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Why the Aces are the WNBA’s basically unbeatable team

Jackie Young and A'ja Wilson were two of the Aces' starters to finish in double digits against the Liberty. (David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images)

When the Las Vegas Aces played the New York Liberty, it was supposed to be the game of the season. Supposed to be a drag-it-out, fight to the finish. Supposed to be a preview of the WNBA Finals to come — and maybe it was.

But instead of a down-to-the-wire contest, it was a blowout. The Aces completely dominated the Liberty with a 98-81 victory. The game was billed as the “Battle of the Superteams,” but it wasn’t a battle, and there weren’t two superteams on the court. There was just one team that was much, much better than its opponent.

Which begs the question, “Can anyone beat the Aces?”

In a single game, sure. The Connecticut Sun already did it, handing the Aces their lone loss of the season. But in a playoff series, it’s hard to imagine anyone stringing together enough wins to stop Las Vegas from repeating as WNBA champions.

Let’s start with the obvious: the roster. The reason the Aces fall into the superteam category is because their starting five is that of an All-Star Game. MVP A’ja Wilson, former MVP Candace Parker, Finals MVP Chelsea Gray, Most Improved Player Jackie Young and All-WNBA First teamer Kelsey Plum. A simple list of those names is impressive, but it’s how they come together that makes Las Vegas so dominant.

The win over New York proves it’s not enough to have stars on the court. The Liberty have their own awe-inducing starting lineup with former MVPs Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, WNBA assists leader Courtney Vandersloot, former Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney and All-WNBA second-teamer Sabrina Ionescu.

Here’s the difference: New York looked like an All-Star team, and Las Vegas looked like a championship team.

The Liberty still look like a collection of stars playing on the court but not playing together, while the Aces are a unit, dripping with team chemistry.

They know how to feed the hot hand — it’s why Wilson, Plum, Young and Gray routinely rotate as the team’s leading scorer in any given game — and how to exploit defensive matchups.

Against the Liberty, Plum’s 18 points led the way, as the Aces focused on guard play and beating defenders off the dribble. Plum and Young were able to break down their defenders with quick first steps, while also using switches on screens to their advantage. The Liberty couldn’t stay in front, which created lanes for attacking and, in turn, opened up the entire offense.

In other situations, the Aces can use Wilson as their anchor and run offense through last season’s MVP. They have options, and they know when to use them.

Then there’s the defense. Becky Hammon has been very vocal about wanting more out of her team on the defensive end, and she’s getting it. The Liberty are averaging 87.5 points per game this season — second in the league behind the Aces — but Las Vegas held them below that average on Thursday night.

Individually, the Aces also contained Stewart and Ionescu to outputs well below their season averages. Stewart scores 22.1 points per game and is nearly impossible to stop, but Vegas held her to 16 points. And Ionescu reached less than half her season average of 15.3, contributing seven points in the loss.

That’s been a theme this season: The Aces hold their opponents to 77.7 points per game, which is second in the league. That, combined with their explosive offense, has Vegas winning their games by a WNBA-leading average of 15.5 points.

Of course, it is possible to beat Las Vegas. The Sun did it, with a 94-77 win in their second meeting of the season on June 4. In that game, two major statistics stand out.

First, the Sun kept Vegas off the glass. Averaging 34.8 rebounds per game this season, the Aces pulled down just 26 in that loss compared to 34 from the Sun. But rebounding isn’t actually one of the Aces’ major strengths. They are 7th out of 12 teams in that category, so keeping them off the boards doesn’t mean an automatic chance at victory. In fact, Las Vegas recorded just 27 rebounds against the Liberty.

The biggest factor in the Sun’s victory was DeWanna Bonner, who scored a career-high 41 points on 5-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc. Four players have scored over 40 points in a game this season — Jewell Loyd, Arike Ogunbowale, Stewart and Bonner — so it’s not exactly a common feat. The Sun needed a superhuman performance to top Las Vegas, and that’s not something that teams can conjure up on a nightly basis.

So, yeah, the Aces are beatable. But just barely.

The Liberty game only served to prove that Las Vegas is by far the best team in the WNBA, and it’s going to take a special string of games for anyone to stop the defending champs from repeating.

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