The stage is set with 6:24 left in Game 4 of the WNBA
The Las Vegas Aces hold a 60-59 lead coming out of a timeout,
and have just put their knockout lineup on the floor. Their small
unit — Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Riquna Williams, Jackie Young and
A'ja Wilson — will be tasked with bringing things home.
On the other side, the Connecticut Sun are rolling with their
big unit. Courtney Williams, DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas, Brionna
Jones and Jonquel Jones — a group that shrinks the floor for the
opposition and bludgeons them in the paint — pose a significant
challenge. It's the starkest example of the stylistic clash this
The Aces have to work on their first possession. Gray brings the
ball up the floor while being hounded by Thomas. Plum comes to set
a screen for Gray in an effort to pry Thomas away — and put
Courtney Williams in the action — but Thomas stays attached. Plum
eventually gets the ball and drills a tough pull-up triple over
Williams, but the shot comes nearly 20 seconds into the
But that possession is instructive for the Aces. They recognize
that the Sun aren't going to allow Gray to beat them. And while
they'd love to get Wilson involved as a screener, doing so
consistently would invite even more size and length for Gray to
have to navigate.
Roughly a minute later, the Aces push after a miss. Gray is once
again hounded by Thomas, so the Aces counter with a pair of early
drag screens. Wilson sets the first, while Riquna Williams sets the
second. Gray is able to get downhill and drag Williams' defender,
Jonquel Jones, with her.
A switch is forced as Gray loops around the paint, kicks the
ball to Young and receives it back on the left wing. The Sun don't
want Jones defending Gray, so Thomas peels over to trap her. Mayhem
occurs from there: Gray's pass to the now-open Williams is
deflected, but recovered. Young ends up with the ball and pump
fakes, then, cans a crucial pull-up jumper.
It's at that moment the Aces know that Riquna Williams is the
pressure point that will bring them home. Or, more coldly: They
know Jonquel Jones is the player they want to attack in space.
You know the rest of the story by now. The Aces find gold with
Williams setting screens and flaring out above the three-point
line. She would finish the game with 17 points, 11 of them coming
in the fourth quarter and 8 of those coming in the final two
For all the discussion about the Aces' bench throughout the
season, it's at least a little funny that a bench player slammed
the door of a closeout Finals game.
The buckets from Williams were loud, but the calculated nature
of the Aces' attack is what spoke loudest to me. Sun head coach
Curt Miller described the Aces' offensive attack as "NBA-like''
when asked about it ahead of Game 2. He made a
similar comparison when asked about the guard-guard screens the
Aces ran to close out Game 4.
"The guard-to-guard screens, as they ghosted out of a lot of
them, tried to put us in rotation," Miller told Basketball News
after the game."
“They were searching. They were trying to get some switches to
the matchup advantage they were looking for. That was the chess
match. Then, as we went big, they started to put different bigs in
that action also. Ultimately, a lot of that pro mentality that
leaps into the league from the NBA. We become a copycat league, and
that was the action they chose to run late."
Considering the recent background of Aces head coach Becky
Hammon — she was hired as a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach under
Gregg Popovich in 2014, and held the position until taking the Aces
job this year — it makes sense that there were NBA elements to her
game plan. When asked about coaches that influenced her style,
Hammon referenced some of the top coaches in the NBA.
"I really liked watching Brad Stevens, when he was coaching,
obviously. Quin Snyder, [Erik] Spoelstra, Mike Malone. There have
been a lot of people that I've watched over the years," Hammon told
"I was in San Antonio for eight years. That's close to 700
games; and that's just our games, not me watching other teams'
games for scouting purposes. It's a lot of basketball, so you just
see certain things along the way. Some of them are stolen right off
the page; other ones, I tweak and put different things in different
Look at the coaches referenced from Hammon, and you'll see some
Guard screening, on and off the ball, has been on the rise in the NBA for quite
some time. The type of mismatch hunting the Aces utilized down the
stretch of Game 4 is commonplace in the NBA, particularly in the
During Hammon's last season as an NBA assistant (2020-21),
Synder's Utah Jazz (17.3 per 100 possessions), Stevens' Boston
Celtics (13.4), and Spoelstra's Miami Heat (10.6) all ranked in the
top 10 in on-ball screens set by guards per Second Spectrum. That
trend holds with off-ball screens, with the Heat (23.0), Malone's
Nuggets (20.8) and the Celtics (19.2) populating the top
You'll have to hone in on the ATOs to see some of the "stolen
off the page" examples, like Hammon using the "Winner" set that
Stevens' Celtics popularized during the semifinals
against the Seattle Storm.
