Feature image photos by: Steph Chambers/Getty Images + Michael Reaves/Getty Images
This year’s WNBA playoffs have been nothing less than thrilling. Shocking upsets, buzzer-beaters on top of buzzer-beaters, and record-breaking performances from some of our favorite (gay) players. It’s also been an emotional roller coaster! We saw Sue Bird play her very last game and leave the court to an ongoing standing ovation. We saw Candace Parker lose in the semifinals with questions swirling about whether or not she’ll return for another season. Tomorrow, the WNBA finals kick off. It’s the season-long superstar-stacked Las Vegas Aces vs. maybe the gayest sports team ever, the Connecticut Sun. Heather and Natalie got together to talk about the series, and to share their disbelief that the Chicago Sky didn’t make it back to the Finals.
Natalie: So we’re talking just after the Connecticut Sun pulled off the improbable: winning back to back games against the Chicago Sky to advance to the WNBA Finals. Have you calmed down from that game yet? What thoughts do you have about how everything played out?
Heather: Natalie, I’m gonna be honest with you. I still can’t believe the Chicago Sky lost! It’s the next morning and I still can’t accept it!
Broadly, I can’t believe it because I thought for SURE they were headed back to the finals. But also, just watching last night’s game five, it seemed like they had it well in hand until the last three minutes. Things fell apart so fast and so thoroughly in those last few minutes, I’ve been sitting/sleeping with shocked Pikachu face for the last 12 hours.
On the one hand, I am so excited for Jonquel Jones and the gayest team in the league. On the other hand, it really does feel like this was Candace Parker’s last shot — the Sky will not be the same team next year — and that bums me out. How about you?
Natalie: I’m in the same boat, Heather. I’m in a state of shock, honestly…not because the Sun aren’t a great team (they absolutely are) but because those last few minutes of the game were so unlike anything we’ve seen from the Sky this season. They were all out of sorts. Courtney Vandersloot throwing ridiculous, errant passes. Rebekah Gardner forcing the action against the double-teams. Kahleah Cooper being super-tentative after almost picking up that second technical. Emma camping out on the three point line. Allie Quigley being absolutely no help. It was just a complete collapse…and I suppose that was the thing that was most surprising for me.
Heather: As usual, I completely agree with you! The Sky/Sun series was so weird because at first The Sun weren’t playing like themselves AT ALL, and then it ended with The Sky not playing like themselves for all the reasons you said, which is especially weird when one of The Sky’s biggest strengths is their veteran leadership. When I watched my teams fall apart this season, all those young fireballs, I kept saying “Oh they just need a Courtney Vandersloot, oh what if they had a Candace Parker.” Just weird, weird, weird.
Natalie: It does hurt to think about this possibly being Candace Parker’s last run in the WNBA. I’ll understand if she doesn’t come back — like you said, this Sky team is going to look very different next season — but I really want her to have what Fowles and Bird had this year: a farewell tour that allows everyone to express appreciation for their contributions to the league and the game.
Heather: I do hope Candace comes back for a farewell tour. There’s almost no way to even wrap your head around what she has meant to this league. Based on her post-game press conference, it does seem like if her body will hold up, she’ll be back — but she doesn’t want to pull a Taurasi and end up being a liability or tarnishing her legacy because she doesn’t know when to step away. She remains all class.
I think we’re both in agreement that we’d be a lot happier for The Sun if they had a different coach!
Natalie: 100%. Usually I love to support a member of the alphabet mafia but Curt Miller? He’s an asshole and I just can’t.
Heather: Absolutely. He makes my blood boil.
Natalie: The way he treats his players? The stuff he said last night about Candace Parker? Yeah, fuck that dude.
Heather: He was already my mortal enemy, but after acting like he singlehandedly has taken down Candace Parker’s post-season dreams for the past five years? I am typing with clenched fists just thinking about it!
Natalie: Especially when you compare it to how Becky Hammon handled advancing over Seattle and, by extension, ending Sue Bird’s WNBA career, he just looked so absolutely small in that moment. A pathetic little man. So yeah…like I said…I won’t be cheering for Curt Miller in anything.
