LAS VEGAS — Last season, the Las Vegas Aces were crushed by a Game 5 semifinal playoff loss at home to the Phoenix Mercury in a year they really thought they could be WNBA champions.
Saturday, the Aces were the ones doing the crushing. And in record fashion.
Las Vegas set a WNBA record — playoff or regular season — for most 3-pointers in a game with 23, in a 117-80 dismantling of a Phoenix team depleted by injuries and absences. The previous WNBA record for 3s in a game was 18, which was done five times, all in the regular season. Eight Aces players made at least one 3-pointer Saturday.
Aces coach Becky Hammon, in her first season in Las Vegas after eight years as an NBA assistant in San Antonio, moved her squad a step closer to the sought-after title, as the Aces became the first team to advance to the 2022 WNBA semifinals with a 2-0 first-round sweep of the Mercury.
The Aces offense was unstoppable Saturday, setting the tone by making their first 10 shots from the field, a playoff record. Their 11 3-pointers in the first half were also a playoff record, but they never cooled down in the second half. The Aces finished at 63.9% from behind the arc.
Hammon was peeved with her team’s first-quarter defense, as she said all season defense will be the key if the Aces are to win the franchise’s first title. But even she had to smile when acknowledging that Las Vegas had a never-before-seen performance from long range.
And it wasn’t as if the Mercury didn’t defend. According to the ESPN Stats & Information research, they contested 26 of the Aces’ 3-point attempts, and Las Vegas still made 58% of those. The Aces also had 31 assists.
“Obviously tonight, the offense was special,” Hammon said. “So I’d be remiss not to give them credit.
It was actually a day for offense in the WNBA, as the record for the largest playoff margin of victory was set earlier Saturday in Chicago, with the defending champion Sky beating New York by 38 points. The Aces nearly matched that, winning by 37. It was the first time in WNBA playoff history that two teams not playing each other both topped 100 points on the same day.
Hammon talked after Game 1 about how her counterpart in her first year guiding the Mercury, Vanessa Nygaard, had dealt with more than any other coach in the league this season.
Center Brittney Griner has been jailed in Russia since February, center Tina Charles had a contract divorce from the team in June, guard Diana Taurasi has a quad injury that has kept her sidelined the past six games and guard Skylar Diggins-Smith stepped away from the team in the last week of the regular season for personal reasons. All four have been Olympians and All-Stars.
Then in Wednesday’s Game 1 loss, Phoenix guard Shay Peddy, one of the team’s top defenders and stabilizing forces this season, suffered an Achilles rupture, ending his season. The Mercury turned to Kaela Davis, a replacement player who did not compete in the WNBA in 2021, to help run the point position. She finished with a team-high 23 points, a bright spot for the Mercury.
The Mercury have a lot to figure out in the off-season. Taurasi is 40 and just finished her 18th WNBA season, all with Phoenix. She has indicated that she wants to continue playing, but has yet to officially make a decision for 2023.
Diggins-Smith has a year left on her contract with Phoenix, but there was obvious friction all season between her and Nygaard, leaving questions about whether both will return to Phoenix in 2023. And Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison on drug charges earlier this month. A more expedient release for her would depend on a negotiated prisoner swap between the United States and Russia.
Saturday, Nygaard kept the focus on her team’s resolve to make the playoffs despite everything it has been through, and on the Mercury’s and the WNBA’s continued vigil for Griner’s return home.
“There were a lot of challenges,” Nygaard said. “I’m just really proud of our team and grateful for the opportunity to represent the Phoenix Mercury. They have great fight, great grit. They’re hardy, they’re tough. But we know there’s bigger things in life, too. As hard as our season was, it’s not as hard as BG’s experience right now being in a Russian jail. So we try to keep all that in perspective.”
Chelsea Gray had 27 points to lead the Aces, making 9 of 11 shots, including 7 of 8 from 3-point range. The 5-foot-11 guard already has a championship on her resume, as she won it in 2016 with the Los Angeles Sparks. She signed as a free agent last year with the Aces, and has been sensational so far in the playoffs.
Along with her shooting accuracy, Gray led Las Vegas with eight assists. Eighteen of the Aces’ 3-pointers came off a pass, with Gray making seven of those shots and assisting on three. Gray has gotten hot at the perfect time. He shot 56% from 3-point range in August, after being at 31% from May-July. Her overall shooting percentage has gone from 46% in May-July to 62% in August.
The former Duke standout also has been strong on defense. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Gray held the Mercury to 33% shooting combined in both games on shots where he was the primary defender.
“Right now, as a team, we’re playing our best basketball on both ends,” Gray said. “You want to peak at the right time. And for me individually, that’s what I’m feeling.”