The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, September 30, 2020
A very Aces path to the WNBA Finals — Kelly Graves talks Oregon basketball — Must-click women's basketball links
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A very Aces path to the WNBA Finals
In theory, an adjustment by the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday night that turned a defense which allowed 45 points in the first half to a shutdown unit that gave up just 18 second-half points to the Sun must have altered some things, strategically.
But Bill Laimbeer laughed when I asked him about those tactical changes.
“Offensive wise, there’s not a lot we can do,” Laimbeer said, his team audibly celebrating just beyond the postgame media avail. “We’re very limited in our structure and what we can accomplish. So it had to be done with defense. And we did a really good job of taking away the paint, trying to make them shoot jump shots.”
This is no small feat, with penetrators like Jasmine Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, not to mention the force of nature that is Alyssa Thomas, lining up on the other side with the Sun. Thomas got hers, even so, but the rest of the Sun struggled to match Las Vegas’ intensity and execution in the final moments.
Both teams were worn out, visibly, from a series that felt less like a contrast and more of an ur-text for Bill Laimbeer’s style of WNBA play.
What the Aces triumph does is nothing less than setting up a test of methodology in the most significant way: whether it is possible to bruise and bully your way to a championship in the 2020 WNBA, the way Laimbeer teams have for much of the league’s history. It didn’t come to fruition in New York, though those teams operated in similar ways to this one.
And the 2020 Storm provide the best possible challenge to that idea. Seattle’s signature player is the manifestation of the exploding population of tall, long, versatile bigs, Breanna Stewart. The point guard who makes excellent decisions and punishes defenders who go under screens, Sue Bird, is playing in rhythm. Jewell Loyd is her own constellation of self-starting offense. The Storm can throw numbers at you, and do, even though the missing Sami Whitcomb is a bigger loss than many may realize.
Laimbeer has made 2020 work without Liz Cambage or Kelsey Plum, but he has the tools he usually wants and needs, from A’ja Wilson as his brutally effective two-way big star, to a constellation of surrounding defenders and role players, and even the second scorer in Angel McCoughtry he never really had in New York.
This is a copycat league, like all leagues. If Seattle triumphs, it will be the third year in a row a team like the Storm — the Mystics in 2019 played this way as well — win with offensive spread. The Storm are better defensively than the 2019 Mystics, but it is their offense that Minnesota really couldn’t match.
And if Laimbeer’s Aces win? We could see the league alter once more, with traditional bigs in higher demand. That there’s a battle for the tactical soul of this league ahead of us feels reasonable to say.
I, for one, can’t wait to watch it all play out.
This Week in Women’s Basketball
Don’t miss Jackie Powell’s latest, an examination of what Ruth Bader Ginsburg meant to prominent WNBA figures like Cheryl Reeve and Alysha Clark.
Good work by Owen Pence highlighting all six of Napheesa Collier’s blocks in Game 1 of Lynx-Storm.
Tweet of the Week
Five at The IX: Kelly Graves, Oregon
(Kelly spoke to reporters Wednesday afternoon on a wide range of topics, both about his team and beyond. I may have also asked him what he’d do if he were the Emperor of Basketball. Click on his photo, courtesy of Oregon Athletics, to listen.)