WNBA playoffs: A'ja Wilson's 38 points lead Aces to semifinals; Lynx force Game 3

There will be at least one winner-take-all Game 3 in the first round of the WNBA playoffs.

The No. 6 seed Minnesota Lynx forced the decider by bouncing back from their 30-point Game 1 blowout loss to defeat the No. 3 Connecticut Sun, 82-75. Game 3 will be played Wednesday at Target Center in Minneapolis in the 2-1 format.

The No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces became the first to clinch a berth in the semifinals by ousting the No. 8 Chicago Sky, 92-70, in two games at home. They will have a full week off before facing the winner of No. 4 Dallas and No. 5 Atlanta at home in Las Vegas. Dallas leads, 1-0.

Here’s how the Lynx won, what the Sun need to do in Game 3 and what (or who) makes the Aces most dangerous on their quest for a repeat title.

Lynx steady as the vets

Minnesota, who starts two rookies due to injuries, needed more from its stars, and facing elimination in Game 2, they delivered.

Napheesa Collier, a long shot MVP candidate, and Kayla McBride, the most veteran player on the roster, combined for 54 points (65% of the team’s total) to bring a deciding Game 3 back home to Minneapolis. In the 30-point Game 1 blowout loss, they combined for 30 of the team’s 60 points, while no other player scored more than eight.

The production from the rest of the team was much the same on Sunday as the third-highest scorer had six points, but Collier and McBride did plenty to tilt the tides. Collectively, all played better defense on the Sun with seven steals and keeping them away from their 50% 3-point clip in Game 1.

Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier was key to the Game 2 win, and the Lynx will need her at full strength to pull off the first-round series win. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier was key to the Game 2 win, and the Lynx will need her at full strength to pull off the first-round series win. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Collier was 12-of-24 for 26 points with 13 rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block. She eclipsed her 14-point total of Game 1 within the second quarter, but exited early in the third quarter with a lower back injury. She was ruled questionable by the Lynx and returned two minutes of play later. In the early minutes, she moved gingerly. Her status will be an important key to Game 3. She played only two of the Lynx’s four games against the Sun and in Minnesota’s only win of the series, Collier scored 30.

The Lynx led, 51-44, when she left. McBride made sure they kept pace with the Sun until Collier returned, and when she did, they went on a 14-1 run to take a game-high 16-point lead. The Sun answered with their own 14-0 run to come within a possession.

DeWanna Bonner’s 3-pointer on an assist by Alyssa Thomas brought it within three with 2:33 on the clock. It was Collier who poked the first hole in the Sun’s deflating balloon on the next possession. Her jumper under the basket bounced off the rim into the hands of a pack in the paint that included Thomas and Bonner, the Sun’s two main scorers and playmakers.

Collier took it from their hands, hit the basket and earned an and-1, though it missed. McBride grabbed a defensive rebound on the other end, hit the layup to make it a seven-point lead and the Sun essentially called it over from there. McBride was 10-of-18 and 6-of-11 from 3-point range. She made only six baskets in the first game, two of which were from outside the arc. She added eight rebounds, two assists and a steal.

It was the first time in Lynx history that multiple players have scored at least 25 points in the same game, per ESPN Stats and Information. The franchise is rebuilding from its dynasty years that featured four titles in seven years with the likes of Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles.

Collier, in her fifth season, is the common link between eras. Head coach Cheryl Reeve, who received Coach of the Year votes, is the only one starting two rookies in the postseason. Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhász averaged a combined 10.5 points per game in the two playoff contests. Only Chicago has played more than one rookie this postseason when it went deep in the bench in a Game 1 blowout.

Sun’s ‘role players’ can’t go quiet in Game 3

Connecticut’s star duo nearly matched that of the Lynx with a combined 50 points. But unlike in Game 1, the rest of the Sun was less prolific. The Sun need to play a full defensive game and receive more from those “role players” around them in Game 3 to continue on in the postseason.

Bonner, who took an elbow to the face and remained down on the court bleeding near the end of the third, scored 24 points on 8-of-20 shooting. She was 6-of-10 from 3-point range and hit two of three big attempts to pull the Sun within striking distance in the fourth.

Thomas, a leading MVP candidate, scored 26 points (10-of-18) with eight rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal. She never came out, playing a full 40 minutes for the 10th time this season (not including two overtime contests). Her shot wasn’t falling early, and she clearly knew it given her body language after misses. The Lynx won paint points, 42-32, and rebounds, 35-32.

