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Gordon: Pressure fuels Becky Hammon as she seeks 1st WNBA title

Becky Hammon feels the void on her right middle finger, the one reserved for the WNBA championship ring she hasn’t won.

Yet.

She played for a championship in 2008. Will coach the Aces for another beginning Sunday at Michelob Ultra Arena.

Precisely why she left San Antonio and moved to Las Vegas, she affirmed Saturday after ambling off the basketball court and into a courtside seat.

“These moments are special,” said Hammon, surrounded by 10,000 empty seats draped with white rally towels the sellout crowd will surely wave during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.

“That’s what you play for. That’s what you coach for. To get your players in position to win a championship.”

As a head coaching debutante, Hammon has done exactly that — piloting the Aces through the perils of the postseason and embracing the pressure that comes with them. They’re a -300 favorite in the WNBA Finals opposite the Connecticut Sun, the line a reflection of their collective talent and her brilliant coaching touch.

With three more wins, they’ll be WNBA champions.

And she will be, too. More than 23 years after her WNBA debut.

“This is something that she’s been pushing for. She’s a competitor through and through, and I love that,” Aces star and league MVP A’ja Wilson said.

“You want to play for someone like that. I always say if her knees were better, she’d probably still be out here with us.”

Another title shot

Hammon might not be as spry as she was in 2008, but rest assured she’s just as competitive.

She played that year for the San Antonio Silver Stars, losing the WNBA Finals in three games to the Detroit Shock to end the only season she truly believed her team was a capable champion.

The sting still sits with her 14 years later.

She was selected last season to what the league called “The W25,” a list of its greatest players unveiled to commemorate the league’s 25th anniversary. Named before that to the league’s 15th and 20th anniversary teams — sans a single teammate with whom she played her prime.

“You look at, I don’t care if it’s Minnesota, Phoenix, Seattle, who else has been real dominant? Those teams, they’ve got multiple No. 1 (overall) picks, they stay at one place for a long time,” Hammon said.

“I never played with a No. 1 pick in my life.”

She coaches three now: All-Stars in Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young. Super fun, she says, “because I can use their skills and not mine.”

But her skills have helped maximize theirs — and those of Chelsea Gray, Dearica Hamby, Kiah Stokes and Riquna Williams, who comprise the remainder of the rotation.

All the right buttons

Her handling of the regular season was impressive enough, navigating a midseason lull to surge and clinch the league’s best record in the final week.

Her work in the postseason, though, is pushing the Aces through the plateaus of yesteryear.

A smaller lineup featuring Wilson, Gray, Plum, Young and Williams logged nine minutes during 36 regular-season games, enough for Hammon to know how lethal it could be in the playoffs. That lineup logged 38 minutes in the semifinals, outscoring the Seattle Storm by a hearty 26.6 points per 100 possessions to swing a series in which all four games were decided down the stretch.

Game 3 in particular required Hammon to design three plays in a pinch, all leading directly to the baskets that would force overtime in the final seconds.

“There are some that I’ve just made up and I used them, maybe back in June. Just to see if it works,” Hammon said. “Then I’ll put it away for a while and bring it back later. We’ll see.”

Perhaps additional wrinkles await in the WNBA Finals.

“It’s fun, but you’ve got to like it,” Hammon said of the tension that tends to define postseason play. “You’ve got to like the pressure.”

And pressure makes diamonds.

The kind that usually encrust championship rings.

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

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