But the team saw the injuries as simply another obstacle to overcome in what was a roller-coaster season on and off the court. Players have cited their chemistry and closeness as what allowed them to persevere — and now do the improbable by defeating a tough New York team on its home floor without a defensive force in Stokes and their offensive conductor in Gray.
“This group has been forged out of adversity,” coach Becky Hammon said Tuesday. “They weren’t put together based on superteam expectations. They sucked for a long time. … They’ve earned this moment, they’ve earned this opportunity, and so now it’s just on us to go grab it.”
Grab it they did: With Alysha Clark and Cayla George (in her first playoff start) taking Gray’s and Stokes’ places in the starting lineup, and Sydney Colson seeing an extended run, the Aces overcame a 12-point deficit to storm ahead by two going into the final frame and, despite a late New York rally, never trailed in the fourth quarter. The Aces are the second team in WNBA history to clinch a title with a one-point win, joining the 2016 Sparks, who beat the Lynx 77-76 in Game 5.
A’ja Wilson paced the Aces with 24 points and 16 rebounds, and was named Finals MVP, adding to her collection of trophies and accolades, which already included last season’s title, a national title at South Carolina, gold medals with Team USA at the World Cup and Olympics, and two league MVP awards. She became the first player in WNBA history with at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a Finals-clinching win.
Jackie Young added 16 points and seven assists.
Coming off their 2022 championship, the Aces were considered favorites to repeat, leading the league in offensive rating (113.0, the best in league history) and defensive rating (97.7) during the regular season on their way to securing the No. 1 overall seed with a 34-6 record. If anyone were to get in their way, though, it was the Liberty, a so-called superteam that acquired Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot in the offseason. Two of the Aces’ regular-season losses were to the Liberty, who also beat them in the Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game.
But in the postseason, Las Vegas played some of its best basketball and solidified its status as one of the greatest teams in WNBA history. The Aces dropped just one game in the playoffs, to the Liberty in Game 3, and defeated New York by a combined 45 points across their first two wins of the series, setting them up for Wednesday’s victory.
Hammon, who was hired ahead of the 2022 campaign, now has won a WNBA title in each of her first two seasons as a head coach. The only coaches who had done that in WNBA or NBA history are Van Chancellor (who led the Houston Comets to the WNBA’s first four championships) and John Kundla of the Minneapolis Lakers (1948-49 and 1949-50).
After winning the franchise’s first championship last season in four games over the Connecticut Sun, the Aces shored up their talent in the offseason by bringing in two-time league MVP Candace Parker in free agency, as well as the veteran Clark. But their 2023 campaign hasn’t been smooth sailing.
They lost Parker for the season before the All-Star break due to a foot injury (although with Wednesday’s victory, she is the only player in WNBA history to win a title with three different teams: Los Angeles, Chicago and Las Vegas).
They also have been without key reserve Riquna Williams, who was injured earlier in the year and has been barred from the team since her July arrest, although domestic violence-related charges were dropped. And after the Aces traded former player Dearica Hamby to the Los Angeles Sparks in January, she accused Hammon and the organization of pregnancy discrimination and has since filed an EEOC complaint; the coach and franchise have refuted those claims, saying Hamby was traded purely because of business reasons.
On Wednesday, the Aces entered Game 4 without Gray, the 2022 Finals MVP, and Stokes, forcing Hammon to lean on George and Colson despite previously using almost entirely a six-player rotation without them.
Nonetheless, the Aces have etched their name in WNBA lore as repeat champions and with their “Core Four” of Wilson, Plum, Young and Gray all under contract for 2024 have spurred talk of becoming the WNBA’s newest dynasty. Aside from the Comets (1997-2000), only the 2001-02 Sparks have won multiple championships in a row.
New York fell to 2-10 all-time in the WNBA Finals and is still searching for its first championship. Teams that fall to 0-2 in the best-of-five series have fallen to 0-18 all-time in those series, including 0-9 in the Finals.