WNBA Finals 2022 preview: How the Aces-Sun stack up as first-time champion will be crowned

At some point in the next two weeks, a first-time WNBA champion will head home with a trophy.

The No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces and No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun begin the final stretch to the 2022 WNBA title when the WNBA Finals begin on Sunday in Vegas. Neither franchise has won a title; both have been at the top of the pack over the past handful of years fighting for one.

It will also be a first for the coaches, who have a long history. The Sun’s Curt Miller was an assistant for Colorado State while Aces head coach Becky Hammon played an All-American career there. The program had its best season in 1998-99 with both in the program.

In Hammon’s first year as a head coach, the Aces tore through offensive records and led the league averaging 90.4 points per game and a 109.6 offensive rating. It has been defense that Hammon has harped on since training camp. They allowed 84.1 ppg in the regular season, ninth among the 12 teams, and rank sixth in defensive rating (102.0).

That’s the Sun’s strong suit and they used it to get by the Chicago Sky in the semifinals. Connecticut can fly high offensively, too, averaging 85.3 points per game and a 105.8 offensive rating that is second in the league. They have the best net rating (9.5), edging out the Aces (7.7).

WNBA Finals schedule

Game 1: Sunday, at Las Vegas, 3 p.m. ET (ABC)

Game 2: Tuesday, at Las Vegas, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Game 3: Thursday, Sept. 15, at Connecticut, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Game 4*: Sunday, Sept. 18, at Connecticut, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Game 5*: Tuesday, Sept. 20, at Las Vegas, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

*If necessary

The WNBA is providing charter flights for the Finals, rather than have teams fly commercially as they do during the regular season and first rounds of the postseason. It will be crucial for this series since it’s on opposite coasts and getting into Uncasville, Connecticut, is more difficult than going airport hub to airport hub.

The Past: The Aces won the regular season series, 2-1, in tight single-digit games earlier in the schedule. The only starter to miss a game in the season series was Jonquel Jones in the final meeting (health and safety protocols).

May 31: Aces 89, Sun 81

June 2: Sun 97, Aces 90

July 17: Aces 91, Sun 83

Aces notes: Forward Dearica Hamby is still coming back from a right knee bone contusion she sustained on Aug. 9. The two-time Sixth Woman of the Year moved into the starting lineup this season and averaged 9.3 ppg and 7.1 rpg. She came off the bench for about four minutes in each of Games 3 and 4 against the Seattle Storm. Kiah Stokes, a 6-foot-3 center, moved into the lineup in her place.

Sun notes: Point guard Jasmine Thomas has been out since an ACL injury weeks into the season. The ESPN broadcast reported that she was able to start jogging for the first time on Thursday. Natisha Hiedeman stepped up big for her throughout the season and in the semifinals against the Sky. Bria Hartley, a late-season pickup, is also out with an ACL injury.

WNBA Finals key factors

The Chelsea Gray conundrum: Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn looked lost for an answer after their Game 4 loss to the Aces in the semifinals. But she found the perfect words for a scorching hot “point gawd” Chelsea Gray, who will post a conundrum for the Sun.

“I don’t think anyone on planet Earth can guard her,” Quinn said. “She was unconscious. We did a lot of things this series to try to slow her down. You limit her scoring; she has the ability to pass and play make. She’s an incredible player.”

Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray reacts against the Seattle Storm during Game 3 of the 2022 WNBA semifinals at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle on Sept. 4, 2022. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray reacts against the Seattle Storm during Game 3 of the 2022 WNBA semifinals at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle on Sept. 4, 2022. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images) (Steph Chambers via Getty Images)

Gray is averaging 24 points and seven assists, shooting 63% overall and 59% from 3-point range in six contests. Those numbers have only ever been reached in any six-game span by Chris Paul (2009) and Larry Bird (1982). It’s not even her statistical output, either. It’s that her attempts are coming against strong defensive pressure. It’s mind-boggling.

In Game 4 against the Storm, she became the first WNBA player to score at least 30 points and have at least 10 assists in a postseason game. She scored 12 of the Aces’ 20 points to put them in the Finals.

“I think she’s been on a roll and when a player is on a roll like that, it’s very hard to stop,” Quinn said.

She averaged 13.7 points (49.1 FG%), 6.1 assists (ranking fourth) and 1.6 steals (fourth) in the regular season and was an All-Star snub.

Can the Sun keep the hunger? The Sun players and Miller have not bounced around the obvious. They have a shortening window for a championship and a salary cap crunch in 2023.

Brionna Jones and Courtney Williams are unrestricted free agents and Hiedeman is restricted. DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas, Jonquel Jones and Jasmine Thomas are on the books for $847,500 of the $1.4 million cap. It’s now or never for this group of longtime Sun stars to win a title after so many close calls in recent years. They were minutes away from it in 2019 against the Washington Mystics.

The Aces have come close and are hungry, but have the benefit of knowing their core is locked up for a few more seasons.

Battle in the paint: The Sun’s post play was the biggest reason they won their elimination Game 4 at home. And if they had made their layups, Game 3 would have been theirs because of it, too.

The Sun start 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas, a high-intensity forward known as “The Engine” who packs stat lines at an average 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game. Miller can also pull a two-time All-Star in Brionna Jones, named Sixth Player of the Year, off the bench. She was second in scoring on the Sun. They’ll go up against two-time MVP A’ja Wilson and either Hamby or Stokes.

The Aces have the backcourt advantage with Gray, Most Improved Player Jackie Young (15.9 ppg) and Kelsey Plum (20.2 ppg), who earned MVP votes. Williams and Hiedeman, who both heated up as the semifinal series went on, will have to be at the top of their games and hit the open shots to keep up.

Will fatigue become a factor? It’s been a long and condensed season in the WNBA. There were 36 games shoved into 3½ months and a postseason completed in less than 30 days. That’s because of the FIBA World Cup starting Sept. 20 in Australia. Will all of that, plus the toll of commercial travel and lack of solid rest, creep up these next two weeks?

Wilson has shrugged off her minutes total this postseason — well, except for this truly fantastic moment after they booked their ticket to the Finals.

She played all but four minutes in the Storm series and it’s unlikely she gets too much rest in the Finals. The Aces haven’t relied on much of a bench all season, setting the WNBA record for points by a starting five (77.5 ppg). They’re averaging 80.8 of the team’s 92.3 ppg in the postseason.

Riquna Williams, a 3-point threat, averaged 22.3 off the bench in the playoffs but no other player is averaging more than 9.8. The bench averaged a league-worst 12.9 points per game in the regular season and 11.5 in the postseason.

The Sun can go to a deeper bench and have seen energy and production from Odyssey Sims (16.9 mpg playoffs) and Dijonai Carrington (16.5 mpg). And, of course, Brionna Jones (21.8 mpg).