LAS VEGAS – Kelsey Plum isn’t back. Chelsea Gray wants to make that clear.
Plum isn’t back, because that would imply that she left. She didn’t.
The All-Star guard may have been in a shooting slump in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals – she finished with just six points compared to her season average of 20.2 – but she still did all the little things necessary to help the Las Vegas Aces secure a win over the Connecticut Sun.
“There wasn’t points being added but she was getting assists. She was guarding Courtney Williams, a dynamic scorer,” Gray said. “There were things that she was still doing that kept her on the floor and I think that’s the growth, too, not just like, she’s back and she’s hitting shots. She’s been who we needed her to be. We need her out there on the floor.”
Then, in Tuesday’s Game 2, Plum was able to put it all together again. She did the little things and she did the big things, scoring 20 points in an 85-71 victory over the Sun at Michelob Ultra Arena to put the Aces one win away from their first WNBA championship.
The Washington alum finished the game with 20 points. Plum made just one 3-pointer – she averages 3.1 per game, the most in the WNBA – but that didn’t matter. She was able to get to the hoop whenever she wanted, and Plum made six buckets in the paint while also going 5-for-5 from the free throw line.
She took what the defense gave her and avoided forcing shots from long range.
“They really want to congest the lane, so I think we play higher, wider, set good screens, have good angles and make good reads,” Gray said of subverting the Sun defense. “Once we have good spacing, we can get a lot of different things in the paint or kick out for shooters.”
The Aces didn’t make many of those long-range shots – they were 6-for-26 (23.1%) from 3-point range – but Plum’s ability to get to the basket made up for it.
The Sun could not stay in front of the guard, and that caused their defense to fall apart. When she wasn’t finishing shots or drawing fouls, Plum was creating opportunities for others, as evidenced by her seven assists.
Even when she didn’t directly assist on a play, her driving ability caused the Sun defense to shift and create space for players like A’ja Wilson, who had 26 points, and Gray, who had 21.
And the threat of Plum knocking down shots from distance was enough to keep the Sun defense honest, even if she hasn’t gotten hot just yet.
“You have to respect her 3-ball,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “You don’t want to let her just shoot the 3, even though she’s been a little off this series. Just the threat of her, you don’t want to let her get rolling from there. So she’s fast, she’s fast with the ball. And I just wanted to use her, tell her she needed to live in the paint, and we live with whatever she does in there.”
When Plum finds a groove, the Las Vegas offense elevates to another level, according to Wilson. So the WNBA MVP made it her mission to light a fire in Plum before Game 2.
And Wilson wasn’t afraid to use fiery language to get her point across to the Aces’ regular-season scoring leader.
“I told her she needed to get her s— together,” Wilson said matter-of-factly. “At the end of the day that’s what she needs to do: Make sure she understood that we need her to make shots. I know it sounds harsh. But KP is a pro, and she went out there and took care of business.”
In addition to the pointed pep talk from Wilson, Plum also chatted with her psychologist before the game, something she does often.
“I talk to him all the time,” she said of her conversation with her psychologist, “(We talked about), like the ways different people approach when you’re ‘in a slump.’ I got people praying over me, I got people rubbing my hand, I got people trying to encourage me, I got people cussing me out. But everyone wants to win, you know, so really, actually I welcomed it very much.”
Plum has shot just 25% from 3-point range during the postseason. Despite still averaging 17.4 points over her team’s eight playoff games, the lack of production from long range is unusual for the sharp-shooter.
But her performance thus far in the WNBA Finals speaks to the guard’s overall growth. A season ago, she may have gotten frustrated with her lack of production from beyond the arc. She may have started forcing shots.
Instead, she found open teammates. She defended. She set screens. And she made it a priority to attack the basket.
Her perseverance paid off in a big way.
“I don’t think anything necessarily that I’ve done differently, you know, just my same routines,” she said. “I eat the same thing. I go to bed at the same time. Sometimes shots fall, sometimes they don’t, and for me I feel like it’s been a growth opportunity to how I can impact the game in other ways besides shooting the ball.”
She didn’t have to do anything differently, because whether she’s making 3-pointers or contributing to her team in other ways, Kelsey Plum is still Kelsey Plum. And that’s a player the Aces can’t live without.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.