Young, Aces closing in on back-to-back WNBA titles

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
Led by Jackie Young, Las Vegas routed New York, 104-76, in Game 2 and is now just one win away from repeating as WNBA champions.

LAS VEGAS — Before the WNBA Finals, someone asked Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon who might be the ‘X’ factor for her team against the New York Liberty.

Hammon thought about it for a moment, then replied, “I think Jackie Young could be the ‘X’ factor for us.”

Young hasn’t been the ‘X’ factor for Las Vegas. She’s been the ‘WOW’ factor. Following her 26-point performance in Game 1, she shrugged off early foul trouble and a slow start to finish with 24 points in Game 2 Wednesday and help the Aces take a commanding 2-0 lead over the Liberty in the Best-of-5 series with a convincing 104-76 win at a sold-out Michelob Ultra Arena.

The Aces can complete their quest to repeat as WNBA champs on Sunday in Game 3 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. No team has come back from an 0-2 deficit in the Finals. 

Frankly, unless the Liberty can figure a way to contain Young, not to mention A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray, there’s going to be another parade down the Las Vegas Strip or somewhere, given the F1 Grand Prix has already taken control of the streets and sidewalks for next month’s race. 

“They don’t leave me speechless very often,” Hammon said of her team, which shot an astounding 70 percent from the floor in the first quarter in putting up 38 points and building a 19-point lead. “They’re the real deal. Their competitiveness and how they fight and play for each other.”

It was going to be a challenge for New York to try and shut down the Aces’ Core Four of Young, Wilson, Gray and Plum. The fact in two games thus far the Libs have failed to stop any of them over a sustained period tells you just how daunting a task this has been.

Wilson, who had 26 points and 15 rebounds in Game 2, has outplayed Breanna Stewart, this year’s MVP. Plum, who had 23 points Wednesday, has abused Courtney Vandersloot. Sabrina Ionescu has been a virtual non-factor thanks to Gray’s defense on her (Gray also had 14 points and 11 assists) and had Jonquel Jones not showed up and played like a star, this would have been a first-round knockout. 

Jones, who led New York with 22 points, had a double-double by halftime with 19 points and 10 rebounds as the Liberty cut a 22-point deficit to six late in the half while holding Las Vegas scoreless for a 4:17 stretch in the second quarter.

But Young came out blazing in the third quarter with consecutive three-point plays and she had 19 points through 30 minutes as the Aces got the lead back up to big double digits, 80-57. They would lead by as many as 30 four minutes into the fourth quarter, 90-60.

“I know my teammates have a lot of faith and trust in me,” said Young, who has averaged 25 points and seven rebounds in the first two games of the Finals and is building a strong case for Finals MVP. “I have a lot of confidence in myself.”

If Wilson is the heart of this team and Gray is its brains, Young is the Aces’ soul. She plays with a fire and an energy that is infective and she can change the complexion of a game in a matter of seconds.

“She’s been great all year,” Hammon said of Young’s shooting (18 of 31 from the field in the Finals) “She’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. Her teammates believe in her.

“I’ve been gassing her since May to produce these kinds of moments. I do it because I believe she has it in her. Your job as a teammate, as a coach, is to draw that greatness out of people.”

The Aces have protected their home court all season. Only the Liberty beat them, and that was in the Commissioner’s Cup title game back in August. As Hammon said, that’s why they wanted to have home-court advantage during the playoffs. Las Vegas is 6-0 at MUA and the average margin of victory in those six wins is 19.3 points. Only one of those wins were in single digits — Game 2 of the semifinals when Las Vegas defeated Dallas by seven (91-84).

But now, they can close it out on the road. They lost both games in Brooklyn during the regular season by an average of 24.5 points. But this is not the same Aces team that struggled against the Liberty at Barclays Center.

It’s hard to imagine a total collapse where the Aces have to play at Mandalay Bay again this year. They are amazing in their attention to detail. They are unselfish to a fault. Even when New York made a run the way it did in the second quarter, you didn’t see Hammon or her players get flustered or frustrated and lose sight of the objective. They gathered, regrouped and got back to work.

So what do you do if you’re Liberty coach Sandy Brondello? There’s no more margin for error left for her team.

“We’re better than this,” she said.“We had no resistance. That’s what I’m most disappointed about. We have to take pride in how we play.”

Brondello admitted the Aces are at the top of their game right now and it’s up to her team to find a way to match that precision and effort.

“The challenge is to go out and win on Sunday,” she said. “Vegas is playing their best basketball at the moment.” 

No argument there.