WNBA Finals: Aces try for 1st win in New York; why Las Vegas didn’t qualify for another hardship contract

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LAS VEGAS — The New York Liberty’s three wins against the Las Vegas Aces in August feel like a lifetime ago after watching the first two games of the 2023 WNBA Finals.

The Aces entered the month with a 23-2 record and eight wins of at least 20 points. In their second game of August, they faced the Liberty for the second time and were crushed by 38 points at Barclays Center. Three more losses followed, including a nine-point loss to New York again at Barclays.

“We had our little rough stretch, and we should,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said. “Every team should have a rough stretch. You shouldn’t go through the season just skipping along. You should hit a rough patch, and when you hit the rough patches, you get to see what you’re made of. And I know what my team is made of.”

The Aces’ league-leading offense turned it up another notch and answered its 99 points in Game 1 with 104 in Game 2. They are the first team in WNBA history to shoot 50% from the field and 40% from 3 in back-to-back Finals games, per ESPN Stats and Information. Their 130 offensive rating in Game 2 was 20 points better than their season average (111.5).

A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young, Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray combined for 178 points (of the Aces’ 203 total) over the two games, the most of any four teammates in a two-game span in WNBA playoffs history.

The team has yet to drop a postseason game in 2023, sweeping two games against the Chicago Sky in the first round and three against the Dallas Wings in the semifinals. Their only road trip since Sept. 8 was Game 3 in Dallas two weeks ago. Hammon said ahead of Game 1 she was concerned about rust or overthinking given the Aces’ week-plus layoff into the Finals, but it’s been the opposite.

“We’re rested and they’re focused 100%,” Hammon said. “It’s pretty basic. When they’re locked in and rested, I like us.”

The Aces are one win away from repeating as champions and will look to do it on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC) in an arena they haven’t won in this season. Teams that fall behind 2-0 since the Finals shifted to a best-of-five are 0-17 all time in winning the title. The Aces won both games at home last season and lost Game 3 to the Connecticut Sun, which featured current Liberty center Jonquel Jones.

“We’ve got thumped in their building twice,” Hammon said. “So we’re going to come with the appropriate respect, the appropriate focus and emotion for the moment.”

Aces didn’t qualify for additional hardship signing

For a second consecutive season, the Aces are relying almost exclusively on their starting five. That group took the dais for a short postgame interview Wednesday and was asked about playing so many minutes while still playing their best basketball. Plum answered by saying the Aces weren’t allowed to use a hardship waiver as other teams had done.

“The league didn’t let us get a hardship player, so we’ve been dealt with the cards we’ve [been] dealt,” Plum, a vice president of the players’ union, said. “No one cares; figure it out. That’s kind of like our motto.”

Added Wilson: “You can’t feel sorry. We’ve been in this situation where this team has been hit with a lot of different things and we just continue to build up each other and make sure that we’re just poised in every situation.”

Hardship contracts are outlined in the collective bargaining agreement and allow teams to sign players to short-term deals when multiple rostered players are out due to “injury, illness or other condition.” It only kicks in when a second player is out due to injury. The waiver requires the first injured player to be out three additional weeks from the date filed to the league. The second injured player must be out at least two games. All determinations are made by a WNBA physician.

Emergency hardship waivers are similar and available for when a team drops below 10 players “as a result of injuries, illnesses, other conditions or other extenuating circumstances.” The emergency hardship contract is terminated immediately as soon as 10 players are able to play again.

The Aces were without Riquna Williams to begin the season due to a back injury. It dropped their roster to 10 since they had signed the minimum 11, rather than 12, to stay under the salary cap. It therefore did not qualify them for a hardship. (Williams has since been away from the team after domestic violence charges, which a judge dropped when Williams’ wife reportedly stopped answering calls from the district attorney’s office. It does not change her status in regards to hardship waivers.)

Candace Parker looks on from the bench before Game 2 of the 2023 WNBA Finals against the New York Liberty at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas, on Oct. 11, 2023. Parker is out indefinitely after having foot surgery earlier this season. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Candace Parker, their super-team-level free-agent signing, played 18 games before undergoing foot surgery that has kept her out “indefinitely,” per the Aces. She was at Aces practice on Saturday without a boot, but did not take part in any physical activity except for an attempt at a halfcourt shot during the media viewing portion. Because they had two injured players (and dropped below 10 available), they were granted an emergency hardship waiver and signed Ashley Joens, a 2023 draftee from Iowa State.

After two seven-day contracts with Joens to fill the gap, they instead signed veteran Alaina Coates to the hardship on Aug. 2. Coates re-signed three additional times, as is required, and played garbage minutes with the reserves in Game 2.

They have not had any more reported long-term injuries to warrant a hardship since that time, which would be required to qualify. The ESPN broadcast reported Plum was playing with a fractured finger, but when she was asked about it after the game, she froze and quickly said, “No.”

The 10-player available roster is Wilson, Plum, Gray, Young, Kiah Stokes, Alysha Clark (22.5 mpg), Cayla George (8.5 mpg), Sydney Colson (4.8 mpg), Kierstan Bell (11.8 mpg) and Coates (3.0 mpg).

Breanna Stewart awaits news on baby boy

The Aces and Liberty arrived in New York on Thursday ahead of Sunday’s Game 3 at Barclays Center. Liberty forward Breanna Stewart attended an ultrasound appointment with her wife, Marta Xargay, who is expecting the pair’s second child.

“She’s due on Oct. 29, but he’s pretty big, so I’m sure he’ll come earlier,” Stewart said Wednesday at shootaround.

The ultrasound will give them a better idea of what’s next and when the baby might be born. Xargay stayed back in New York, where Stewart’s grandmother is “holding it down” and helping Xargay while Stewart was in Vegas, she said. The series will stay in New York until Game 4, if necessary, on Wednesday. If Game 5 is necessary, it will be played Oct. 20 in Las Vegas.

Diana Taurasi, who Stewart plays with on Team USA, booked her own charter flight from Connecticut home to Phoenix after Game 5 of the 2021 semifinals. Penny Taylor, her wife, went into labor with their second child during the game, and Taurasi made it home in time for the birth. Taylor was three days past her due date, and Taurasi had labeled the situation “hour-to-hour” knowing she might have to leave at any time.

Stewart and Xargay’s daughter, Ruby Mae Stewart Xargay, was born via surrogate on Aug. 9, 2021. Ruby was ahead of schedule by two weeks when the couple went to the 29-week check-up, Stewart said then. But she did not come early and was born the day after Stewart returned from winning the gold medal with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics.

Kelsey Plum’s missed connection

Plum is heading to husband Darren Waller’s coast, but their work schedules aren’t lining up this weekend. Waller was traded from the Las Vegas Raiders to the New York Giants in March and will be in western New York to play the Buffalo Bills on “Sunday Night Football.”

Hours before kickoff, Plum and the Aces will play Game 3 in Brooklyn. It’s at least a seven-hour drive. The two met in Las Vegas and have spent their entire relationship based there together until his trade, which came the day they returned from their honeymoon.

“We’re really just encouraging each other and uplifting each other, because this has been a tough season for us apart,” Plum said.

Kelsey Plum and Darren Waller at the inaugural IX Awards at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, on June 17, 2022. The pair married in the WNBA offseason. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Kelsey Plum and Darren Waller at the inaugural IX Awards at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, on June 17, 2022. The pair married in the WNBA offseason. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) (Ethan Miller via Getty Images)

Plum said if his schedule allows with the NFL’s long practice days, Waller will try and make it to a Game 4, if one is needed on Wednesday. The Giants will host the Washington Commanders the following Sunday, which is two days after a Game 5, if necessary.

“D [Darren] and I understand the incredible pull that you have when you’re a professional athlete in terms of some of the things you have to do and your time is very limited,” Plum said.

When the season concludes, Plum said she plans to spend her offseason in New Jersey with him where she’ll train for the 2024 WNBA season. She’s an unrestricted free agent in 2025, when the players’ union or the league can opt out of the CBA. The union is likely to do so.

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