This doozy was also pulled out against the Storm, a nice
call-back to a set ran by Golden State Warriors head coach Steve
Kerr — another Popovich disciple.
But the broader concepts — the way Hammon uses her stars
together to put strain on defenses — really shine through with the
examples she used.
The Aces loved to use "Get" action — a pitch to a guard that
flows into a handoff and next flows into a ball-screen — as part of
their early offensive strategy. That was a Snyder staple in Utah,
one used to get Donovan Mitchell (or Mike Conley) downhill against
a titled defense.
There were the Plum screens set for Wilson to pry her free.
Between traditional cross screens, pindowns inside the arc and
random pin-in screens on the perimeter, you can easily draw
parallels between those two and the two-man actions we'd see from
Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic under Malone.
I'd wager the Spoelstra influence is felt more on the defensive
side of the ball. He's one of the brightest defensive minds in NBA
history, with his hallmark being his team's versatility.
The Aces certainly embodied that, eschewing their conservative
style from last season to more of a hybrid system. They were
aggressive against ball-screens — until they weren't. They deployed
drop coverage, until they wanted to switch.
There was zone. So much zone — another Spoelstra hallmark.
(It's also worth noting it's a Ty Lue staple. Aces assistant
coach Natalie Nakase brought her experience as a Clippers assistant
coach — among other stops — with her this season.)
While Riquna Williams was bombing away on one end, the Aces went
to a zone to close things out on the other end. That often left
Gray, Williams and Young battling on the boards against the Sun's
massive frontcourt. This possession still rings in my head.
When asked about the process about implementing such a varied
style, Hammon said she wanted to keep everyone — her opponents and
her team — on their toes.
"When I went back and watched, obviously, a lot of games from
the last year, and just me watching the WNBA over the last eight
seasons since I've left, really, [it was] just something to mix
things up," Hammon told Basketball News.
"You know, we've tried different defenses on Steph Curry, Dame
Lillard. If we can junk it on them, we can junk it on anybody. It
was just an idea to try to give people a different look to try to
mix it up."
While the schematic shifts and tactical excellence was easy to
see this year, it would all be moot without getting commitment from
her players. If there's a through line between Hammon and the
coaches she referenced, it's the ability to engage players and get
them to buy in.
"I think the bigger thing is the players really bought into it,"
Hammon told Basketball News about the defense.
"It doesn't matter what scheme you're doing; the players have to
believe in it. I think, at the end of the day, they saw enough good
results. There were times when Chelsea was calling the defense,
junk defense. I'm not even putting us in junk; she's putting us in
junk. It's a fun way to play and it keeps the players locked in and
alert because we do switch it up quite a bit."
Nakase recently echoed those sentiments, saying
Hammon's "ability to get buy-in is probably the fastest I’ve ever
seen." That's strong praise for a coach who's spent time working
with Lue and Doc Rivers.
It's hard to overstate how good of a job Hammon has done in Year
1. While it would be easy to highlight how foolish some NBA
decision-makers should feel for not offering Hammon a head coaching
job — they absolutely should feel foolish — it's worth celebrating
how she flipped the slight on its head.
"I mean, my journey is not by mistake," Hammon said after Game
4. "Every hard thing that I've gone through has built something in
me that I've needed down the road, and even though it sucks in the
moment to not to be picked or to get hurt or whatever it might be,
the hard stuff builds stuff in you that's necessary for life and
you'll use it down the road. It may not feel like it in that
"For me, it's not really about proving other people wrong, it's
about proving myself right. If you guys haven't figured out yet, I
don't really care."
A wonderful bar from a wonderful coach to cap a wonderful debut