Liberty vs. Aces Finals Preview: Matchups, Advantages, Making History and More
In the longest season in WNBA history, filled with record-setting performances on the court and growth in viewership and attendance across the board, it is only fitting that the Finals will feature the most anticipated matchup in recent years—the New York Liberty vs. the Las Vegas Aces.
It is a matchup that many basketball fans expected to see and bet on before the regular season even started because of the “superteam” moniker that has been given to both teams.
The first two games of the series will be played at Michelob Arena in Las Vegas while the third, and fourth if needed, will be at Barclays Center. The series will return to Las Vegas if a Game 5 is needed.
Both Teams Seeking History
The Liberty and Aces will both have the chance to make history for their respective franchises by winning it all this year. New York clinched its first WNBA Finals appearance since 2002 while the Aces are looking to repeat as defending champions after beating the Connecticut Sun 3-1 in the Finals last season. No team has repeated as champions since the Los Angeles Sparks won it all in 2001 and 2002.
The Liberty are looking for their first championship in franchise history, as their previous four final trips, including three of the first four WNBA Finals (’97, ’98, and ’00) all resulted in losses, including the most recent in 2002 when New York fell to the Los Angeles Sparks. They are the only original WNBA franchise to have not won a championship.
As for the Aces, the team moved to Las Vegas before the 2018 season after spending their first six seasons as the Utah Starzz, then as the San Antonio Silver Stars from 2003-13 and San Antonio Stars from 2014-17.
The Liberty were tested in their first two playoff series against the Washington Mystics in two games and Connecticut Sun in four, but their stars were able to make key plays down the stretch to come out on top, which has given them experience as a team in facing adversity and close games. The Aces were dominant in their two series, sweeping both the Chicago Sky and Dallas Wings.
“We’ve been battle tested every single game and I think that has only helped us as the series has gone on and understanding how we can continue to get better,” Sabrina Ionescu said.
How They Got Here
Both the Liberty and Aces came into the WNBA regular season with high expectations, and both delivered, as the only two teams to lose fewer than 10 games this year. As 2022 WNBA champions and Commissioner’s Cup winners, the Aces were looking to repeat as one of the most dangerous teams in the league, and their preseason acquisitions simply added to their stardom.
Las Vegas traded away Dearica Hamby but acquired 16-year veteran Candance Parker from the Chicago Sky and 11-year veteran Alysha Clark from the Washington Mystics. Even with a longer regular season compared to previous years, the Aces had arguably the best season in WNBA history with a 34-6 record—the most wins ever—including their longest winning streak at nine games.
Yet, Parker has not played since July 7 after undergoing surgery on a left foot fracture. Even though the Aces have played most of the season without Parker, she still gave them height, length and experience when she was on the court.
Meanwhile, the Liberty narrowly made the playoffs last year as a No. 8 seed but lost to the Chicago Sky in the first round.
With a new vision from Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb, named the WNBA Executive of the Year, and the support of owners Clara and Joe Tsai at Barclays Center, the Liberty instantly shot to the top of league standings and title hopefuls with the acquisition of Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot in the offseason to join a starting lineup including Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney. Each of these acquisitions have previous Finals experience and gave the New York franchise something to be excited about.
The Liberty were also dominant during the regular season, winning a franchise-record 32 games. They overcame some struggles early on and especially developed their on-court chemistry after the All-Star break. New York is going into the Finals fully healthy, with Han Xu the team’s only player away from the team due to an overseas commitment.
The Finals will also feature five former No. 1 picks in the WNBA draft: Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Ionescu.
Regular Season Results
The Aces and Liberty split their regular season meetings 2-2, as New York’s Commissioner’s Cup win did not count in the season standings.
In their first matchup on June 29, the Aces proved to be too much for the Liberty in a 98-81 win in Vegas. The Aces were virtually unstoppable at that point of the season at 14-1 and the Liberty were still finding their footing in terms of lineups and chemistry. In the game, the Aces opened up a double-digit lead in the second half and did not look back, with the Liberty committing 17 turnovers.
