Above The Break: Checking in on the WNBA Finals

WNBA Finals (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
WNBA Finals (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Through three games, the Las Vegas Aces have a 2-1 lead in the 2022 WNBA Finals, with both teams winning their home games so far. The Aces came into Thursday night poised to capture the team’s first title, but the Sun exploded offensively, sending us to a Game 4 on Sunday.

Can the Aces close things out? Will Connecticut make this a series? How did we get to this point? Let’s check in on how the Finals have gone so far.

A’ja Wilson has been the best player on the floor

It’s no surprise that this year’s MVP has been the best player in this series, but you never really know what will happen when you make it to the Finals and have to face a team as physical as the Sun.

But Aces star A’ja Wilson has been up for the task.

So far in these Finals, Wilson is averaging 23.0 points per game on 63.2% shooting, with 8.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 2.7 blocks per game. She’s been a dominant force on both ends of the floor.

So far in this series, the Aces have a net rating of 3.3 with Wilson on the floor, and -100.0 with her off the floor. Largely that’s because she’s played all but nine minutes of these playoffs, but it seems notable that those nine minutes without Wilson on the floor have been bad.

And beyond the numbers, Wilson just looks like the best player on the floor.

Wilson has seemed to almost hit the turbo button when moving toward the basket in this series. She’s finishing tough shots in traffic. She’s barely missing. Watching this series, Wilson feels like she’s playing a slightly different game than the other nine players on the floor.

Sometimes, basketball can be simple: the best team wins, and the best team is fueled by the best player. For two of the three games so far, that’s been the case.

Alyssa Thomas gets a triple double

Before Thursday night, there had never been a triple double in the WNBA Finals. Now there has.

In a must-win game for Connecticut, Alyssa Thomas did what Alyssa Thomas does, which is go out on the basketball court and just give her all on both ends.

Thomas scored 16 points on 8-for-14 shooting on Thursday, plus added 15 rebounds and 11 assists. She also added two steals, a block and was a plus-22.

The Sun were on the brink of elimination and needed Thomas to step up like this. She did.

And if the Sun want to pull the upset in this series, they’ll need to keep getting Thomas this involved.

One issue for the Sun in this series is that the Aces have a clear talent edge in the backcourt. Connecticut is a larger team, and when they can find ways to embrace that, things can work. One of those ways is putting the ball in Thomas’ hands and letting her work from there — she’s a skilled passer who makes a lot of good decisions when she’s on the floor. So while the Sun didn’t get wild with an AT at the one lineup or anything, you still warp how the defense has to defend things when you let a player like Thomas make the plays.

Thomas is just such a threat when going downhill that it opens up passing lanes, as defenders have to be prepared to contest a Thomas shot at the basket, which will sometimes lead to plays like the one above, where a split-second gap is created for Thomas to get the ball to Jonquel Jones. She takes advantage of that split second.

If the Sun want to pull the upset in this series, the offensive game plan needs to be putting the ball in Thomas’ hands, and then letting her make decisions from there.

Some lineup data from the Finals

Let’s dig into some lineup data from the Finals over at WNBA.com.

The Sun’s most-used lineup has played 50 minutes. It’s the “normal” lineup for the team, with a Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas frontcourt, DeWanna Bonner at the three and then Courtney Williams/Natisha Hiedeman in the backcourt. That lineup has a 3.6 net rating in 50 minutes.

But the lineup that’s played the second-most minutes, with Brionna Jones subbed in for Jonquel Jones, has a 39.5 net rating rating. Is that notable? I don’t know. Brionna Jones is more of a traditional five and the Aces have to throw Kiah Stokes at her, which definitely seems like a win for the Sun.

On the Vegas side, the starting lineup of Chelsea Gray, Kelse Plum, Jackie Young, A’ja Wilson and Kiah Stokes has played 53 minutes, with a net rating of 14.4, while the second-most used lineup that replaces Stokes with Dearica Hamby has a -10.1 net rating.

Not having Hamby at 100% has probably prolonged this series. Hamby played 11 minutes in Game 3 and was a -17, the third-worst plus/minus on the team. Riquna Williams played about the same amount of minutes off the bench, with a net rating of -29.

The lineup data helps to highlight the biggest concern for Vegas, which is that the team has been heavily reliant on their starters. Connecticut can put reserves in and stay competitive. Vegas can sometimes have trouble with that. Game 3 has been the only time in this series that they’ve lost the Hamby or Williams minutes, but the issue is that in a game like Game 3 where those two don’t get going…well, what do you do?

Who wins this series?

We have one or two games left in this WNBA season. Can the Sun come back?

Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Everything went right for the Sun in Game 3, but the Aces had the game down to single digits heading into the fourth quarter. Connecticut won the final period 28-7, leading to a 105-76 win for the Sun.

But Vegas felt like they had a real shot in the third quarter to get back into this one. Connecticut played their best game and scored 64 points in the paint, but the Aces had momentum at one point. If Vegas can get more than four second-chance points or if the Sun get a few worse bounces, this would have been a different game heading into the fourth, which likely gets us a very different-looking fourth quarter.

The Aces are the better team here. They play a brand of basketball that’s more conducive to winning a series like this, because they have more ways to beat you. Chelsea Gray isn’t going to be held to 4-for-7 shooting two more times in this series. The Aces are still the favorites to win the title.

Next. Twitter reacts to A’ja Wilson award sweep as Aces star wins 2022 WNBA MVP. dark