When A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces talked about winning the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season on Thursday, she spoke about the satisfaction of winning the award.
“The biggest thing was being counted out (at the beginning of the season),” she said. “I was an underdog coming into this season and we were underdogs. For us to be playing the way we have been playing and to prove a lot of people wrong was (satisfying). You change people’s outlook.”
Despite the loss of Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum, who were both starters a year ago, the Aces went 18-4 and earned the No. 1 seed in the WNBA playoffs and an automatic bye into the semifinals.
Wilson averaged 20.5 points a game (second in the league), 8.5 rebounds and led the league in blocks in her third professional season.
The Aces will be the favorites when they host the No. 7 seeded Connecticut Sun in game 1 of the best-of-5 semifinals beginning Sunday at 1 p.m. from the IMG Academy in Bradeton, Florida, on ESPN.
The Sun (12-12) are the first team in league history to begin the season with an 0-5 record and earn a spot in the semifinals. Connecticut bounced No. 6 Chicago and No. 3 Los Angeles in the single-elimination portion of the tournament to advance to the semifinals for the second straight year.
Connecticut, again, is talking about being ignored and not getting too much respect. Few people thought the Sun would get into the playoffs after beginning the season 1-6 and few thought Connecticut could get past both Chicago and Los Angeles.
“None of us are surprised. They’re still doubting us. We love it when people doubt us but we mean business,” Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas said.
Thomas is known as Connecticut’s engine. She drives this team and inspires her teammates. She averaged 15.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game during the regular season and in the playoffs, she has been even better with 23.5 points, 10 rebounds and 6.5 assists.
Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller has been touting Thomas the league’s defensive player of the year. “She can guard anyone in any position,” he said.
Stopping Wilson will be a challenge but it won’t be Thomas’ job alone. Connecticut shut down Los Angeles’ efficient Chelsea Gray with just four points in Thursday night’s Sun victory but it was a team effort. She has 27 in a Sparks win over the Sun in August.
Seldom did Gray have any free space to be creative. Briann January and Jasmine Thomas, despite a sore ankle, were all over Gray.
Rebounding will be a key. Both teams like to get the ball into the paint and neither were ranked high in the league this season in making three-point shots.
“We have multiple weapons the floor and we’re at our best when we move the ball,” January said. “We need to get that ball moving.”
Las Vegas swept Connecticut in two games this year. Neither was particularly close.
“The big thing with Las Vegas is that out tough everyone,” Miller said. “We need to take toughness and physicality to a totally different level. We won these first two rounds due to toughness. We’ll have to raise it to another level.”
That’s one of the reasons why Connecticut went out and traded for All-Star veteran DeWanna Bonner and January. The Sun picked up Essence Carson in August from the Mystics. All three won WNBA championships with their former teams.
Miller wanted that championship experience and poise when things get tight in playoff games.
Game two will be Tuesday night with game three on Thursday night. Seattle and Minnesota are playing in the other semifinal matchup.
Connecticut vs. Las Vegas
Sunday, September 20
Game 1: Connecticut vs. Las Vegas, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Tuesday, September 22
Game 2: Connecticut vs. Las Vegas, 9 p.m. (ESPN2)
Thursday, September 24
Game 3: Las Vegas vs. Connecticut, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN 2)
Sunday, September 27
Game 4: Las Vegas vs. Connecticut, TBA, if necessary
Tuesday, September 29
Game 5: Connecticut vs. Las Vegas, TBA, if necessary