Heather: Yes! Becky actually seemed genuinely sad! And, look, man, if Ajla Tomljanović can stand in front of a US Open crowd that hates her guts for beating Serena in her final Grand Slam and say, “I thought she would beat me. I’m bummed she didn’t beat me. I love her as much as you do and her contribution to this sport and this world is incalculable,” fucking Curt Miller can — bare minimum — keep his mouth shut. Anyway, he should talk to Geno Auriemma about his Candace Parker hex. These Connecticut coaches are so obsessed with her!
Natalie: They really are.
Since we’re talking about Becky Hammon, I have a question for you: do you have any misgivings about her coming in and winning a championship right away? Like she builds this career in the MNBA and then she comes to the WNBA and, potentially, wins in her first season? Do you think it sends a message of “look how easy this is?”
Heather: I think that’s a very good and very fair question. Yes. I do. When the choice for Becky came down between The Liberty (where she is a LEGEND) and The Aces, and she went with The Aces, I just felt like that was so telling about what her goals are. I think she wants to go back to the MNBA. I think she wanted to come in and coach the most talented team in the league and win the championship as fast as possible to send a message. And she’s doing that! And I think she’ll head back to the MNBA as soon as someone offers her a head coaching job.
Obviously I want to support her wherever she goes and whatever she does; it’s her life and her dreams — but I also do think it complicates the conversation. I just want people to invest in the W the way they deserve! The way most people get their WNBA news, if Becky does win, yeah, they’ll think it’s easy. Your average sports dude has never even heard of Bill Laimbeer! What about you?
Natalie: I don’t know that I agree about the Bill Laimbeer thing — he’s a MNBA legend in his own right — but do I think the average sports dude knows that he coached in the WNBA? Probably not. But I think you’re probably right on about the reason Hammon chose the Aces over the Liberty: they were closer to being championship caliber and she had something to prove (also, the money did not hurt).
I don’t know that she goes immediately back to the MNBA. I hope not. The Aces deserve more than being a stepping stone or an “I told you so” to the general managers that passed on Hammon for all these years. I don’t know, it’s complicated, but it just feels odd that no one’s talked about that aspect of what the Aces winning would mean.
That said, whatever my misgivings about that, it’s overridden by my hate for Curt Miller so I’m still cheering for the Aces in the Finals. What are your thoughts about this Vegas squad?
Heather: I know I keep saying this, but I don’t know if there’s a more charismatic group of people playing together in any sports league in the world right now. They are so FUN. On top of that, they are STACKED. You’ve got your 2022 MVP/DPOY, your All-Star Game MVP, your most improved player. You’ve got CHELSEA GRAY who is always an absolute force of nature and is somehow playing at even higher level in these playoffs. Chelsea Gray would be the main story on literally any other team in the WNBA, but she’s another star on a team of stars with the Aces.
I love that they genuinely seem to care about each other, that they’re willing to fill the role they need to fill on any given night. What about you, though? You have had the only clear-eyed view of the Aces I’ve heard all season long, and you’ve been right about everything they’ve done!
Natalie: I haven’t been though!
I mean, I was definitely right about that core team: I’ve said all season long that that core of A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Dearica Hamby was absolutely the best starting 5 in the league…like, no one even comes close. The way that they’ve played through these playoffs shows that I was definitely right about that. BUT! The thing that I’ve always been skeptical of about this Aces team, though, is their bench…and I thought that they’d get exposed in the playoffs for having such a short rotation.
To my surprise, this Aces team has shown absolutely no signs of exhaustion. I think about A’ja Wilson playing the entire game in that OT win in Game 3 of their series vs. Seattle? That’s just unreal to have a post player put in that many minutes and then turn around, two days later, and play another 40 minutes?! That’s just unfathomable to me.
I didn’t think they could do it but they delight in defying expectations.
Heather: Yes! I actually still can’t believe it, and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept thinking, well, you know, it’ll get ’em in the Finals. But now they’ve had even more time to rest than The Sun.
The whole starting five just seems able to access some kind of deeper/extra level, and they don’t all need to tap into it at the same time, but lately it seems like at least one of them is superhuman per game. How much of that is the raw talent/commitment of these players and how much of it is coaching?
