After the miracle that was the “Hamby Heave,” to get the No. 4 Las Vegas Aces to the semifinals, they were due for a bit of bad luck, and they got it against the No. 1 Washington Mystics in Game 1. More frustrations and fireworks are likely when the teams meet again in tonight’s Game 2.
What adjustments might Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer and Mystics head coach Mike Thibault make?
Will Laimbeer continue to play rotation roulette?
Down the regular season stretch and so far in the playoffs, Laimbeer has not hesitated to shift lineups and vary playing time. This unpredictability may explain some of the Aces’ persistent troubles — their tendencies to turn the ball over and go through extended scoring droughts. Additionally, Las Vegas fell behind in the first quarters of both their playoff games, requiring them to exert extra energy to eventually even the score.
A starting lineup change should be Laimbeer’s next move. The off-the-bench combination of Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum provided a potent spark for the Aces on Tuesday. But why delay their positive impact? In the playoffs, the quintet of Hamby, Plum, Kayla McBride, A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage is a team-best plus-13. Hamby and Plum also are first and second in individual plus-minus for the playoffs, with Hamby at plus-10.5 and Plum at plus-5.5.
Furthermore, Hamby frustrated Elena Delle Donne, making the newly-anointed MVP work hard for every basket. Starting Hamby would allow Laimbeer to tether her minutes to Delle Donne’s, thereby ensuring that Delle Donne and, in turn, the Mystics, cannot easily establish an offensive flow. On offense, the Hamby-Wilson-Cambage lineup is an imperfect fit but, nonetheless, a trio that can place greater pressure on Delle Donne defensively, testing and tiring her with their physicality.
Should Thibault keep Emma Meesseman in the starting lineup?
While Meesseman turned in a career-high scoring performance of 27 points, she also was D.C.’s best defender, registering a team-leading defensive rating of 105. In particular, Meesseman’s presence helped to nullify Cambage’s power in the paint. Cambage can overwhelm the undersized LaToya Sanders, but Meesseman, although not known as a defensive stopper, is solid enough to prevent the Australian from having her way inside, suggesting that Thibault should consider matching her minutes with Cambage’s.
Thibault also may need to tinker with the Mystics’ offensive attack which, after a hot start, uncharacteristically sputtered at crucial points. With Kristi Toliver back in the lineup, Aerial Powers played fewer than 10 minutes. Might Washington need more of Powers’ punch? Her energy can inject a little chaos into the D.C. offense, causing positive disruptions that throw off the Vegas defense. Instead of refining their offensive precision, a bit of imprecision could prove advantageous for the Mystics in Game 2.
No. 1 Washington Mystics (1-0) vs. No. 4 Las Vegas Aces (0-1)
When: Thursday, Sept. 19, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Entertainment and Sports Arena, Washington, DC
How to watch: ESPN2, TSN3
Keys to the game: Is “Playoff Plum” now a thing? Even as a missed called prevented her from being the Game 1 hero, the often-inconsistent Plum has performed well in the first two playoff games of her career. On Tuesday, she demonstrated a brand of decisiveness on offense that suggests she could be the Aces’ full-time starting point guard, balancing calling her own number with finding others. While she tallied a season-high nine assists, she also smartly attacked Kristi Toliver, taking advantage of the veteran’s limited defensive mobility. If Vegas is to steal a game in D.C., Plum must continue to control the offense at this level.