The 2020 WNBA playoffs are moving right along, and after the first two single-elimination rounds, we've now reached the best-of-five semifinals, which will begin on Sunday afternoon with a pair of Game 1s. In the first game of the day, the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces will take on the Connecticut Sun.
Las Vegas was penciled in as a title contender prior to the pandemic, but had expectations lowered after Liz Cambage decided to sit out the season, and Kelsey Plum tore her Achilles tendon. But free-agent addition Angel McCoughtry provided a big boost, and league MVP A'ja Wilson stepped up to lead them to the top seed. Now, they're once again one of the favorites to win it all.
Connecticut was in a similar place entering the season. Coming off their first Finals appearance in over a decade, the Sun made some big changes in the offseason, but were still expected to be a contender. Then, Jonquel Jones opted out, and they started the season miserably. But they fought their way into the playoffs, and have now won two straight single-elimination games to reach the semis.
(1) Aces vs. (7) Sun
All times Eastern
Game 1: Sunday, Sept. 20, 1 p.m. | ESPN
Game 2: Tuesday, Sept. 22, 9 p.m. | ESPN 2
Game 3: Thursday, Sept. 24, 7:30 p.m. | ESPN 2
Game 4: Saturday, Sept. 26, TBD | TBD*
Game 5: Monday, Sept. 28, TBD | TBD*
Wilson on a different level
Few players faced as much pressure as A'ja Wilson this season. With Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum unavailable, the only chance for the Aces to remain contenders was for Wilson to step up and lead the way. Did she ever. Putting up 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and two blocks per game, Wilson led the Aces to an 18-4 record, the No. 1 seed and won her first MVP Award.
It's not like the Aces are a one-woman team -- Angel McCoughtry was excellent in her first season with the club and Dearica Hamby is likely to win Sixth Woman of the Year again -- but Wilson was running the show. She played just about 80 percent of the Aces' minutes, and while she was on the floor, the team was plus-12.5 points per 100 possessions.
Wilson has put up similar counting stats in her past two seasons, but her impact this summer was bigger than ever because of how much the Aces relied on her. She registered an immense 447 possessions, which was third only to DeWanna Bonner and Arike Ogunbowale, but still managed to be one of the most efficient players in the league. Her 1.00 points per possession put her 24th among players with at least 100 possessions this season.
Her ability to score in a variety of ways in and around the post, and to draw fouls -- her 6.9 free throw attempts led the league by a wide margin -- make her nearly impossible to guard. But she'll especially be a problem for a Sun team that allowed opponents to shoot 66.4 percent inside five feet this season.
Wilson averaged 22.5 points on 69.2 percent shooting against Connecticut in two matchups this season. If she keeps up that kind of production, it's going to be a long series for the Sun.
How much does Connecticut's momentum matter?
Based on their regular-season performance, no one would have expected the Sun to reach the semis. They started out 1-6, and snuck into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record, and a barely positive net rating. Among their 10 wins, just three of them came against playoff teams.
Yet here they are, three wins away from making it back to the Finals. To get there, though, the Sun will have to win three out of five against an Aces team that beat them by double digits in both regular-season meetings, and is led by the MVP. There aren't many things in Connecticut's favor heading into this series, but one of them is their momentum.
Entering the playoffs as the No. 7 seed, they had to play two single-elimination games in the first and second rounds, and despite being underdogs in each contest, made easy work of their opponents. They beat the Chicago Sky by 13 in the first round, and the Los Angeles Sparks by 14 in round two.
And while the Sun were finding their rhythm, the Aces have been waiting around the bubble, resting up for an entire week after earning a double-bye straight to the semis. But how much does that actually matter? Well, based on historical precedent, not much. Since the league switched to this playoff format in 2016, four teams have made it through both single-elimination stages to reach the semifinals. Three of those teams were swept, and one -- the Mercury in 2018 -- lost in five games.
Aces' depth a key factor
The Aces have the best bench in the league. Part of that is by design from head coach Bill Laimbeer, as he doesn't start two of his best players, Dearica Hamby and Jackie Young. But still, it really isn't even close. During the regular season, the Vegas reserves led the league with 35 points per game, which was more than 10 points higher than any other unit.
And even if you don't want to quantify things strictly by bench production due to the fact that Hamby and Young will end up playing starter-level minutes, the point remains that the Aces are a deep team. Laimbeer played nine players at least 12 minutes per game in the regular season, and the Aces had five players averaging double figures in scoring.
Again, part of that was long-term planning by Laimbeer, and you can assume the rotation will tighten in the playoffs. For example, McCoughtry will start playing more than 20 minutes a night. Even so, the Aces have more options, and more trustworthy players than the Sun, who have basically been going six-seven deep in the playoffs. It's one thing to sustain that for a few single-elimination games, but over the course of the series, that can take its toll.
As the series moves along, this will be something to monitor. Even if fatigue isn't the main issue, the Sun just don't have as much flexibility with such a smaller rotation.