NEW YORK -- Tuesday's WNBA semifinals went how they were mostly projected to play out: The New York Liberty evened things up against the Connecticut Sun, avoiding a disastrous 0-2 start despite hosting the first two games of their best-of-five series.
And in the nightcap, the Las Vegas Aces took care of business against the Dallas Wings 91-84 to go up 2-0. The Aces are one win away from clinching a spot in the WNBA Finals for the second consecutive season and the third time in four years.
In Brooklyn, Game 2 started similarly to Game 1. Connecticut set the tone early and the Liberty had difficulty slowing down a Sun guard, in this case Tiffany Hayes. But this time New York responded with a big run to start the third quarter, forcing Connecticut coach Stephanie White to call two timeouts in the first 5:10 of the second half.
The Sun hung around and refused to be put away, but New York kept them at arm's length and ultimately finished with five players in double figures.
In Las Vegas, the Wings kept the game tighter than in Game 1, when they lost by 14 points. The Aces talked about how hard the Wings made them work, and they know they will get Dallas' best shot in trying to keep the series alive.
But Las Vegas' A'ja Wilson continued to be the star with her third consecutive game of 30 points or more, something no other WNBA player has done in the playoffs.
The WNBA semifinals continue Friday on ESPN2 when Connecticut hosts New York (7:30 p.m. ET) and Las Vegas visits Dallas (9:30 p.m. ET). We analyze what we learned from Tuesday's games and how the results will impact the semifinals moving forward.
Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu lobs a pass to Breanna Stewart, who drops in a layup.
How did New York rally to even its series with Connecticut?
New York didn't have the prettiest offensive output, but the Liberty saw improvement from Game 1. They got downhill, allowing them to pick up points from the free throw line. They managed more success from beyond the arc, hitting 10-of-26 3-pointers, and most importantly, they hit momentum-swinging shots at the right time.
New York also switched to a zone defense that gave Connecticut trouble -- the defensive stops helped lead to more offense on the other end. Another big difference from Game 1? The Liberty had 16 fast-break points Tuesday versus zero in Game 1, and New York scored 17 points off 10 Sun turnovers.
Betnijah Laney and Courtney Vandersloot also hit huge shots down the stretch after quiet outings in Game 1, both shooting north of 60% from the floor. It was the latest example of how New York has so many players who can step up and make winning plays if the Liberty's other superstars are having off nights, but that didn't happen in Game 1.
Breanna Stewart still hasn't found her shot this postseason -- she's shooting 27.8% from the field and 9.5% from 3 in the playoffs, percentages that might not be sustainable for New York to win a championship -- but Tuesday showed just how many ways she can still impact the game with her 11 rebounds, five assists, five blocks and two steals. She also extended multiple Liberty possessions by tipping the ball in the direction of teammates after a missed shot. -- Philippou
The Liberty's starting 5 SHOWED OUT in Game 2 vs. the Sun 🗽 pic.twitter.com/6aXkDKFbCj— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 27, 2023
What was a difference-maker for the Aces over the Wings?
Free throws were huge. Las Vegas got to the line almost twice as much, making 22-of-25 compared to 8 of 13 from Dallas. Wilson finished 10 of 10 from the line, which is one of the points of emphasis in her game.
"I don't have a consistent [3-pointer]; I probably am not going to shoot it a lot," Wilson said. "I've got to find other ways to get that extra point."
Wilson also said she is "haunted" by missing one free throw on Aug. 22, the night she converted 20 of 21 from the line in tying the WNBA single-season scoring record of 53 points. She wishes she had made that one extra free throw to claim the record.
"Every time I get to the line, I'm like, 'A'ja, this could be that one point,' " Wilson said. "Because, I was like, 'Dang, that was awful.' "
It's a measure of Wilson's competitiveness that she dwells more on the one miss than the 20 makes.
"She plays her freaking heart out every single night on both ends," teammate Chelsea Gray said. "My assist-to-turnover ratio might be a little worse if it wasn't for her." -- Voepel
What does Dallas have to do to keep the series alive?
The Wings haven't been able to slow Wilson, but they also have struggled to keep up offensively with the Aces. And once again, Wilson is a big part of that. The WNBA's Defensive Player of the Year for the second season in a row, Wilson's defense has been stellar against the Wings. They are shooting 32% against her as the primary defender, the lowest percentage against any Las Vegas defender.
The Wings shot 37.5% from the field Tuesday, following 43.7% on Sunday. At this point, as good as Las Vegas has been offensively and defensively, Dallas hopes to cool off Wilson a bit or this series ends Friday.
Aces coach Becky Hammon expects the game will be very difficult to win.
"It's extremely hard to close out a team, especially on their home court," she said. "It's hard to simulate that kind of emotion that will be coming from a very angry locker room. I don't want us to be content. We have a lot more work to do." -- Voepel
Sun guard Tiffany Hayes gets to the rack for a tough layup that gives her 30 points for the game.
How will the Sun look to adjust?
Hayes had her way against the Liberty, tying a playoff career high with 30 points on 12-for-19 shooting (5-for-8 from 3). But the rest of Connecticut's offense sputtered, going 15-for-49 (30.6%) from the field.
White said the Sun's offense became stagnant when the Liberty went to their zone, and so her squad will need to create better off-ball movement and move the ball more side to side.
"All of our stuff will still work against the zone," White said. "We just have to maintain discipline in how we're cutting, where we're cutting, and drawing multiple defenders."
Notably, New York guard Sabrina Ionescu insisted the Liberty don't want to rely on their zone and must continue to improve in their one-on-one defense.
Defensively, White believed her players fell short at keeping New York's players in front of them as the Liberty were aggressive in getting to the rim and the foul line. She said Connecticut needs to run New York off the 3-point line, stay more disciplined defensively and do its best to avoid giving up timely, back-breaking offensive boards to the Liberty. -- Philippou
How did Connecticut respond to Alyssa Thomas falling short of MVP?
Thomas didn't appear in general pregame or postgame media, but her teammates were lifting her up amid the disappointment of finishing second in the MVP race despite finishing with the most first-place votes. Rebecca Allen, Hayes and White discussed the team rallying for Thomas and trying to win for her Tuesday, even as they were disappointed in the MVP result.
White, a former WNBA player, appreciated how such an exciting three-player race for the award was good for the league's growth and represented how stellar the level of play has been this season.
DeWanna Bonner's emotions were more acute given Thomas is her fiancée. She took time to consider her response to a question on what the day was like for her, acknowledging "that's a tough question."
"No discredit to Stewie, because she's the MVP for a reason," Bonner said. "But what Alyssa did this season was unbelievable. So of course, the news was kind of, it was emotional, it was tough for her. Tough for our team. We played for her tonight. ... It was just a really emotional day for us as a team."
Thomas told The Next's Howard Megdal after the game, "I think I'm used to it. I've been snubbed so many times in my career that it's a normal feeling for me. It is what it is. We keep going, we still have an opportunity. We came here, we did what we were supposed to do, which was steal one on their court, and now it's about the two that are at our place." -- Philippou