The next matchup looked completely different over a month later, as the Liberty had one of their most dominant games of the season on Aug. 6, defeating the Aces 99-61 at Barclays Center—including outscoring the Aces 30-9 in the third quarter. Ionescu got hot, scoring 31 points, while Wilson struggled, going 2-of-14 from the field.
The third matchup of the season was the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship, which resulted in an 82-63 victory for the Liberty and their first Commissioner’s Cup title. Wilson struggled again in this game, going 2-of-10 for nine points, and Jonquel Jones was named the game’s MVP after posting 16 points and 15 rebounds.
“We came here to win games and contend for WNBA championships,” Stewart said.
Two days later, the Aces beat the Liberty on their home court, 88-75, as Chelsea Gray scored 22 points. Finally, in their final regular season meeting, the Liberty defeated the Aces 94-85 in front of the largest crowd at Barclays Center this season as Ionescu scored 25 points.
This Finals matchup will be the first between two players who have won multiple MVPs—Stewart and Wilson. Both players were stars in college, Olympic teammates and two-time captains for the WNBA All-Star game.
Stewart won her first MVP in 2018 as a member of the Storm and won her second this year, totaling 446 total points in voting and becoming the first player in Liberty history to take home the hardware. She posted multiple career bests, including points per game (23) and also scored 919 points on the season, which ranked second most all-time.
Stewart has struggled offensively during the playoffs, especially from three, going just 6-of-29 through the first two series. She improved greatly in the final two games against the Sun and has also impacted the game defensively, even when her shots are not going through.
Wilson, a two-time MVP in 2020 and 2022, placed third in this year’s MVP voting, 13 points behind Stewart, but she was named the Defensive Player of the Year. Wilson averaged 22.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks and made headlines for a 53-point game, tying the WNBA record, on Aug. 22 against the Atlanta Dream. She often sat out many of the team’s fourth quarters during the regular season due to the Aces having runaway leads.
Even while struggling against the Liberty in the regular season, Wilson has been the strongest player in the playoffs up to this point and has scored 30+ points in three of the Aces’ five playoff games. Wilson said not winning the MVP award “hurt like hell,” which may give her an extra push to want to beat Stewart and the Liberty.
New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello and Aces coach Becky Hammon are also making history, as it will be the first time two former players will be coaching in the WNBA Finals. Brondello played for the Detroit Shock in 1998, the Miami Sol and the Seattle Storm in 2003. She also won a WNBA championship as coach of the Phoenix Mercury in 2014.
Hammon has special ties to New York as she was a member of the Liberty team from 1999-2006, becoming a fan favorite for her aggressive play. Hammon then played for the San Antonio Silver Stars for eight seasons. After serving as an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs, Hammon took over as Aces coach in 2022 and led the team to a championship in her first season at the helm.
“It helped us a lot, playing [those four times] in August,” Brondello said. “The chess match begins now. … I’m excited, I know Becky will be excited. But it’ll be a hard-fought battle, and we’re battle-tested, so I look forward to that.”
Keys to the series
In a best-of-five series that has the potential to go the distance, both team’s benches will be a factor in giving the starters some rest and help. For the Liberty, Marine Johannès and Kayla Thornton have the ability to make huge impacts in this series. Johannès has not seen steady minutes during the playoffs so far but has played well against the Aces this season, including a 17-point game in the Commissioner’s Cup championship. Thornton also has the potential to make a huge impact and has brought a ton of energy off the bench on the defensive end and offensive glass. Stefanie Dolson can also be a steady defensive force and three-point shooter.
The Aces’ bench has been one of their biggest weaknesses this season as they do not have much depth, often going just six players deep. Clark is their best bench player and was recently named the WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year after averaging 6.7 points and shooting 38.6% from three. She also provides a veteran presence off the bench after spending the first nine years of her career in Seattle, where she won two championships alongside Stewart. Clark may end up being a closer on the floor for the Aces, but their lack of depth may be a concern if starters get into foul trouble against an offensively aggressive Liberty team.
