weather icon Cloudy

Regular season sacrifice prepares Aces for playoff success

The Aces concluded the regular season Sunday with a 24-8 record, the WNBA’s No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense. Yet they didn’t voice any satisfaction after their 84-83 road victory over the Phoenix Mercury.

Their goals are far greater than regular-season glory.

“It was a great season. Proud of everyone,” Las Vegas guard Kelsey Plum said sternly, moments after the regular season concluded. “But we’re putting that behind us. We’re focusing on this next series.”

The Aces earned the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and thus have secured a double bye into the WNBA semifinals, which begin for them on Sept. 28 at Michelob Ultra Arena. The favorable positioning is simply a reward for their play this summer that culminated with an historic achievement.

In finishing the season Sunday, the Aces became the first WNBA team to have seven players to average double figures in scoring — a tangible reflection of their talent and depth. The previous record was five.

The new mark highlights the intangible component that’s fueled their success up to this point.

“Players sacrificing this year had to be a given,” Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer. “Sacrifice is what’s made this happen. I don’t think it’ll happen again in a 40-minute game. … This is what we did. This is how we play. This is how we’re successful.”

Plum made a point last week to highlight several players who have made sacrifices this season, essentially rattling off the entire roster. forward A’ja Wilson (18.3 points per game), the reigning MVP, ceded shots and scoring opportunities to the remainder of the lineup.

Frontcourt mate Liz Cambage (14.2) is a former scoring champion who opted to focus on defense and rebounding. She attempted 10.3 shots per game — her fewest since her second WNBA season of 2013 — while anchoring a dominant defense.

Point guard Chelsea Gray (11.1) also attempted her fewest shots per game since 2016. She was content running the show and involving others en route to a career-high 5.9 assists per game.

Plum (14.8) and Dearica Hamby (11.6) form the league’s best bench tandem, though they’d likely start on every other team in the league.

“Some players say they want to win, but if they actually want to win, they’re actually willing to do certain things that maybe (aren’t) in their selfish, best interests,” Plum said. “Everyone’s sacrificed,” including Jackie Young (12.2), a former No. 1 overall pick who slashes and defends instead of hunting for her shot.

And Riquna Williams (10.5), who once eclipsed the 50-point mark in a game but emerged this year as the team’s top perimeter defender.

“There’s a lot of different people who sacrifice and bite their tongue,” Plum added, “because we want to win.”

They’ve certainly won this year, and in a variety of ways as well, foreshadowing the challenge they’ll present their opponents in the postseason. Their frontcourt is among the most dominant in league history, allowing for efficient, measured play in halfcourt situations.

They boast multiple shot creators and ball handlers on the perimeter, along with physical, speedy wings who are dynamic in transition.

“We know the focus is ‘Defense wins game,’” Williams said. “If we lock up and defend, our offense can run.”

The sacrifices help the Aces lead the league in scoring (89.3) while averaging 109.3 points per 100 possessions to top the WNBA in offensive efficiency. They allowed 98 per 100 possessions, second to only the No. 1 seed Connecticut Sun, and led the league in rebounding (38.6) and field-goal percentage (47.2).

But Laimbeer knows it’s all for naught if they don’t win the final game they play.

“We haven’t won anything yet. We know where we’re at. We know what’s in front of us,” Laimbeer said. “A lot of people got a lot of opportunity this year to show who they are. … Everybody got to share the wealth. Now it’s about, ‘Let’s go make plays and win basketball games.’”

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

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.