ability to force live-ball stops is to their offense, creating transition opportunities against disorganized defenses.

Williams, now in her 10th WNBA season, said the Aces just need an opportunity to regroup, something they’ll get with the upcoming All-Star break.

“We’re trying to focus more on what we can do and how we can be better,” she said.

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

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