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Gordon: Aces win opener by beating Sun at their own game

The Connecticut Sun played Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday at Michelob Ultra Arena exactly the way coach Curt Miller preferred.

At a pace designed to disrupt the Aces’ style of play. With the physicality that could fatigue their smaller lineup.

“We did so much that we wanted to accomplish defensively,” Miller said. “Got the game and style of play we were hoping for.”

And lost, anyway.

Turns out the Aces aren’t just an offensive juggernaut. They can win rock fights, too, beating Connecticut at its own game 67-64 to claim the first WNBA Finals victory in franchise history and move two wins from their first title.

Their 67 points are the fewest they’ve scored in a game this season, and their 39.7 shooting percentage is their second worst in a victory.

Inconsequential, though, when holding the Sun to 37.8 percent shooting and 64 points — one more than their season low.

“Coming into training camp, (coach) Becky (Hammon) really put a lot of emphasis on defense and rebounding,” Aces forward A’ja Wilson said after another stellar outing, this one complete with 24 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and two steals.

“She said, ‘That’s going to be us. That’s going to be our identity.’ ”

An off night offensively

Except it wasn’t their identity.

That was rooted instead in the spread pick-and-roll scheme that galvanized the WNBA’s most explosive offense.

The one installed at the beginning of the season by Hammon, designed to maximize an All-Star team loaded with great guards around Wilson — and nullified Sunday by an excellent defensive game plan designed by Miller and his coaching staff.

Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman hounded Aces point guard Chelsea Gray all the way up the floor, forcing six turnovers and preventing her from manipulating every possession the way she did in the semifinals against the Seattle Storm.

Forwards Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones were physical inside with Wilson, offering the requisite help when Gray, Jackie Young or Kelsey Plum decided to drive.

Driving lanes disappeared. Open shots seemed unavailable.

The Aces scored nine points in the second quarter en route to a 38-34 halftime deficit and a spirited lecture from Hammon.

“I was lit,” said Hammon, drawing a chorus of laughs from reporters. “Everything we’d talked about, we didn’t do any of it. True to form, they just step up and do it then.”

Aces respond

What she asked is that they defend. That they match the physicality with which the Sun play and use their defense to buoy an ailing offense.

With Wilson, the Defensive Player of the Year, in the middle, clogging the lane and deterring drives, the Aces held Connecticut to 26 second-half points on 11-of-32 shooting — including 27.8 percent in the fourth quarter.

Aces guards denied drives, forcing ballhandlers toward the sideline or into Wilson, who blocked three shots in the final quarter. Hammon elected to unearth the zone defense she shelved against the Storm, encouraging long, errant jumpers.

Gray’s clutchest play wasn’t an assist or a basket, but a charge she took in the final minute to protect a five-point lead.

“If we can get stops and play out of it, it’s us, it’s who we are,” Wilson said. “A lot of people may not talk about us on the defensive end, but we’ve come a very long way.”

That they have, considering they finished the regular season ranked sixth of 12 teams in defensive rating. They ranked first in offensive rating, though, and it’s unlikely they struggle again to the same degree Tuesday in Game 2.

But if they do, they’ve proven they can win another way.

“It felt like we had to get punched in the face before we reacted,” Hammon said. “That’s a team that at the end of the day, they play so hard the entire game. They’re relentless.”

So are the Aces.

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

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