In addition to Jones, Stewart and Wilson, both teams have some of the most efficient and fun-to-watch guards in the league. The Aces have relied on their backcourt trio of Plum, Young and Chelsea Gray, who are all strong shooters on the perimeter and combine for an average of 51.6 points per game.
In addition to Gray, the Liberty’s Courtney Vandersloot is one of the best passers in the league, leading the league in assists per game this season (8.1). Even while the team doesn’t fully rely on her to score, Vandersloot has had some big shots in the playoffs to this point. Ionescu is one of the league’s best shooters and broke the WNBA record for most threes in a season (128). While she has struggled a bit shooting in the playoffs due to defenses putting a focus on her, she went 11-of-23 on threes against the Aces in the regular season and is due for another big-time game.
Laney has been a difference-maker in these playoffs. After scoring only three points in Game 1 against the Sun, Laney averaged 20.3 points for the rest of the series, consistently making timely shots in the fourth quarter and also serving as one of the team’s best defensive players, often guarding the opposing team’s best player. She will definitely be an X-factor, as the Liberty often win when Laney plays well.
“B (Laney) is the ultimate professional,” Brondello said. “I’ve loved her growth and commitment to this team.”
Jones can also be a huge factor in this series after posting six consecutive double-doubles to open the playoffs, a WNBA record. Jones’s physicality and height can pose a problem for the Aces, and she is also one of the strongest players on the offensive glass. The Liberty are 17-1 when Jones takes at least 10 field goal attempts, so the Liberty will need to feed her the ball.
“I’m going in with the mindset to leave it all on the court and finally get one,” Jones said after coming up short of a title last year with Connecticut.
Young may perhaps be the biggest X-factor for the Aces this season, flying under the radar a bit during the postseason after having an MVP-caliber start to the regular season. Young can do it all both offensively and defensively and is the glue that holds the Aces together, but she has shot just 34.9% from the field in the playoffs so far.
It will be interesting to see which defensive scheme the Liberty will employ against the Aces. In their series against the Sun, after struggling to contain Connecticut in their only loss of the series in Game 1, the Liberty switched between man-to-man, zone and a triangle defense that made it difficult for the Sun to get inside the paint. At times, the team has struggled defensively on the perimeter which has allowed guards to have success driving—something the Aces can take advantage of. Zone has its strengths, but the Aces are also a good shooting team, which will make for some interesting matchups and coaching decisions.
Meanwhile, along with Wilson, the Aces have guards who can trap players on the perimeter, as the Sun were able to do at times against the Liberty. But Stewart and Jones are some of the best rim protectors in the league, and Laney will most likely be tasked with guarding the player that is having the best game.
While Aces starting center Kiah Stokes provides a strong defensive presence, she is not a threat offensively. The Liberty can take advantage of this, especially being able to double-team Wilson or cause switches on defense where Liberty guards can take advantage of a matchup against Stokes.
With both teams who can light up the scoreboard, it may be the defense that will win the championship.
Both teams have had success in their own respective arenas against one another, proving how important home-court advantage will be in this Finals series. It has already been announced that Game 1 is sold out for the Aces and Game 3’s lower bowl is sold out at Barclays Center. Both atmospheres will be deafening and energetic, and the Liberty will have to win an away game in this series to clinch a championship.
With potential attendance and viewership records to be broken, it will be a series where sports fans can witness true greatness.
“Vegas has had an incredible season and we’ve played them tough many times and it’s going to be a great series,” Stewart said. “We are confident in who we are and what got us to this point.”
Game 1: Liberty at Aces, Sunday, Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. ET – ABC
Game 2: Liberty at Aces, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 9 p.m. ET — ESPN
Game 3: Aces at Liberty, Sunday, Oct. 15, 3 p.m. ET — ABC
Game 4*: Aces at Liberty, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 8 p.m. ET — ESPN
Game 5*: Liberty at Aces, Friday, Oct. 20, 9 p.m. ET — ESPN