Upsets and surprises in any sport's playoffs are always fun. But a predictable matchup also has merit when it sets up a meeting of heavyweights. That's what we're getting in the 2023 WNBA Finals, where the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces will meet the No. 2 seed New York Liberty.
The best-of-five series opens Sunday at Las Vegas' Michelob Ultra Arena (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App). The Aces will host Games 1, 2 and, if necessary, 5.
The talent for Las Vegas and New York resulted in both squads being referred to as superteams as early as February during free agency. Neither team likes the moniker, but it has proved accurate as the Aces finished the regular season first at 34-6, and the Liberty second at 32-8.
The Aces are the defending WNBA champions, led by 2022 MVP A'ja Wilson, and are appearing in their third Finals in the past four years. The Liberty, led by 2023 MVP Breanna Stewart, will play for the WNBA title for the fifth time -- but the last was 21 years ago, when New York fell to the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2002 Finals.
Stewart was 8 years old then and Wilson 6. Now widely considered the top two women's basketball players in the world and both two-time MVPs, they will face off on the biggest stage. And they have stars around them, including 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones of the Liberty. The Finals will feature five former No. 1 WNBA draft picks: Stewart, Wilson, Las Vegas' Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young and New York's Sabrina Ionescu.
Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon was a guard on that 2002 runner-up Liberty team, while New York coach Sandy Brondello was also still playing in the WNBA then. This will be the first time two former WNBA players meet in the league Finals as head coaches.
"It's great. Former players getting the opportunities to be head coaches in this league we were a part of, that's really special," Brondello said. "Both [of us] created our own journey here. I've actually coached Becky when she played."
That was in San Antonio, before the team moved to Las Vegas for the 2018 season. The franchise started in Utah in 1997, so technically both teams meeting in the Finals are original WNBA franchises.
Vegas vs NY? The one time I'm happy the "script" was executed 😂. WNBA finals about to be epic.— Sue Bird (@S10Bird) October 1, 2023
The Aces and Liberty split their 2023 regular-season meetings 2-2, each winning their games at home. But they also had a fifth meeting, in the Commissioner's Cup final on Aug. 15 in Las Vegas. It didn't count in the season standings, but the Liberty's 82-63 victory marked their first title in franchise history. Now, they want the league championship trophy.
Will the Liberty win their first, or will the Aces become the first team since the 2001-2002 Sparks to win back-to-back WNBA championships? Here's a look at five things that could impact the Aces-Liberty showdown.
A'ja vs. Stewie: A marquee matchup
The MVP race came down to Stewart, Wilson and the Connecticut Sun's Alyssa Thomas, and all three had amazing seasons. Now, Wilson and Stewart meet for the second time in the WNBA Finals. The first was in 2020 in the COVID-19 bubble in Bradenton, Florida, when Stewart led the Seattle Storm in a sweep of Wilson's Aces.
Stewart then came as a free agent to the Liberty this year, and she has been the player New York was hoping for. During the regular season, Stewart averaged 23.0 points and 9.3 rebounds; Wilson 22.8 and 9.5. In the playoffs, Stewart is at 19.8 and 9.0; Wilson at 25.8 and 11.2.
In their five previous meetings this season, counting the Commissioner's Cup final, Stewart averaged 17.0 points and 7.4 rebounds, and Wilson averaged 15.6 points and 6.2 rebounds.
Both 6-foot-4 forwards are used to carrying heavy loads and delivering in the clutch, going back to their college days with UConn (Stewart won four NCAA titles) and South Carolina (Wilson helped lead the Gamecocks to their first Final Four in 2015 and first national championship in 2017). They are Olympians, and both have talked about being inspired and motivated by the other.
Stewart, 29, was the 2023 MVP, while Wilson, 27, was the Defensive Player of the Year. One of them might soon add a Finals MVP trophy. So far this postseason, Wilson has had more consistent big performances, something Stewart will try to counter in the Finals.
Why Jonquel Jones could be the X factor
JJ is another player who could win Finals MVP. She was MVP of the Commissioner's Cup final, tallying 16 points and 15 rebounds for New York in that game. It took her a little while to find herself in her first season with the Liberty, but now she is playing at a very high level and will get her third chance at the WNBA Finals. The first two were with Connecticut in 2019 and 2022.