Natalie: I think it’s a combination of both. People forget: this has been a very good Aces team for a while…this team under Bill Laimbeer was one of the top in the league. But what Hammon’s brought to Las Vegas is a more fluid offense and, more importantly, really gifted her players with a lot of confidence. A’ja’s always going to be A’ja on the offensive end but is she DPOY if Becky’s not the coach? But is Kelsey Plum getting MVP votes if Hammon’s not there? Is Jackie Young the most improved? I don’t think so.
Heather: Mmm really great points.
Natalie: And Hammon’s offensive schemes just work for Chelsea Gray who has been playing out of her mind in these playoffs. Hands down my favorite player to watch during this post-season…and you know I don’t like to give too much praise to former Dukies. Em Adler, who covers the league for The Next, reported on Twitter that Gray was averaging 23.8 points on 76% true-shooting in these playoffs and that NO professional basketball player, NBA OR WNBA, has EVER scored that well in ANY postseason. It’s an epic performance.
Heather: I can’t even — that is unbelievable. Not hyperbolic. That is literally unbelievable. Most players couldn’t even pull down numbers like that in a shoot-around, much less fully guarded in the damn playoffs!
Natalie: And that’s the thing, right? She’s been defended well. I mean, there were moments when Gray would just break free against the Storm but especially when Gabby Williams was on her, she was being defended well. It’s just a case of good defense and even better offense.
Heather: What do you think The Aces have done well so far that they’ve got to keep doing? And what adjustments do you think they need to make for The Sun?
Natalie: In the series with the Storm, I think the Aces really gave Stewie her points…they recognized that Breanna Stewart is too good and so, while obviously, you try to make it hard on her, you know she’s going to get her points. But their success really came at shutting down the Storm’s other offensive options, especially Jewell Loyd.
I don’t know how much of that you can carry over to the series with the Sun because their strength is really in that frontcourt. How do the Aces match-up with DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones?
Heather: That’s absolutely the question. The “double big” lineup is what they’re calling that, I reckon? And that’s going to be a completely different experience than what The Sky had with The Sun because The Aces cannot let their bigs get into foul trouble.
The main way they’re going to have to manage those three is to keep them OFF the offensive glass. That’s where so many of their points come from, so many of the fouls they draw, and so many momentum killers. So much of what’s going to happen is going to depend on which Alyssa Thomas shows up for the series. You said, early on, she was hurt even more than usual — and you were absolutely right about that. But she seemed to loosen up (literally, like she seemed to be able to move that one working shoulder more) as the series progressed, but I’m not convinced she’s back to 100%. HOWEVER, she has a history of turning zero working joints/muscles into double-doubles somehow, especially in the post-season.
Natalie: I’m not sure that AT will ever be at 100%…but she certainly looked to be getting there, the longer that series went on.
I think the key for the Sun is to find some way to contain those Aces’ guards. Do they put Bonner on Gray?
Heather: I think they have to because she can is deceptively awesome in the paint. The Aces are smart enough to read and capitalize on mismatches. If Natisha Hiedeman ends up on her, she’s dropping directly to the post! Also, Bonner’s got quick hands for days and those ten foot arms that at least make you pause before pulling up for three. The Sun can look a lot of different ways! It’s probably their biggest strength!
What do you WANT to see most from the series? And! What would surprise you most?
Natalie: I want to see Candace Parker courtside cheering on her former teammate and friend, Chelsea Gray, as the Aces win their first WNBA title. Just kidding. A little.
In all seriousness, you know me: I’ve got my allegiances but ultimately, I just want a series where it’s all about the basketball. No injuries to either team, no refs who can’t get the most basic of calls correct. I just want a good series.
What about you?
Heather: I want that too, and I want Curt Miller to get kicked out at least one game, and for Kelsey Plum to take back what she said about being straight.
Natalie: LOL. If they didn’t kick James Wade out of Game 5 in Chicago, they’re never kicking any coaches out.
Bold enough to make a prediction?
Heather: Aces in four!
Natalie: Okay. I’ll go: Aces in five.