Aces continue to chase history beginning quest for three-peat

D.J. Cabanlong-The Sporting Tribune
Las Vegas raised its WNBA championship banner Tuesday night, then started its title defense with an 89-80 win over Phoenix.

LAS VEGAS — They got their championship rings. They raised their championship banner. They got their props from the record sellout crowd at Michelob Ultra Arena.

And then it was time to get back to business.

When you are the Las Vegas Aces, there’s a sense of ownership which comes with being the best team in the WNBA. They embrace their success. They don’t run and hide from it. They always have a tinge of disrespect in the way they conduct themselves, from head coach Becky Hammon all the way down the line. If there’s a perceived slight, they’ll find a way to exploit it and look to stick up everyone’s butt.

And it never hurts when you can have one of the owners walk into your locker room before the opening tip to give a word or two of encouragement. Especially when that owner happens to be Tom Brady, a guy who knows a thing or two about winning.

Sometimes, the message gets acknowledged, as was the case of A’ja Wilson finally getting a shoe deal from Nike, something that apparently was in the works for a while. Never mind Hammon basically blasted every sneaker company from Nike to P.F. Flyers for dissing her star.

Anyway, A’ja got her shoe so ol’ Becks will have to find a new target for her ire. She can start stumping for Wilson to be the MVP right now. Maybe she’ll keep her promise to play her more in blowouts against the Mystics or the Sparks and let her pad her stats instead of letting rookies Dyaisha Fair and Kate Martin get some minutes.

I’d like to believe she’s smarter than that.

But amid all the perceived angst and slights, let’s not forget something here. The Aces are good. Really good. They played a sizable portion of last year’s record 34-6 regular-season run to back-to-back titles without Candace Parker, a future Hall of Famer. And when they faced rival New York in the Finals last fall, they did it minus Chelsea Gray, their perennial all-star guard.

So if they have a “Screw You” attitude about things, well, they’ve probably earned the right to carry that massive chip on their shoulder.

Tuesday, the Aces began their run at a WNBA Three-peat minus Gray, who is dealing with an injury to her left leg. She’s expected back at some point, when, no one will say. It’s a long season, compounded by the fact that this is an Olympic year and Gray is a candidate to be on the plane to Paris come July. So why rush her back?

Las Vegas’ 89-80 win over the Phoenix Mercury, which was minus star Brittney Griner who missed Tuesday’s opener with a broken toe, sent a message to everyone. The Aces are chasing greatness and looking to add to their legacies as one of the W’s best teams ever. So if the other team’s missing a star player, well, too bad. Hammon doesn’t bemoan not having Gray on the court, just like she never once complained about not having Parker available in the playoffs. She coaches who she has and demands they perform.

“We can’t replace Chelsea,” Hammon said of making do without Gray. “I want them to be who they are and do it together.”

The mindset that carried Las Vegas to defending its title a year ago and will be the foundation of a potential Three-peat. The formula is simple. Don’t overlook anyone. Play harder than the other team. Trust your game. And be ready every night.

Tuesday, they appeared ready. They led the Mercury by 18 only to find themselves trailing in the third quarter before regaining control of things and sending the MUA record crowd of 10,419 home happy. Except if you had bet on the Aces to cover a 16.5-point spread.

Perfect? Hardly. Dominating? In spurts, yes. But with Wilson, arguably the best player in women’s basketball doing her thing — 30 points, 13 rebounds in 35 minutes — you can afford to have your down moments, brief as they were on opening night.

“We’re going to see different schemes from different teams,” Wilson said. “We just have to play our game and play within ourselves.

“We still have a lot of work to do. But we’re always going to face things head-on.”

Hammon said of the challenge of winning a third straight title: “A lot will come down to how we manage expectations. There are times we won’t play well. It’s all about eliminating bad habits.”

The Houston Comets are the lone WNBA franchise to have won three straight tiles and they actually won four in a row. So even if Hammon and her gals succeed and are the last team standing come October, they’ll still be chasing what the Comets did early on.

But let’s not shirk the accomplishments already achieved by the Aces. The beneficiaries of their success are the Aces’ enthusiastic fan base and the WNBA itself. The league is coming off one of its best seasons in its 27-year history and there’s so many positives that have come from it.

Expansion is coming to San Francisco in 2025 and Toronto in 2026. The TV ratings are at an all-time high and will surpass last year with the exciting rookie crop headed by Caitlin Clark, the No. 1 overall pick whose mere presence has had teams move their games against Clark and Indiana to larger venues. Even the Aces got in on the act, moving their July 2 game vs. the Fever from MUA to T-Mobile Arena, which can seat 20,000 for basketball.

The Aces became the first WNBA franchise to sell out their season ticket allotment earlier this spring. And when they are the visiting team, they’ll be flying charter to their games as the league finally came to its senses and will allow all its teams to fly charter all the time, not just for back-to-back games and the playoffs.

There are more marketing opportunities for the players, and not just for a shoe deal. Kelsey Plum is one of several players featured in a women’s undergarments ad. 

Understand that none of this is possible without a good product to sell. The WNBA has gotten better and better over the years and this current generation of players and coaches have an obligation to grow the game and make it a better place for the next generation of athletes.

Fortunately, they have embraced that responsibility and because they have, the future is bright.

As for the Aces, blowing 18-point first-half leads isn’t the best way to get another championship banner. But they managed to rally after Phoenix shot its way back into the lead in the third quarter and eventually, Las Vegas prevailed on its celebratory evening thanks to Wilson, Jackie Young and Plum. Young shook off a slow start to finish with 23 points while Plum had 19.

“We’re never really satisfied,” Hammon said. “We want to get a ring next year.”