WNBA playoffs 2020: Top seeds Las Vegas, Seattle survive with late-game heroics

When the Las Vegas Aces were minutes away from falling behind 2-0 in their WNBA semifinals series with the Connecticut Sun, it was MVP time for A’ja Wilson.

The third-year pro took over for Las Vegas in an 83-75 victory in Game 2 on Tuesday in the WNBA’s bubble in Bradenton, Florida. She had 29 points, 7 rebounds and 7 blocked shots.

“She kept us in the game the whole way, then won the game down the stretch,” Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said. “That’s what leaders do, that’s what MVPs do. That’s what All-Stars and Olympians [do] and, yeah, we’ve got one. And she made the plays.”

In the second semifinal, the Seattle Storm survived the Minnesota Lynx 88-86 on Alysha Clark’s buzzer-beating putback in Game 1, which had been postponed on Sunday after inconclusive COVID-19 tests. All the Storm players were cleared by Tuesday.

Wilson was presented the MVP award on Sept. 17 by league commissioner Cathy Engelbert in a surprise ceremony that left Wilson in tears. The No. 1 draft pick and rookie of the year in 2018, Wilson averaged 20.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in the regular season. She had 19 points and nine rebounds in the Aces’ 87-62 loss on Sunday when they were thoroughly outplayed by the Sun.

Connecticut lost Alyssa Thomas, their second-leading scorer and top rebounder — and one of the league’s premier defenders — midway through the first quarter to a shoulder injury. She didn’t return. And as well as the Sun played without her, Thomas’ absence was felt especially in the closing minutes as she wasn’t there to match up with Wilson. With the score tied at 75 with 1:03 left, Wilson made a driving layup and was fouled by Sun rookie Beatrice Mompremier. Wilson converted the free throw.

Then with 29.2 seconds left, Wilson made another layup to give Las Vegas an 80-75 lead. She was fouled again, but this time missed the free throw. But teammate Dearica Hamby got the rebound and made a putback that all but sealed the victory.

Wilson’s seven blocked shots are tied for third most in a WNBA playoff game; it happened four times before, including three by former Los Angeles Sparks star Lisa Leslie. The top two blocks performances in the WNBA playoffs belong to the Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner, with 11 in 2015 and eight in 2014.

Wilson said Leslie, a three-time WNBA MVP (2001, ’04, ’06), called her with congratulations after she won the honor last week. Wilson has long looked up to Leslie, who knew what it took to be a successful shot-blocker. Leslie had 822 blocks in the regular season in her 12 years in the WNBA. Wilson has 144 in three seasons.

“The biggest thing is just not fouling,” Wilson said of successful shot-blocking. “I’ve got to make sure my teammates understand I’m there for them if they get beat. I take a lot of pride in that.”

Wilson’s blocks were part of an overall better defensive effort from the Aces. She called Las Vegas’ performance in Game 1 a “hot mess,” and said the Aces needed a big turnaround in Game 2.

“I knew that I needed to attack the basket,” Wilson said. “I just had to change gears, because I felt like I was in cruise control and I can’t do that in the playoffs.”

Clark putback, defense help Storm take 1-0 lead

Alysha Clark was a big scorer as an undersized forward in college at Middle Tennessee, and transformed herself into a defensive stopper at the pro level. Her defense was important Tuesday, as she helped frustrate WNBA Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota’s point guard who was limited to four points. That was Dangerfield’s lowest point total since going scoreless July 28, also against Seattle, in just the second game of her career.

Clark’s scrappiness also provided the winning points. After Sami Whitcomb missed on a drive to the basket, the 5-foot-11 Clark grabbed the offensive rebound and shot it with five-tenths of a second left.

“The last 48 hours have been pretty stressful and exhausting,” said Clark, whose Storm had not played since their regular-season finale on Sept. 13. “You played the waiting game, sitting around waiting for test results.

“Playoffs, it’s all about making winning plays. Tonight, we needed both defense and that shot. To be able to be in position where I was able to do both, it makes me happy.”

Clark, who was also a key part of the Storm’s 2018 WNBA championship team, finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists.

“Clark is a smart, willful player,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “That’s one of the hardest rebounds to secure defensively. Clark’s trademark is being opportunistic in that way, outworking you, giving one more effort than maybe your opponent. Obviously, it was the difference in the game.”

Collier’s block party

With the news that center Sylvia Fowles was out because of a lingering calf injury that has bothered her most of this season, more pressure was on Minnesota’s other post players. Napheesa Collier was ready.

After being limited in touches in Minnesota’s second-round victory over Phoenix — 2 of 6 from the field for seven points — Collier had 25 points, 9 rebounds, 6 blocked shots and 3 assists in Minnesota’s last-second loss to Seattle.

During one stretch, she blocked former UConn teammate Breanna Stewart of Seattle three times. Stewart finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists.

“The two of us are obviously very versatile, and it’s never easy to guard someone like that,” said Stewart, who missed the Storm’s last two regular-season games and had not played since Sept. 9. “She continued to be aggressive and make big plays down the stretch.”

Loyd leads Seattle

The Storm wouldn’t have been in position to win at the buzzer without the exceptional effort they received from guard Jewell Loyd, who had a team-high 25 points. Even more impressive? She did it shooting 8 of 9 from the field and 5 of 6 from the foul line.

She had 30 points the last time the Storm played, in their regular-season finale loss to Las Vegas on Sept. 13. Tuesday was the eighth time this season Loyd has scored at least 20 points in a game.

“We find ways to win,” said Loyd, who is another of the Storm’s 2018 champions. “There was no doubt in our minds that we were gonna win this game. We stayed poised; we’re a veteran team.”

Sun were oh-so close to 2-0

The Sun were without Alyssa Thomas, their ultimate energy source, after she was injured five minutes into the game. So the fact that they took the Aces to the final minute should be a point of pride. And it was — but it also stings because that’s how close Connecticut was to taking a 2-0 lead in the series.

The Sun are the No. 7 seed and relish their “nobody respects us” mantra, but no one actually disrespects this team. They were one victory from a championship last year. Their 10-12 regular-season record in the bubble is reflective of a rough start, which has nothing to do with how they’re playing now. They blew out the top-seeded Aces in Sunday’s opener, and almost beat them again Tuesday with no Thomas.

DeWanna Bonner led Connecticut with 23 points, and Briann January had 20. But the Sun’s 17 turnovers were costly.

“Really proud of our tenacity, our fight,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “We struggled to find an offensive rhythm in the fourth quarter. But we were right there. And I know that locker room is disappointed that we didn’t get to the finish line. We turned it over too much. You can’t take that many possessions out of the game trying to beat a team like that.”

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