The past few months have felt like the prelude to the coronation of the Las Vegas Aces as the WNBA's first back-to-back champions since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02, and one of the best teams of all time. There's a good chance that still comes to pass, but Sunday's contest between the Aces and New York Liberty made everyone stop and think.
Led by Sabrina Ionescu (31 points, five rebounds and seven assists) and Breanna Stewart (23 points, six rebounds and five assists), the Liberty broke the game open in the second half and led by as much as 42 en route to a 99-61 victory that extended their winning streak to four games and ended the Aces' eight-game run.
If the Aces had lost by a reasonable amount on the road, it wouldn't have done much to change anyone's mind regarding the league's hierarchy. But when you suffer the worst defeat in WNBA history for a team in first place, that's a different matter.
"That's a good old-fashioned ass-whooping," Aces coach Becky Hammon said. "But I don't mind getting our ass whooped every now and then. It's a good reminder that you're still human and you've got to go out and prove it every moment."
The Aces and Liberty will meet three more times this month, once in the Commissioner's Cup championship and twice in regular season contests. By the end of that stretch, the Aces may have re-established themselves as the clear title favorites. As of now, though, the Liberty have reminded everyone why they were hailed as a superteam heading into the season as well.
"We just proved to ourselves what we're able to do," Ionescu said. "We've set the level of how we need to play every single game in order to be at our best ... we're not sitting here jumping for joy that we beat them. It's just a wake-up call of how good we can actually be, and that's the standard of New York basketball. Now we have to continue to get better throughout the next month."
1. Las Vegas Aces (24-3) – Last week No. 1
The Aces didn't just lose to the Liberty on Sunday -- they got embarrassed by 38 points, which was their biggest defeat since 2003, back when they played in San Antonio and were known as the Silver Stars. A loss of that magnitude is surely just a blip on what has been a historic campaign for the Aces, but it was also perhaps a reminder that the gap between the two superteams isn't as great as everyone thought.
2. New York Liberty (22-6) – Last week No. 2
Just getting a win over the Aces in their big showdown on Sunday would have done wonders for the Liberty's confidence, so they must be flying after a stunning 38-point victory which was their biggest win since 2010. They've now won four games in a row, and eight of their last nine, and are within striking distance of the No. 1 seed.as of late, and the team is now 10-0 when she takes at least 10 shots, and 12-6 when she does not.
3. Connecticut Sun (20-7) – Last week No. 3
Alyssa Thomas' historic season continued this week when she put up 21 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists in the Sun's win over the Lynx to become the first player in WNBA history with a 20-20-10 game. That was the fifth triple-double of the season for Thomas, which is not only a record for one season, but more than any other player in league history has for their career.
4. Atlanta Dream (15-13) – Last week No. 4
Atlanta's inconsistent play since the All-Star break continued this week as they were crushed on the road by the Aces and Mercury, before coming back home to take care of the Fever. Since play resumed, they are 4-5 and have not managed consecutive wins. The big problem has been their offense, which has essentially disappeared. They rank 11th in offense in that stretch at 95.4 points per 100 possessions; only the Fever have been worse.
5. Dallas Wings (15-13) – Last week No. 5
The Wings ended their week in surprising fashion by losing both games of a back-to-back at home against the Sky. It's safe to say no one saw that one coming; the Wings hadn't lost consecutive games since June and had only lost three times at home all season. To make matters worse, Arike Ogunbowale was ejected from Sunday's game after making contact with an official and could face further punishment from the league.
6. Minnesota Lynx (13-15) – Last week No. 6
The Lynx were not able to maintain their momentum this week. In fairness, winning four consecutive games against the Sun and Liberty is a big ask, especially with three of them coming on the road. They should be able to get back on track this week with a much softer schedule, especially considering that Napheesa Collier has returned from a sprained ankle.
7. Chicago Sky (12-15) – Last week No. 8
Here come the Sky. After an incredibly impressive road trip down to Dallas, they've now won three games in a row to match their longest winning streak of the season. Their offense has caught fire, and is putting up a ridiculous 126.3 points per 100 possessions during the winning streak. As a result of this hot streak, they've built up a 2.5-game lead over the Sparks for the eighth and final playoff spot.
8. Washington Mystics (13-14) – Last week No. 7
The Mystics went 1-1 this week in their two-game set with the Sparks, which was really all they needed to do to ensure the playoff picture didn't suddenly get a bit interesting. In even better news, there appears to be an end in sight for their brutal injury situation: Elena Delle Donne, Shakira Austin, Ariel Atkins and Kristi Toliver are all traveling with the team on their West Coast road trip.
9. Los Angeles Sparks (10-18) – Last week No. 9
The Sparks pulled off an incredible fourth-quarter comeback on Sunday against the Mystics to stop their latest losing streak, thanks in large part to Nneka Ogwumike, who finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. That was her eighth game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds this season, and the 48th of her career. Only A'ja Wilson (12) has had more such games this season, and only Candace Parker (65) and Lisa Leslie (71) have had more in a Sparks uniform.
10. Seattle Storm (7-20) – Last week No. 10
Jewell Loyd is starting to heat up again, and so too are the Storm. The league's leading scorer has put up at least 30 points in each of the last two games, and Seattle has won three of its last four. Loyd's hot streak has her up to 24.9 points per game for the season, and back within striking distance of Diana Taurasi's all-time single-season scoring average of 25.3 points.
11. Phoenix Mercury (7-20) – Last week No. 11
This was quite an eventful week for the Mercury. The good:, and did so in style with a 42-point night in their win over the Dream. Also, . The bad: while she's on maternity leave.
12. Indiana Fever (7-21) – Last week No. 12
Aliyah Boston had a bit of a cold spell towards the end of July, but rebounded in a major way this week. Her effort in the Fever's loss to the Dream was one of her best outings yet: 25 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, four steals and two blocks. Only five other players in WNBA history have had such a game; and none did so as a rookie. The Rookie of the Year favorite remains the main reason for long-term optimism in Indiana.