Aces celebrate ring night, hold off Mercury in WNBA season opener

D.J. Cabanlong-The Sporting Tribune
The Aces put the bow on another Ring Night, as A'ja WIlson led the two-time defending champions over the Phoenix Mercury 89-80 on Tuesday.

LAS VEGAS — The WNBA’s two-time defending champion Aces were able to put an emotional ring night ceremony behind them, beating the Phoenix Mercury 89-80 on Tuesday night despite a turbulent outing.

A’ja Wilson led all scorers with 30 points while contributing 13 rebounds in an effort that served as an immediate reminder of who the best player in the league is.

Still, it was far from the polished dominance from the Aces for which Vegas has become accustomed, but given the circumstances it can probably be excused. A win on the night the players received their 2023 WNBA championship rings doesn’t need to be pretty, it just needs to happen.

The Aces were allowed to celebrate with no second thoughts as they forayed to a celebration across the street at Allegiant Stadium hosted by team owner Mark Davis.

The bling itself was shockingly impressive. The players each opened their own individual jewelry box that came with an LED screen playing a commemorative video, and the reactions were fitting.

“Mark did his big one with that one,” Wilson said. “It was huge. I was not expecting that at all.

“It’s like diamonds all around her. Like bling, bling, bling, bling, bling. And a girl loves her diamonds, you know?”

Added coach Becky Hammon: “They’re big and heavy. I hadn’t seen them, so it was pretty cool to see them kind of for the first time. … Mark, he keeps raising the standard too, on himself in ways.”

Aces co-owner Tom Brady headlined a celebrity-loaded crowd that included boxer Floyd Mayweather, celebrity jeweler Johnny Dang and a handful of Raiders such as coach Antonio Pierce. Brady even joined the Aces in the locker room to give the pregame speech before he made his way on the court for the banner raising.

Brady is no stranger to gutting out a win on a ring night, considering he has seven of them from the NFL.

“(Brady) was just saying how the banner’s going to always be there,” Wilson said. “You don’t have to try to defend that. Just go and do what you’ve been doing and execute that. I feel like that message in itself made the night for me.

“I feel like we get so caught up in, ‘Oh my god, we have to three-peat. We gotta do this.’ And it’s like, that banner’s gonna be up there forever. My ring’s gonna be in the trophy case forever. Let me focus on getting better, and then that’s when everything else flows. It’s been a big night.”

Turbulent first half

The Aces wasted no time introducing themselves to WNBA’s influx of new fans. The Aces led by as many as 18 points in outscoring the Mercury 29-14 in the first quarter. Wilson scored 17 of those points.

The Mercury flipped the script in the second quarter, outscoring the Aces 27-13 while limiting Wilson to four points.

“Basketball is a game of runs,” Wilson said. “I’m not going to go for 17 each quarter. That’s the whole part of the game.

“I’m going to be getting a lot of different looks and just making sure that my teammates are getting a roll. … I’m not going to be honing in on, ‘Oh my God, I need this, this, and this in this amount of time.’ That’s not how the game goes.”

The absence of Aces point guard Chelsea Gray was apparent in the second quarter and became a recurring theme throughout the game. Still, Gray’s energy on the bench was a constant positive presence for the team throughout the game.

“(Chelsea) knows she has the green light to speak and communicate,” Hammon said. “A lot of times I’m watching something else, and she can get them and have their ear more on the bench where they can make some adjustments.

“I mean, it’s like having another coach, but we like the coach on the floor too. We’ll make it work and we’ll figure it out. And really, it’s a really great growth opportunity for the rest of the team to step up in a different way, whether that’s organizing us, making reads, figuring out very quickly.”

Another recurring theme was the Aces’ struggles against the Mercury’s zone defense. It again raised Gray’s absence.

“I saw a lot of unorganization on our part, that’s what I saw,” Hammon said. “Look, at the end of the day, defenses are gonna be switching things up.

“I thought their zone was effective.We didn’t handle it very well, I thought we held the ball a lot. We didn’t get into gaps, stood a lot. We just got to up the activity.”

Added Wilson: “The length (bothered us). Phoenix has length. It’s not your average zone in a lot of different spaces. Normally you kind of have the two smallest guards up front, and it’s like a normal zone that you see. But they had length up front and quickness, so it gave us a different look. It kind of put us on our heels a little bit, but we needed that.”

Taurasi’s torching not enough

The Mercury came out of the halftime with the same energy they brought into it. The third and fourth quarters were both much more tightly contested with the Aces outscoring the Mercury by six and three points in those quarters, respectively.

Even when it looked like the Aces had the game wrapped up late, the Mercury cut the deficit back down to three with 1:17 to play.

Diana Taurasi led the Mercury with 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting on 3-pointers. She has averaged 19.9 points a game against the Aces but that average dipped to 11 points a game last season.

Taurasi fed the Aces a heavy diet of trash talk. The 21-year WNBA veteran was fired up after the game, slamming a utility door in the foyer near the visiting locker room pretty firmly into the wall.

Taurasi’s abilities have been the subject of debate on the internet since her not-so-gentle assessment of Caitlin Clark’s chances of a flawless integration into professional basketball, but her performance on Tuesday night made it clear that the 42-year-old point guard is aging more like Brady.

Aces star gets special kicks

Since it was ring night, Under Armour hooked up their face of women’s basketball, Kelsey Plum, with a special Player Edition sneaker to celebrate the festivities.

The brand revealed an “All the Smoke” design to The Sporting Tribune a few hours before tip-off. The design commemorates the legendary photo that was taken of Plum smoking a victory cigar at the Aces’ 2022 championship parade, a tradition she continued again with her teammates when they celebrated their second straight championship in October.

The shoes feature a white base with gold accents, complimented by a “Back to Back” emblem with the KP logo on the backside of the shoe. Plum scored 19 points in Tuesday’s game on 8-of-20 shooting, adding five assists and three rebounds.