Connecticut Sun players look on in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the first round of the 2023 WNBA Playoffs against the Minnesota Lynx on Sept. 17, 2023, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Connecticut shot out to the Game 1 win by opening up the contest early with 3-pointers, not a standard aspect of their winning game plans. Rebecca Allen (5-of-6 from 3), Tiffany Hayes (4-of-6 from 3) and Tyasha Harris (3-of-3 off the bench) joined Bonner and Thomas as double-digit scorers in Game 1. DiJonai Carrington, who is still dealing with a left foot injury, scored nine off the bench.

At halftime of Game 2, those four combined for eight points shooting 3-of-8 overall and missing all four 3-point attempts. Allen scored eight in the second half to finish with 10. The rest combined to score 13, led by Hayes’ 6. The only player other than Bonner to hit a 3 was Allen.

A’ja Wilson in MVP mode

Wilson took over Game 2 from the first buzzer, leading the high-octane Aces offense with 38 points. It was a career-high in the playoffs and a franchise-high, breaking the record of 34 set by head coach Becky Hammon when the team was in San Antonio. Wilson added 16 rebounds, four blocks, three steals and an assist.

The reigning MVP was credited for three steals and three blocks in the first quarter alone. Her defense fueled the Aces’ offense with nine fast-break points in the first 10 minutes. She helped them control the paint points (12-2) as they went up 23-14 after one quarter and 44-29 at the half. Vegas won the paint points (42-24), points off turnovers (15-9) and fast-break points (16-9).

Wilson took a hard hit to the face and appeared to be hit in the eye late in the fourth quarter. She stayed on the bench and was seen by athletic trainers. Though she did not re-enter the game with it already decided, she did the postgame TV interview and was in good spirits.

It’s that defensive effort, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Wilson, that sets this Aces team apart from the 2022 title-winning one. And it’s been even more lethal in the early goings of the postseason. Las Vegas had 12 steals, after 10 in Game 1 against the Sky.

Aces look ahead to semifinals

If there’s anything to worry about, it’s that the shots weren’t falling as nicely for nearly anyone else on the Aces’ roster. They let the Sky come within nine midway through the fourth quarter and needed the classic Chelsea Gray dagger bucket to end the threat. Wilson broke the scoring record on the next layup and Kelsey Plum drained a 3-pointer to push the lead back to 20 points. Plum was 2-of-9 with one 3 before the hit.

Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson reacts after scoring against the Chicago Sky in Game Two of the 2023 WNBA Playoffs first round at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas on Sept. 17, 2023. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson reacts after scoring against the Chicago Sky in Game Two of the 2023 WNBA Playoffs first round at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas on Sept. 17, 2023. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Sixth player Alysha Clark was the only Aces player who took at least two attempts and was better than 30%. She was 5-of-8, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range, for 14 points. Jackie Young was 5-of-17 (29.4%), Plum was 3-of-11 (27.3%) and Gray was 3-of-10 (30%).

Las Vegas will pull either No. 4 Dallas or No. 5 Atlanta in the best-of-five semifinals.

Dallas is the only team in the league to defeat the Aces, Sun and Liberty at least once. The Wings pack the paint with the tallest frontcourts in the league that could cause problems for Wilson and center Kiah Stokes. Though Stokes is a solid defender, teams can often lag off of her on the Aces’ offensive end. The Wings could steal one on the road if the Aces’ guards have an off outing. The Aces’ two-point loss to the Wings was one of their worst offensive games.

Atlanta lost by an average margin of 14.8 points in its four regular-season meetings with Las Vegas. Two of those contests were among the Aces’ best defensive games of the season.

Early offseason look for Chicago

Given the historic nature of the Aces this season, the Sky were in a worse position for a No. 8 seed since the WNBA switched to the new format ahead of the 2022 postseason. But they didn’t have the lottery positioning to play for since their 2024 first-round draft pick went to the Dallas Wings in the trade that brought Marina Mabrey to Chicago.

The Sky have played under interim head coach Emre Vatansever since James Wade stepped down to become an assistant with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. Wade was also the general manager and the Sky plan to separate the two jobs, which has become the trend in the league.

Kahleah Copper, the mainstay of their 2021 championship team, signed an extension earlier this month and the team has Mabrey, Isabelle Harrison, Elizabeth Williams and Sixth Player of the Year candidate Dana Evans signed for next season. Courtney Williams is an unrestricted free agent as is Alanna Smith.