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Dearica Hamby #5 and A'ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces smile during the game against the Minnesota Lynx on August 13, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Las Vegas Aces have clinched a top two seed for the 2020 playoffs with Saturday’s 84-70 win over the Los Angeles Sparks.
Las Vegas, now 17-4, has a quick turnaround for their regular season finale. On the second half of their lone back-to-back of the season, the Aces will face the 18-3 Seattle Storm on Sunday. Las Vegas would clinch the No. 1 overall seed with a victory, holding the tiebreaker with Seattle in that scenario because they would be 2-0 against the Storm this season. With a Seattle win on Sunday, the Storm would finish with a league-best 19-3 record.
Los Angeles entered Saturday afternoon’s contest still with a chance to nab a top-two spot and the vaunted double-bye to start the postseason that comes with it with a win over the Aces and a Seattle victory on Sunday. The top two seeds avoid single-elimination playoff games altogether and will be off until the semifinals begin next Sunday. As the No. 3 overall seed, Los Angeles will be back in action on Thursday in round two.
The Aces led by eight at the half after shooting 57 percent from the field, paced by a combined 22 points from A’ja Wilson and Kayla McBride. Las Vegas was even plus-seven in about 10 first half minutes without Wilson on the floor—a big blow to L.A.’s chances of winning by not capitalizing on the stretches with the Aces’ MVP candidate on the bench.
Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer felt he made a mistake by going to an all-bench unit to end the third quarter. A 14-point lead nearly evaporated as the Sparks closed the third on a 12-2 run. “I made a mistake there at the end of the third,” he said postgame. “I had a lineup out there that I knew would be challenged to score, and I was even talking about it with my assistants. I needed to get some people a couple minutes of rest, and [the Sparks] took advantage of that...I made a mistake at the end of three, and the players bailed me out.”
Despite L.A.’s strong close to the third, the Aces were set up to have fresher legs in the fourth. Wilson, McCoughtry, Hamby and Young each had logged fewer than 20 minutes entering the fourth while the star trio of Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray had each played 28 of 30 minutes. Laimbeer started the fourth with Wilson, McCoughtry, Dearica Hamby, Kayla McBride and Jackie Young on the floor and opened the period with a 5-0 spurt.
After Las Vegas built its lead back up to 10, the Sparks missed two chances to cut into a seven-point deficit. McBride answered with the dagger, pulling up for a 3-pointer from the right corner over Ogwumike. After starting the season shooting just 23 percent from distance, McBride shot 12-for-21 from 3-point range in her last five games.
Because the 2020 season is being played at a single site, the difference between a No. 1 and No. 2 finish is not as significant as it had been in prior seasons. Normally, that distinction would determine who gets homecourt advantage if those teams were to meet in the Finals. As we saw last season, the top-seeded Washington Mystics had earned the chance to host a winner-take-all WNBA Finals Game 5 against the Connecticut Sun, 2019’s No. 2 overall seed.
Sunday’s game still does carry some intrigue. Seattle starters Sue Bird (knee) and Breanna Stewart (foot) were held out of Friday’s win against Phoenix. Will the Storm continue to rest both players with an eye on the postseason? That would affect the Aces’ chances of winning even if they too focus a little more on keeping the minutes down for some of their key players knowing they are on the second leg of a back to back.
“I didn’t think about it until five minutes ago,” Laimbeer said postgame of the Sunday matchup. “But I think we’re gonna go play basketball. I’m not gonna slow us down or try to speed us up or try to make us anything we’re not. We’re gonna go play good basketball, play to win. I have a lot of depth; I can run people in and out.
“If we win the game and get the top seed, wonderful. And we’ll be number two if we don’t. They’re all good—who you’re gonna play. There really is nobody you can try to plan for. Just go play basketball. We’ve beaten Seattle once. I’d like to not just go out there and lay an egg against them. Go out there and try to compete and win the game. It’s still a mental game and eyeballing the other team. They’re gonna try to eyeball us tomorrow; we’re gonna eyeball them and throw the ball up and see what happens.”