Aces’ series win over Storm a singular display of WNBA greatness

Chelsea Gray set a new WNBA record with 30 points and 10 assists in the Aces' Game 4 semifinal win. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Few of us know what it’s like to be truly great at something. But we know it when we see it.

And we’ve seen it with the Aces and the Storm.

Seven No. 1 draft picks. Two MVP candidates. A legend in her last season. A Point Gawd. A semifinal series so great that basketball fans mourned its conclusion, even though it’s making way for the WNBA Finals themselves.

“There’s not enough adjectives for some of these players,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “Honestly, I mean they’re going to be named amongst the greatest to play, and to have them all on the court at one time batting at such high stakes, I don’t know if you’ll see it again.”

Though the Aces ended the series in four games on Tuesday, with a 97-92 victory at Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena, each contest was tight. And like Hammon said, each game had something we might not see again.

The series also had something we’ve never seen before: a player with 30 points and 10 assists in a playoff game.

Chelsea Gray did that.

With Game 4 tied at 87 with 1:20 left on the clock, Gray grabbed a defensive rebound and dribbled up the court. Riquna Williams ran in front of Gray’s defender to set a slip screen, and Gray stepped back for a 3-pointer.

It was a perfect make that gave the Aces a 90-87 lead. Thirty seconds later, she swished a jumper in the lane to put her team up five points, essentially securing the victory.

“I don’t think anyone on planet Earth can guard her,” Storm coach Noelle Quinn said. “She was unconscious.”

During the regular season, Gray averaged 17.7 points, 6.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds. In the postseason, she’s taken things to another level.

Gray is averaging 24 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3 rebounds, while shooting 62.6 percent from the field, 59.5 percent from the 3-point line and 88.9 percent from the free-throw line.

To her teammates, it’s no surprise. But it is a luxury.

“When Chelsea is rocking and rolling, my biggest thing is just getting the hell out of her way,” A’ja Wilson said. “I’ve never ever seen someone do that and dictate the game and just stay composed in all moments. Like, she’s built for this moment.”

While the Aces were getting out of her way, the Storm were trying to get in it. And on the other side, Las Vegas attempted to slow down another generational talent.

Breanna Stewart did everything she could to keep the Storm from going home. She tied a playoff record — previously set by Angel McCoughtry in 2010 — with 42 points, and she set one on her own with 26 points in the first half.

Stewart went 6-for-8 from the 3-point line, hit multiple step-back fadeaways with hands in her face and drew fouls that sent her to the free-throw line, where she made eight of 10 attempts.

“As much as they were over there scratching their heads about Chelsea, we were scratching our heads about Stewie,” Hammon said. “Like, ‘How we gonna stop this girl?’ She gave one hell of a performance.”

Despite the two stars combining for 72 points, the contest can’t be summed up simply as a Stewart and Gray back-and-forth.

Kelsey Plum got things going for the Aces early, scoring 10 points in the first quarter. Plum, whose 3-point shooting prowess has been well-documented, did most of her damage driving to the hoop, where she found a way to finish around bigger defenders.

Jackie Young also made big shots for the Aces, finishing with 18 points and going 3-for-3 from the 3-point line, a testament to her improvement from 25 percent 3-point shooting last season to 43 percent this season.

For the Storm, Jewell Loyd picked up the bulk of the scoring after Stewart, finishing with 29 points. She scored 11 of those points in the fourth quarter as the Storm attempted to force Game 5.

Nearly every player had their moment of greatness, and when you talk about greatness, you have to mention MVP candidate Wilson.

Though voting took place at the end of the regular season, both Stewart and Wilson showed why they were the leading two candidates during this series.

Wilson finished with a double-double on Tuesday night, scoring 23 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. She also played all 40 minutes, part of a stretch where she has played all but four minutes since the series began.

The stat is staggering but not to Wilson, who didn’t even know she’d played 161 minutes of basketball — including all 45 of the overtime contest on Sunday.

She’s in the best shape of her life, and it’s paying off.

“I feel great,” Wilson said. “Like even in fourth quarters, I’m like, ‘I’m good.’ … I don’t have time to be tired. At the end of the day, my teammates need me, whether it’s just me being in the moment or shooting a shot, they need me.”

The Aces certainly needed Wilson, who scored just eight points in their Game 1 loss to Seattle. Wilson said she was “hot” after the game, disappointed in her performance and frustrated by her lack of confidence. The MVP candidate responded by averaging 30 points and 12.3 rebounds during the last three games of the series. Las Vegas won all three to secure a spot in the Finals.

Their last victory Tuesday came on the road, as the Seattle faithful officially said goodbye to their great, Sue Bird.

That part was bittersweet.

“You kind of feel like the girl who beat Serena,” Hammon said of knocking Bird out of the playoffs. “I know myself and the whole staff, team and organization have so much respect for Sue. She had a fairytale career, one that kids dream of. She got to live it.”

Bird won four WNBA titles, all with Seattle, the franchise that drafted her. And after her final game, she echoed Hammon’s sentiments. Her career, she says, really was everything she could have asked for.

But that doesn’t mean she’s having second thoughts.

There’s sadness, of course, but what Bird witnessed on the court Tuesday proved to the point guard that the WNBA will be OK without her.

“I can only imagine from a spectator standpoint, they had to be some of the best games they’ve ever watched,” Bird said. “Just the shot-making, the play-making, the swings, the back-and-forth. That is exciting basketball.”

When Bird entered the league 21 years ago, this kind of game wasn’t typical. The depth of talent wasn’t yet there, she says, to have back-and-forth contests with multiple players scoring at a high clip.

Bird has been in the WNBA long enough to witness multiple stages of the game’s evolution, and each injection of talent was attached to a different type of player. It started with Cappie Pondexter and Seimone Augustus; then it was Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins-Smith; and now it’s players like Gray and Loyd, who can score at will on isolation plays.

Bird has seen it all, and been a part of it all. So as she stood on the court for one final time, listening to the Seattle crowd chant her name, she was excited for the future of the WNBA. She’s seen it grow. She’s seen it survive, and now she’s starting to see it thrive.

“I mean, the league is in good hands,” she said. “I think that is what this series tells you, because it was young players taking over.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.