Two, by two, by two.
That’s been the Las Vegas Aces’ offensive philosophy ever since coach Bill Laimbeer took over three years ago. The former Detroit Pistons Bad Boy and three-time WNBA champion instilled a tough, physical brand of basketball that overwhelms opponents inside with a relentless low-post assault.
And yet a curious thing happened in Friday’s WNBA Finals opener when the No. 2 seed Storm, the supposedly finesse perimeter-shooting team in this matchup, flipped the script and beat the top-seeded Aces at their own game during a 93-80 victory in Bradenton, Florida.
Led by Breanna Stewart’s 37 points, 28 from Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird’s WNBA playoffs-record 16 assists, the Storm outscored Las Vegas 48-18 in the paint while holding the Aces 25 points fewer than their league-leading regular-season average.
“We shot 30% from twos,” Laimbeer said Saturday during a teleconference call. “That’s not good. It’s just an anomaly. That’s not who we are.”
However, that’s the Storm.
Under defensive whiz Gary Kloppenburg, the Storm led the WNBA in points allowed and opponents’ field-goal percentage during the regular season.
“You want to take away their first strength and maybe their second strength, so they have to do something that they’re not used to doing,” Kloppenburg said. “It’s been our philosophy all year long. Trying to game plan to take away a team’s strength.”
In its previous series, it took the Storm two games to devise a scheme and shut down Minnesota’s vaunted three-point attack during a 3-0 sweep in the semifinals.
The Storm entered the Finals knowing it needed to slow down WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, who averaged 21.8 points and 10.4 rebounds while shooting 51.9% during a gritty five-game semifinals against No. 7 Connecticut.
With Natasha Howard as the primary defender, Wilson finished with a quiet 19 points on 6-for-20 shooting from the field and 7 for 8 on free throws. She also had six rebounds in 35 minutes.
“It wasn’t just me (and) I can’t take all the credit,” said Howard, the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. “It was a team effort. We all were locked in on what we needed to do and who we wanted to score for Vegas and who we don’t want to score.”
Kloppenburg added: “For the most part, we did a pretty good job trying to keep (Wilson) in congestion. Trying to front her and cut her touches down. She’s a very, very good post player.
“We had some good possessions where we came hard on the trap. When she put it on the ground, we came with another body. We continually have to do that with her. Make that 20 points that she gets a difficult 20. That’s what you want to try to do with a great player like that.”
The Storm made it a priority to double team Wilson inside, which allowed Angel McCoughtry (20 points), Kayla McBride (13) and Danielle Robinson (10) to collectively convert 10 of 16 three-pointers.
And that’s a trade-off the Storm will make every time with a Las Vegas team that ranked last in the WNBA during the regular season in made and attempted three-pointers.
“These are the best players in the world so if you can get them out of option A and push them to B and C — if they beat you then you can live with that,” said forward Alysha Clark, who had difficulty stopping McCoughtry, who sank 5 of 6 three-pointers. “She’s shown and proven over her career she can score the ball inside, midrange and from three. But right now, she’s been finishing at an extremely high rate inside.
“I’ll live with (McCoughtry shooting outside). Credit to her, she hit some tough threes. She hit some when they needed them. That’s what big-time players do. But when you’re on the defensive end, it’s about numbers and it’s about getting them away from their strengths and making them beat you another way.”
The Storm fully expect a renewed effort from the Aces in Sunday’s noon Game 2, considering Las Vegas rebounded from two blowout losses in the previous round.
“You make a couple of adjustments, but you can’t make a lot of adjustments at this time of the year,” said Laimbeer, whose teams are 9-1 in the postseason after a double-digit defeat. “What you have to do is impose upon them that it is a five-game series. Even if you lose one game, so what? Whether by 1 or 21, it’s still an ‘L.’
“You can’t give in. You have to believe. You have to create a mindset of, OK, they got one, now it’s our turn. We need to get one. It’s a test of wills.”
A win Sunday gives the Storm a stranglehold in the Finals considering no WNBA team has ever lost a best-of-five series after leading 2-0.
After her record-setting Game 1 performance — no player had ever finished with 37 points and 15 rebounds in a WNBA Finals — Stewart, the 2020 MVP runner-up, sidestepped questions about any personal rivalry with Wilson.
“I’m all about a championship right now,” said Stewart, the 2018 WNBA Finals MVP. “That’s the main focus. We came here for a reason. It was bigger than us, and obviously (we want to) continue to amplify the message and show everyone what this league is about on and off the court.
“But we want to go home with a championship.”
Storm, Bird top sales
The Storm led the WNBA in team merchandise sales and Sue Bird had the top-selling jersey this season, the league announced Friday. It’s the first time in her 17-year career that the Seattle guard led the list.
“It’s pretty cool, I’m not going to lie,” said Bird, who wears No. 10. “It actually kind of dawned on me, we must have some new WNBA fans. Because at this point, I’ve been here for so long, if you were a fan of me you probably got that jersey 10, 11, 12 years ago.
“So maybe it’s a sign that there are new people getting interested in the league and they’re copping those jerseys, but it’s pretty cool.”
Following Bird, the top five included (in order) Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, Los Angeles’ Candace Parker, New York’s Sabrina Ionescu and Minnesota’s Maya Moore.
Breanna Stewart was seventh on the list.