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Graney: Ultra-talented Aces can be great with better defense

It doesn’t have to work for 40 minutes. Doesn’t have to be the prettiest of basketball for four quarters.

When things are going well for the Aces, small stretches can be enough. That’s how much skill they have.

How much firepower can suddenly rear its talented head.

It did so again against Phoenix on Saturday — was this the 30th or just third time these two have met this season? — before 5,572 at Michelob Ultra Arena and a nationally televised audience.

The Aces would win 100-80 on a day when garbage time began with about seven minutes remaining, proving how in control Las Vegas was and that it actually does have a bench of reserves.

Who knew?

“It’s not about the score,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “It’s about us playing the right way, whether it’s offensively or defensively. The right way is to make the right basketball play in the moment. Luckily, these girls let me coach them. I have a locker room full of competitors.”

A suffocating measure

They are 6-1, and three of the victories have come against Phoenix, which certainly won’t argue the fact that the teams aren’t scheduled to meet again in the regular season. Only so much punishment one side can endure, no?

When it’s working for the Aces — 3-pointers falling, drives off the dribble converting, transition baskets scoring — it can be a suffocating measure by which to defend. The Mercury drowned in it. They couldn’t keep up.

Things pretty much ended in the first four minutes of the third quarter.

How it occurred for the Aces …

Kelsey Plum 3.

Plum 3.

Chelsea Gray two free throws.

Gray basket.

Plum basket.

A’ja Wilson free throw.

Dearica Hamby 3.

It all equaled a 16-3 run and 60-49 lead.

The Aces would outscore Phoenix 38-18 in the 10 minutes, the most points scored in one quarter in franchise history.

Just suffocating.

“We were a little complacent in the first half,” Plum said. “We needed to get in a rhythm and get going.”

Doesn’t always happen. The Aces made just 2 of 9 on 3s in the first half but still led by two points. They’re good but certainly not great defensively, still at times allowing far too many middle drives and inside scores.

But such can be countered with the benefit of a 5-out offense, when jumpers aren’t falling at one end and an opponent is getting its way at the other. Driving lanes open, and players like Plum (season-high 24 points) and Jackie Young (20 on 6-of-13 shooting) are good enough to take advantage, as they did Saturday.

It’s just that their coach still cares a whole lot about limiting others.

“It’s still about getting stops,” Hammon said. “It’s demanding what we are asking them to do defensively.”

Relentless expectations

This is why they have an opportunity to win a championship: Hammon isn’t concerned with just having the most talent, which her team seems to possess.

She’s relentless in her expectations. She corrects as much as she cheers. OK, so she corrects more. She doesn’t allow one player — no matter her resume — to settle. She won’t get caught up one bit in 6-1.

A certain midcourt spectator approves of such a mindset.

“I really think they’re coming together and learning the type of game Becky wants to play,” Aces owner Mark Davis said. “Lots different than how we used to play. I like this style of spreading the floor.

“I’m still learning, still watching, but it definitely looks like Becky has their attention when she’s running the huddle. She’s hands on, and I like that.”

There’s much to like. The Aces can reel off runs that essentially end games. They’re really good.

They’re a lot more consistent defensively away from being great.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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