Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault has long admired Aces shooting guard Kayla McBride. So much so that he tried to trade up in the 2014 WNBA draft to acquire the eventual three-time All-Star and one of the best players in the league.
But she was drafted No. 3 overall by the San Antonio Stars. So now he finds himself scheming against her in Las Vegas during the WNBA semifinals and learning just how challenging that can be.
McBride has returned to All-Star form during the postseason, averaging 15.5 points on 51.4 percent shooting, including 50 percent from 3-point range. Her efficient play on the perimeter provides the spacing that allows teammates Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson to dominate the Mystics near the basket.
Cambage and Wilson are the focal point of the team’s offense, especially against Washington’s smaller interior. But McBride generated 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a 92-75 Game win on Sunday. She made a decisive 3-pointer to detonate a crucial 20-6 run in the second quarter.
“(She) kind of got away from us a little bit yesterday,” Thibault said Monday. “She’s a talented player.”
The Aces still trail 2-1 in the best-of-five series, with Game 4 set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Mandalay Bay Events Center.
In the first 19 games of the regular season, McBride averaged 15.2 points on 47.6 percent shooting, including 47.4 percent from behind the parabola. But the fatigue of playing year round caught up to her after the All-Star break, and her production dwindled over the final 15 games.
She averaged 11 points over that stretch on 35.5 percent shooting, Las Vegas lost four of its last six games and settled for the No. 4 seed in the WNBA playoffs after vying most of the year for a top-two seed.
But the Aces still had a week to rest between the regular season and their playoff opener, and playoffs are “another season,” said Aces assistant coach Vickie Johnson, who has coached McBride since her rookie year.
“You learn in the regular season, and you carry over what you’ve learned about Washington or whoever,” she added, “and about yourself as well.”
McBride, for one, learned how to play off the tandem of Cambage and Wilson, All-Star post players who demand considerable attention from opposing defenders. The two have collapsed Washington’s defense, leaving her open for 3-pointers and creating driving lanes on the weak side of the floor.
The threat of her 3-point shot helps Cambage and Wilson as well, loosening up the interior to give them room to operate inside. McBride is also a tremendous screener who focuses on setting flush picks that open her teammates.
“She’s doing what she’s supposed to do,” Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said. “They’re not going to leave her very often. If you leave her, she’s going to stand on the 3-ball line, making 3-balls. … That’s how we’re structured.”
McBride hadn’t played in the WNBA postseason since 2014 and is relishing the opportunity to compete against the Mystics in the semifinals. She spoke throughout the year about the importance of sustainable winning and is among the most competitive players on the team.
So far, the playoffs are everything she’d hoped for.
“I love these moments. This is where all the work, the empty gyms, they lead up to this moment,” McBride said. “A full (arena), being able to compete against one of the best teams in the world. There’s nothing like it.”
Who: Washington Mystics at Aces
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Mandalay Bay Events Center
Radio: KWWN (100.3 FM, 1100 AM)
Tickets: Starting at $30 on axs.com
Line: Mystics -3
About the Aces (21-13): Liz Cambage had 28 points and A’Ja Wilson had 21 on Sunday. They combined to shoot 20 of 29 from the field.
About the Mystics (26-8): Elena Delle Donne had 22 points on Sunday to finish as the only starter in double figures. Washington shot 38.7 percent from the field.