Friday, June 30, 2023 | 2 a.m.
This was supposed to be the matchup everyone looked forward to.
From the moment the dust settled on the WNBA’s offseason, the clear pecking order in the league was the Las Vegas Aces, the New York Liberty and everyone else.
The two teams that made the biggest splashes, that signed the biggest names, have been on a predestined collision course to meet in the WNBA Finals since January.
Thursday marked the first meeting this season between the two super teams. There’s plenty of basketball left to go. But if there’s any indication from the Aces’ 98-81 win over the Liberty at Michelob ULTRA Arena, that pecking order has changed slightly.
It’s the defending WNBA champions at the top, and then a wide gap to No. 2.
Is it safe to say this was a statement game?
“I think it’s too early in the season for that,” forward Candace Parker said. “The focus is on us just getting better every game.”
It’s hard to imagine the Aces team who ran roughshod to their first ever title last season could possibly get better. The experience of learning how to win after failed times prior — getting swept in the finals in 2020 to Seattle, then losing in the semis the next year in five games to Phoenix — has certainly helped.
Last year’s team went 26-10 in the regular season, swept every regular season award and never faced an elimination game en route to winning the championship.
But here the Aces stand, more than a month into their title defense, looking as one of the best teams in WNBA history through 15 games. The Aces’ 17-point win over the Liberty pushed them to 15-1 on the season, 8-0 at home, and their seventh straight victory.
Not to mention, they’ve been dominant in this run. Nine of the Aces’ victories have come by double digits. Since losing 94-77 at Connecticut on June 8, the Aces have a plus-135 point differential during this winning streak.
Entering Thursday night, the Aces’ 15.4-point average margin of victory was the highest ever through a 14-game start in league history.
“We had spurts where we really good defensively,” Parker said, “and I think that’s the side of the ball that can make things easier on the other end.”
The Aces brought almost everyone back from the championship team. The biggest difference came with their prized addition in the offseason, signing former WNBA MVP and two-time champion Parker to pair in the front court with reigning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, A’ja Wilson.
Parker’s addition to Becky Hammon’s team was bound to be a seamless fit. Parker is one of the best centers to ever play, but her passing and shooting have gotten better as her career has continued to evolve. The 37-year-old Parker had her best game with the Aces on Thursday — 15 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and one block.
While the Aces won a championship by playing a small-ball lineup with Wilson at center, Parker takes the pressure off Wilson defensively when playing against a team like New York.
Especially for a New York team that acquired two MVPs in the offseason — signing two-time champion Breanna Stewart and trading for center Jonquel Jones — they accelerated the timeline for winning with their young star guard, Sabrina Ionescu.
But for a game that was supposed to be a WNBA Finals preview, it was a one-sided affair that showcased the Aces’ dominance. All five starters scored in double figures, led by Kelsey Plum’s 18, and the Aces had 32 assists on 40 made baskets.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas defense stifled New York’s big three. Stewart had 16 points on 6 of 15 shooting, Jones had 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting but was minus-18 while on the floor, and Ionescu was held to seven points on eight shot attempts while turning it over three times.
“Traditionally, this is a group that takes care of the ball,” Hammon said. “When you’re playing with great passers, a lot of times, they see stuff. For us to get out and move the ball and share the ball, everybody’s style holds to the same accountability point of if you’re open shoot it, if you’re not, move it.”
For as hyped of a matchup this was, Plum said the narrative behind an Aces-Liberty tilt is media driven. Plum pointed to the Washington Mystics and Connecticut as examples of how many good teams there are in the league.
But there’s only one team that’s 14-1 while the next two teams in the Western Conference — Los Angeles and Dallas — are 7-8. The Sun and Liberty, both in the Eastern Conference, are the only other teams with double-digit wins.
The balance of power in a 12-team league is nonexistent when there are stacked rosters like those in Las Vegas and New York. But the difference between the two is that one has found out how to win. That’s the team that has won 14 of 15 to start and is on pace to be one of the most dominant teams in league history.
Which team decides to close the gap in the pecking order is the real mystery.
“It happened to be New York tonight, but for us, it doesn’t change who we are. We’re not doing different things,” Plum said. “I understand if they want to make it something, but we’re out there just playing basketball the same way.”