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Gordon: Hammon says Aces poised for postseason run

The Aces won 12 of their final 15 games — including the Commissioner’s Cup championship — to clinch the No. 1 seed in the WNBA playoffs. Their offense (111.9 points per 100 possessions) is the best in the league, and they’re defending better than ever after a stretch of apathy ignited a mid-season swoon.

But Becky Hammon still isn’t comfortable.

“You never feel comfortable,” the first-year coach explained Tuesday after practice at Michelob Ultra Arena. “Because you’ve been in enough situations, I’ve seen enough basketball games, where the best team doesn’t always win. … We (need to) do what we’re supposed to do and impose our will and fingerprint on the game. We don’t want to come in being reactionary, on offense or defense.”

That is the message Hammon has preached all season and it didn’t change one iota on the eve of Aces’ Wednesday playoff opener against the Phoenix Mercury. The Aces were the best team this season and they will win — if they deploy their free-flowing, unselfish offense and defend with enthusiasm.

Don’t mistake Hammon’s discomfort for doubt.

“I have the utmost confidence in my team,” Hammon said. “It’s about being in the moment and finishing and letting those past experiences and those tools that you’ve learned and the toughness that you’ve learned affect this moment right now.”

‘Harder to scout’

The Aces probably should have won the 2021 championship, boasting the first team ever with seven double-figure scorers and depth in the frontcourt and on the perimeter.

A heartbreaking Game 5 loss to the Mercury in the semifinals necessitated change.

A heartbreaking loss necessitated the arrival of Hammon after eight years with the San Antonio Spurs under five-time NBA champion Gregg Popovich.

She didn’t need to reinvent a wheel powered by All-Stars like A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Dearica Hamby. A little rejiggering, though, should make the Aces harder to prepare for in the playoffs and underscores the merit of her hiring.

Last year’s group was big and talented, but rigid and predictable, playing primarily through the post under Bill Laimbeer, three times a WNBA championship coach. Hammon this year has empowered her guards more by employing a five-out system that often features Wilson, one of the league’s low-post players, beyond the 3-point line.

“We’re harder to scout,” said Aces point guard Chelsea Gray, a WNBA champion in 2016 and the only one on the roster. “When you get to the playoffs, everybody’s kind of doing the same thing. … But our sets are so fluid offensively that it makes us so much harder to scout a lot of the time.”

Hammon is just as apt to adjust defensively, employing a variety of schemes in a game, quarter or sequence. The Aces may switch defenders on one ball-screen action or chase ball handlers around screens on another.

“You’re not really sure what you’re going to get all the time offensively and defensively as an opponent,” Gray said.

‘An open dialogue’

But the Aces know exactly what they’re going to get from their head coach. Someone who’s competitive and passionate, flexible and adaptable. Willing to talk through things with her players — and equally willing to listen.

“It’s an open dialogue. That’s how we’ve been communicating. Things that I’ve seen, I’ll tell her and she’s like ‘Let’s go with that,’” Gray said. “We’re able to joke, but at the same time, like, we know she means business and wants the best for us and wants to win.”

Hammon doesn’t just want the Aces to win — she feels like they should. Again, don’t mistake her discomfort for doubt. She didn’t move to Las Vegas to lose in another Game 5.

“We want to make sure we get to back to where we want to be and where we believe we should be.”

With a championship?

“A championship,” she said with a smile. “That’s the goal.”

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

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