The WNBA will crown a first-time champion when Las Vegas and Connecticut meet in the Finals starting Sunday.
Both franchises have come close, with Connecticut falling to Washington in the 2019 Finals and Las Vegas to Seattle a year later. It's the Sun's fourth trip to the Finals, also advancing that far in 2004 and '05. The Aces made the championship round in 2008 when the franchise was still in San Antonio and coach Becky Hammon was a player on the team.
“It’s super special for both franchises to be here, and that it’s going to be a new champion. I think that’s exciting for our league," said Aces guard Chelsea Gray, who won a title when she played for Los Angeles. "I want it to be Vegas. That’s why I came here, you know, bringing Vegas its first championship amongst other things, but it’d be awesome to bring to this city.”
The Aces are the top seed after having the best record in the regular season and beating Phoenix and Seattle to advance to the Finals. Las Vegas won two of the three meetings with Connecticut, although Jonquel Jones and coach Curt Miller each missed a game with COVID-19.
The Sun have been dealing with adversity for most of the season. They lost Jasmine Thomas to a torn ACL in May. Miller's mother died in August. During the series-clinching Game 5, the Sun fell behind by 10 points, but closed the game with an 18-0 run.
“Everybody has stories across this league,” Miller said after his team knocked out defending champion Chicago. “Ours — it just seemed like one thing after another that we had adversity this season in and out of that locker room. It’s remarkable that this group just refused to use it as excuses.”
Here are a few storylines for the best-of-five series:
WE MEET AGAIN
Miller was an assistant coach at Colorado State when Hammon was playing there in the 1990s. The two have maintained a good relationship since. Hammon, a first-year coach, is trying to become the first former player to win a championship as a coach since Sandy Brondello led Phoenix to the title in 2014.
“Great memories, great relationship,” Hammon said.
Hammon said she saw Miller a few years ago when the Sun were in the Finals and she was an assistant with the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.
"I wished him good luck in the Finals and been following him the whole time,” she said.
A'ja Wilson has won MVP in two of the past three seasons, including this year. Connecticut's Jonquel Jones was last year's MVP. Wilson was dominant in the final few games of the semifinal series against Seattle, averaging 30 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in the Aces' three wins.
“It’s gonna be exciting. I feel like it’s the Finals now so we’re gonna put everything out there," Wilson said. "They gotta guard us, we gotta guard them, so it’s gonna be a very exciting series.”
Jones' numbers in the win over Chicago weren't as strong as Wilson's but she made her presence felt with key plays on both ends in the decisive Game 5.
Las Vegas has relied on its starters for most of the season with the only consistent offense off the bench coming from Riquna Williams. Dearica Hamby was moved back to her sixth-woman role late in the season, but missed nearly a month with a knee injury before coming back for the final two games of the semifinals. She only played four minutes in each of those games. Having a couple more days to recover could help her be able to contribute more in the finals.
“Me and KP (Kelsey Plum) were talking one day, we now understand why Bill (Laimbeer) brought us both off the bench last year,” Hamby said. "It’s hard, both of those teams are top-heavy and obviously they have a solid bench and we have a solid bench and hopefully I can be back healthy. We put a lot of pressure on the starters and when you have a good bench, it helps alleviate some of that pressure.”
Connecticut has gotten solid play from its bench all season, led by Sixth Person of the Year Brionna Jones. DiJonai Carrington has also provided steady minutes as a reserve and late-season pickup Odyssey Sims gives the Sun more depth at guard.
AP freelancer W.G. Ramirez contributed to this report.
More WNBA playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/wnba-playoffs and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports