Aces are two wins away from WNBA Finals

Chelsea Gray nicely complemented A'ja Wilson, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum in Las Vegas' 97-83 win over the Dallas Wings.

LAS VEGAS — When he was fighting, former world champion and noted Las Vegas Aces fan Floyd Mayweather Jr. used to like to say he was playing chess in the ring while his opponents were playing checkers.

I guess the same line could apply to Aces guard Chelsea Gray. She’s got some chess grandmaster in her game and while she sees herself as an artist on the court, I think she’s more Magic or Maravich than Monet when the ball is in her hands. And it’s not just the cool behind-the-back passes she makes with pinpoint accuracy. No, it’s much, much more.

The 30-year-old is going for her third WNBA title, second with the Aces, and that pursuit continued Sunday in a rollicking Michelob Ultra Arena as Gray had 13 points, four assists, two steals and a pair of blocked shots to help the Aces defeat the Dallas Wings 97-83 in front of 9,784. Game 2 in the best-of-five series is Tuesday at MUA.

Her genius is not wasted. Gray has always fancied herself a student of the game, growing her high basketball I.Q. to where if you’re her teammate, you better be paying attention when the ball is in her hands, lest you wind up getting hitting the head with it for not being ready.

“She sees things no one else sees,” said Aces coach Becky Hammon, herself a possessor of a high court intellect from her WNBA playing days. “I don’t have to say much to her. I just let her go and do her thing. It really is like having a coach on the court.”

Gray is humbled by the praise. She loves to play and it was that love that helped foster her intelligence on the floor. 

“I always tried to watch and learn,” said Gray, who was All-American at Duke and part of Team USA’s gold medal squad from the 2020 Olympics and won her first WNBA title in 2016 with the Los Angeles Sparks. “I think when I was in LA I learned from a lot of vets like Alana Beard and Candace Parker. Listening to their conversations about the game. We always talked about the growth mindset; you can’t stop growing as a basketball player. Just watching film, being around different personnel.

“I think I’ve continued to grow by finding ways to make other people better. It’s always been my mindset.”

The beauty of Gray’s game is she doesn’t need to score for her team to win. But when she does put up points, it’s usually during a segment of the game that tips the scales in Las Vegas’ favor. It could be hitting her first couple of shots early on. It could be sparking an extended run to break open a contest. It could be late when the Aces need a big bucket.

But Gray is at her best is when she’s getting her teammates involved. She’s learned where A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young like to get the ball so they can be effective. She is usually the first line of defense, looking to pressure the opposing ball handler, help Wilson if need be defend in the paint or contest 3-point shots from the perimeter.  

It all comes back to that high hoop I.Q.

“Honestly, it’s maybe something I was blessed with, seeing plays develop beforehand,” Gray said of how she became so smart on the court. “I would say it started when I was in high school (St. Mary’s in Stockton, Calif.) and obviously it’s grown a lot since then. You get better, you play with better players so you have to step up your game. You get older, you adjust. But you’re constantly growing.”  

Kierstan Bell knows to pay attention when she shares the floor with Gray. The second-year guard said Gray has an infectious way about her that inspires everyone.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bell said. “She works at her craft every day. We feed off her energy.

“You think she’s passing it one way and it’s going the other way. It’s crazy. So, yeah, I pay extra attention when I’m on the floor with Chelsea.”

Dallas coach Latricia Trammell knows Gray well, having coached her four years when they were with the Sparks. She appreciates what a smart player and what a dangerous opponent Gray is.

“Chelsea, she’s one of the best of the best,” Trammell said. “We know she can beat you a number of ways so we have to make it tough for her and take her primary options away.”

Easier said than done. Sunday, Gray was far from perfect as the Wings indeed tried to take away her first option when she had the ball. But she didn’t need to be great as Wilson’s 34 points, Young’s double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds and Plum’s 25 points were more than enough to fuel the Game 1 win. 

At some point, she’ll likely be needed to dominate. But Gray and her teammates not looking too far down the road has served them well so far in the playoffs with all three wins by double-digits. The Aces aren’t worried about the WNBA Finals or possibly facing the New York Liberty, which lost its semifinal opener Sunday to Connecticut. Right now, it’s all about winning Game 2 Tuesday.

“We’re just going a game at a time,” Gray said, leaning on the time-honored cliche. “You don’t want to be looking too far ahead.”

The Aces shook off the rust from a week off, found their rhythm, did a good job of moving the ball and ultimately, finishing while playing good team defense at the other end.

“We had the mindset to have the basketball find the next person,” Wilson said. “When we’ve got the ball poppin’ and we’re defending, that’s when we’re the Aces.”