LAS VEGAS — Becky Hammon looked down her bench, the Las Vegas Aces trailing by six in a Connecticut Sun-style game. Messy. Sludgy. The highest-scoring offense in the league had only mustered 44 points over 25 minutes of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals at Michelob Ultra Arena.
They needed something more.
“I just got to the point where I was like, my biggest, baddest beast is sitting over there. I’ve just got to throw her in,” Hammon said. “They want to play a rough game, she’s my girl.”
Dearica Hamby, a two-time Sixth Player of the Year and All-Star forward, played only four minutes in each of the last two playoff games after being out for a month with a bone bruise in her right knee. At the 4:33 mark of the third quarter, the Aces trailing 50-44, she approached the scorer’s table to massive cheers from the sold-out 10,135 thunder-stick waving faithful.
It wasn’t the standout stat line of A’ja Wilson’s 24 points or Chelsea Gray’s 21. But it was exactly what the Aces have been missing, and desperately needed, with her out of the starting lineup and on the bench. And now, despite a rough outing that seemed to favor the Sun and got Hammon “lit” in the locker room at halftime, they head into Game 2 with 67-64 victory and the 1-0 series lead.
“She sparked it for us and that is where it was a turning point and we really took control of the game,” said Gray, who uncharacteristically turned the ball over a season-high six times. “It was all energy, heart, effort. That's hard to do. She was cold, too. She didn't have a warmup where she came into the game. She came in right away and was effective.”
Hamby entered after one of the Aces’ 10 turnovers prompted an official’s stoppage. The Sun thrive in the paint and a healthy Hamby was the better option to combat it. But she’s still not 100% with her knee and had played a total of 7:34 over two games against the Seattle Storm in the semifinals.
Two hours before the game, Hammon was cautious about how many minutes she’d give her, something she had discussed with Hamby.
“We have kind of a rhythm without her and it’s hard to insert her and say like, ‘Oh let’s go try it out,’ ” Hammon said pregame. “That’s hard for me to say to her.”
She did tell her to be ready. Hamby delivered.
Defensively, Hamby helped force a shot clock violation out of the gate. Within 90 seconds, she cleaned up a missed attempt by Gray, who hit a pull-up jumper on the previous possession, and cut the deficit to two. The next time down the court she assisted a Riquna Williams 3-pointer. Thirty seconds later, she corralled a loose rebound and started a sequence that ultimately resulted in two free throws by Wilson and the Aces’ first lead, 53-52, since the midway point of the second quarter.
They never relinquished it, even while the Sun made their patented “we’re still here” quiet push. Connecticut had the ball on the final possession to tie it and the ball bounced off the rim.
“Those minutes were big, and it was the intangibles, the hustles and the rebounds,” Sun head coach Curt Miller said. “She runs the floor in transition. We've got mismatches. Nothing shows up in a stat sheet for her that way, but her effort creates mismatches right away in transition to their advantage.”
It was a pedestrian box score day. She hit her one field goal and added three rebounds (two offensive), two assists and a steal in 10:47 of action. It was Hamby who Hammon turned to again with three minutes on the clock of a six-point game, this time one they needed to protect. When they had to stop a chance at a tie game with 14 seconds, it was Hamby on the floor.
“Kudos to her being locked in, and probably even ready to go more mentally than anything,” Hammon said. “That's a tough situation. She has not played a lot of minutes, and to just come in and be super solid gives us a lot of flexibility.
“Really, I'm just pulling strings trying to get a W, that's all I'm doing.”
Hamby was emotional while speaking with media on Saturday and said she was working on the mental side of it and flipping the switch. It was a heartbreaking situation for an Aces mainstay who was on crutches the last time they made it this far.
The franchise’s longest-tenured player missed all of the 2020 WNBA Finals with a right knee injury she sustained in the semifinals against the Sun. It was a huge blow to the Aces’ chances against a strong Storm squad that would sweep them for the title.
Las Vegas is a better all-around team than in 2020. They can survive a bad outing by Kelsey Plum, whose first basket wasn’t until the fourth after eight missed attempts. They can still win even with a sub-70 point game that would favor the Sun in any stat analysis. And they don’t have to move the ball around as effectively as standard (eight assists on 23-of-58 shooting) to take the edge.
But to do that takes intangibles and Hamby was that on Sunday. The little things and energy she brought to the court changed the trajectory of the game for the Aces. And now that trajectory has them in the driver’s seat of the series as they pull two wins from their first championship.
WNBA Finals schedule
Game 1: Las Vegas 67, Connecticut 64 (Aces lead, 1-0)
* — if necessary