Jones averaged 11.3 points and 8.4 rebounds in the regular season, numbers that jumped to 16.5 and 12.8 during the playoffs. In Sunday's clinching semifinal win against the Sun, the 6-6 Jones was all over the court: 25 points, 15 rebounds, 4 blocked shots. She a is matchup problem for everyone, including the Aces.
Packed perimeter: A great guard showdown
As good as the interior matchups are, guard play also will be at the highest level.
The Aces have All-Stars Young, Plum and Chelsea Gray, who was last season's WNBA Finals MVP. They have meshed together over the past three seasons in Las Vegas as one of the best three-guard starting combos in WNBA history.
As good as they are offensively -- Gray and Plum have averaged 16.0 points and Young 15.2 in the Aces' five playoff games -- their defense is also outstanding. And it will need to be great against New York.
The Liberty shot 48% on open 3-pointers in their five matchups against the Aces this season, with Sabrina Ionescu leading the way at 11-of-23. And during the Liberty's six playoff games, guard-forward Betnijah Laney has been hot when she gets an open look from behind the arc, making 11 of 20 (55%). Laney could be a big key to the Liberty getting their first title.
Ionescu is 12-of-30 (40%) on uncontested 3s in the playoffs. Plum leads the Aces in that category in the postseason, going 11-of-23 on uncontested 3s.
Distributors Gray and Courtney Vandersloot (Liberty) are the best point guards in the WNBA, and both are past WNBA champions. Gray won titles with the Sparks in 2016 and the Aces last year, while Vandersloot won with the Sky in 2021.
Vandersloot led the WNBA in assists average this season (8.1) for the seventh time in her career. Gray was third this season with 7.3 assists. Gray has the edge as a scoring threat (15.3 PPG regular season/16.0 playoffs), although Vandersloot (10.5/10.6) can do damage there, too.
The sideline strategy
Hammon and Brondello were guards in their playing days, have considerable coaching experience and have already won WNBA titles as head coaches (Brondello with Phoenix in 2014). Now, they direct the two best teams this season and have four pretty recent matchups in August to look back on.
The teams' other meeting was in June, and the Aces' Candace Parker was still playing then; she had 15 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists in that victory over New York. But Parker hasn't played since July 7 after surgery for a left-foot fracture. Parker, 37, hasn't said when she will decide on returning in 2024.
Parker and Alysha Clark were key free agent acquisitions for the Aces, and Parker's absence has added to Clark's responsibilities. She was WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year, and her ability to defend every position helps the Aces.
Still, how much will Hammon opt to double-team Stewart or Jones? With Laney shooting so well, how will the Aces keep her from open looks? In the semifinals, Las Vegas handled the greater size of the Dallas Wings well enough to sweep them, but the Wings got closer each game.
Brondello and the Liberty held Wilson to nine points in two of their previous matchups with the Aces, as she shot 2-of-14 on Aug. 6 in Brooklyn and 2-of-10 Aug. 15 in the Commissioner's Cup final. New York might also look at how Dallas harassed Wilson into a career-high nine turnovers in Game 3 of their semifinal series.
Even so, it takes incredible effort to slow down Wilson, her guards can make opponents pay while they are trying to do that, and center Kiah Stokes can take advantage of cuts to the basket, too. Hammon said Dallas' focus on Wilson in Game 3 pushed the Aces to do some things offensively they hadn't done much this season, but this team is so cohesive, it can adjust quickly.
The Liberty haven't been together as a core group as long as the Aces have, but they've made progress in team chemistry all season.
The Strip vs. the Big Apple
Fun fact: There's a Statue of Liberty in both WNBA Finals cities -- the real one in New York Harbor, and the replica at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino a little ways up The Strip from Mandalay Bay, where the Aces' arena is located.
The last time the WNBA Finals were played in New York was Game 1 on Aug. 29, 2002, at Madison Square Garden, a 71-63 Sparks victory. Hammon was the Liberty's leading scorer with 18 points. It was a best-of-three series, and the Liberty lost 2-0 after a 69-66 defeat two days later in Los Angeles.
The next Finals game in the Big Apple will be Game 3 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Oct. 15, a gap of just over 21 years. Game 4, if necessary, is also in New York.
Hammon, of course, wants to beat her former team. But even she says the spotlight that New York brings is great for the league. With so many stars and storylines, it's the perfect setup for a long-anticipated series.