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Gordon: Talent alone won’t propel Aces to WNBA title

Updated July 12, 2022 - 7:55 am

The Aces were all smiles at the WNBA’s All-Star weekend, which doubled as a three-day reprieve from the “hell” their season had become before the break. Not my wording, rather that of A’ja Wilson after one of the worst defensive displays in franchise history.

“It’s been hell,” she said Wednesday after a 116-107 loss to the New York Liberty, referring to the 2-5 stretch that preceded the All-Star Game.

“It sucks when you’re losing. It’s not fun. It’s hard to find the fun. But I feel now is when we’ll dig deep. Deeper than ever before.”

Adversity came calling for the Aces, who have 14 more games to prepare for a postseason they hope yields their first championship. They play the first one Tuesday in New York against the same Liberty squad that couldn’t wait to push the ball up the floor in the fourth quarter — knowing an uncontested 3-pointer or layup awaited.

Their 13-2 start is a thing of the past, their defense disintegrating and resembling one that played Sunday during the All-Star Game more than that of a WNBA champion. Their up-tempo, spread offense becomes predictable and isolation-heavy late in games, and Wilson seems to know change is in order if her team is to vie for a title.

“We’ve got to come together in our locker room now more than ever,” she said, grabbing the microphone during an impassioned display of accountability. “We’re pros. It’s all about adapting and adjusting to what we need to do. So we need to figure out a way, how do we adapt, how do we adjust? And just get the job done.”

Definitely good enough

Wilson, the league’s 2020 MVP and 2022 MVP front-runner, dismissed the hot start as “cute,” but it cushioned their midseason swoon and ensured they still have the league’s second-best record at 15-7. Their top lineup, comprised of five All-Stars including obvious snub Chelsea Gray, remains as talented as any across the WNBA.

They still lead the league in offensive rating (109.6 points per 100 possessions) and scoring average (89.8).

A dearth in depth prompted coach Becky Hammon to rely heavily on starters Wilson, Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Dearica Hamby. But the return of Riquna Williams and the arrival of Iliana Rupert have bolstered a bench in dire need of production.

The sky isn’t falling, and the Aces remain talented enough to win the title — making the 2-5 stretch all the more frustrating internally.

The Seattle Storm, Washington Mystics, Chicago Sky and Connecticut Sun also are contenders and remain far more disciplined defensively than the Aces. The Storm rank first in defensive rating, while the Mystics, Sun and Sky are third, fourth and fifth. The Aces are sixth.

Not disciplined enough

“We’ve got to start buying in as a group on the defensive end,” Hammon said Wednesday.

Short, sweet and accurate.

Far too often, the Aces either miscommunicate or don’t communicate — either failing to help in a timely fashion or helping needlessly and creating openings for opposing players. Their zone concepts present an interesting wrinkle, until opponents stretch them with crisp ball movement, which the Aces lack when things go awry.

Five-on-five in the first quarter becomes one- or two-on-five in the fourth, something Hammon seems to detest given her point guard pedigree.

“Play the right way. … That’s all there is to it,” Hammon said after the loss to the Liberty. “Until we do that, we’ll continue to lose.”

The good news is that the issues are fixable with time, practice, trust and the 14 games that precede the postseason. Champions aren’t crowned in July, though championship habits can certainly be fortified this time of year.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet. And really, nor do I want to be,” Hammon said. “I want to be playing our best basketball in August and September.”

And so the season continues with August a mere 20 days away.

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

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