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Bigs to do battle as Aces face Mercury in WNBA semifinals

The Aces concluded training camp in May. Liz Cambage concluded it last week.

“That’s how it’s been feeling,” said the All-Star center, who returned last week to practice amid her recovery from COVID-19 in advance of the WNBA semifinals. “It’s been nice to be back on the court and with the girls.

“Playoff time, baby.”

The playoffs finally begin on Tuesday for the Aces. They earned a double bye as the WNBA’s No. 2 seed and an automatic berth in the best-of-five semifinals opposite the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury, a matchup that features Cambage and Mercury center Brittney Griner, two of the WNBA’s most dominant post players.

Cambage missed five of the final six games of the regular season with the virus, returning only for the Sept. 19 finale against the Mercury after Las Vegas had already secured its seeding.

She played a mere 10 minutes and spent the ensuing week ramping up her cardiovascular activity. But her health is paramount throughout the course of the postseason and in this matchup opposite Griner, who, like Cambage, is a perennial All-Star.

Cambage often talks before such matchups about the enjoyment she gets from playing against another elite player like Griner. But on Monday, she was concise.

“It’s going to be fun,” she said, flashing a smile.

Cambage and Griner have shared the floor 11 times in the WNBA. Cambage has averaged 15.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks across those matchups, Griner 18.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.

They’re the two tallest active players in the league: Cambage stands 6 feet, 8 inches and Griner 6-9. Both serve as the defensive anchors for their respective teams, protecting the rim and deterring drives by simply standing near the basket.

Both also score primarily in the low post, and Aces coach Bill Laimbeer is counting on Cambage to defend Griner — and score effectively against her when given the opportunity.

“I expect her to be Liz Cambage,” Laimbeer said. “Nothing special. Whatever amount of energy she can give us. … we’re just going to play it how it goes.”

To that point, Laimbeer said he isn’t sure how much Cambage is going to play early in the series as she acclimates to the pace of playoff basketball.

“The COVID thing took a lot out of her,” he said, adding that he believes she can be most effective in three- or four-minute spurts. There won’t be a minutes limit, per se.

“I’ve got to manage it pretty intensely,” Laimbeer said. “But we’re both on the same page.”

Reserve center Kiah Stokes could play a key role, just as she did during Cambage’s absence — averaging 8.9 rebounds while starting the final seven games.

“We got her for emergencies and to see what happens in the playoffs,” Laimbeer said. “She’s a very, smart professional basketball player. … We have a solid post team. We can throw out any combination.”

Of course, this series is about so much more than the centers, with both teams boasting dynamic lineups comprised of No. 1 overall picks, Olympians and All-Stars. Phoenix’s backcourt of Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith is among the most potent in the WNBA and helped power the Mercury to the league’s No. 3 offensive rating.

Role players like Kia Nurse and Brianna Turner round out the lineup, adding shooting and interior defense, respectively.

“It’s win-or-go-home type of mentality. It’s not like ‘Ah, I’ll get them next time,’” said Aces point guard Chelsea Gray, the only player on the roster with a championship ring. “The intensity picks up. Adjusting from Game 1 to Game 2 is huge, and getting into a series is very, very important. I like our chances.”

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

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