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Aces throttle Phoenix Mercury to force decisive Game 5

Updated October 6, 2021 - 9:13 pm

There’s one thing that comes to Chelsea Gray’s mind when she thinks about a Game 5.

“Win or go home,” the Aces point guard said. “Leave it all on the floor.”

Same approach she had Wednesday night.

Las Vegas rolled to a 93-76 road victory over the Phoenix Mercury in Game 4 of the WNBA semifinals at Footprint Center to tie the series at 2-2 and force a decisive Game 5 on Friday at Michelob Ultra Arena.

Gray scored a game-high 22 points. Kelsey Plum and Riquna Williams had 20 and 17 points, respectively, for the Aces.

The winner Friday will advance to the WNBA Finals and face the sixth-seeded Chicago Sky, who stunned the No. 1 seed Connecticut Sun en route to a 3-1 series victory.

“Athletes live for moments like this,” Gray added. “That’s why it’s a series. … That’s why basketball is so cool. You’re able to play a series like this. The tides can change really fast.”

The preparation for Game 4 began Monday, during what Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer referred to as a “somber” review of the Game 3 film. The Aces in that game were slow and stagnant, playing without the energy or urgency needed to win playoff games.

Laimbeer isn’t one to pull any punches: “I stopped everything and said ‘What the hell are you doing? What is that?’” he explained.

“As a player, when you get your butt beat the way that we did … it’s just humbling,” Plum said. “You never want to lose based on energy. As a pro, it’s embarrassing.”

With that in mind, the Aces played Wednesday with more effort and energy — ensuring at the least that they wouldn’t be embarrassed. They weathered an early 11-2 deficit with an 8-0 run, and then Gray took control in the second quarter with poise and precision at the point.

Gray was deliberate with her offensive approach and analyzed Phoenix’s defensive coverages as she maneuvered around ball screens. She punished switches by creating space with her dribble and splashing jumpers over Mercury bigs.

She attacked the paint when defenders went over screens — firing pinpoint passes to open teammates to keep the offensive flowing. Her play helped Las Vegas uncork a 24-0 third-quarter run that turned a competitive game into a rout.

“Chelsea Gray was unbelievable,” Plum said.

Aces centers Liz Cambage and Kiah Stokes battled on the block with Mercury star Brittney Griner and limited her to 6-for-19 shooting to stymie Phoenix’s offensive rhythm. Frontcourt mate A’ja Wilson credited Cambage and Stokes for taking pride in guarding Griner.

“She’s going to get to her spots. She’s going to make a couple of buckets,” said Wilson, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds. “But at the end of the day, we’ve just got to maintain our assignments.”

The focus shifts now to the series finale. The stakes at this point speak for themselves. The Aces were in the same situation against the Sun last year, trailing 2-1 in the semifinals before winning Games 4 and 5 to earn a berth in the WNBA Finals.

Wilson said she drew on that experience as she prepared for Game 4, knowing she’d persevered through that kind of adversity before.

Same thing applies Friday night.

“We’ve been in these situations before. It wasn’t a fear of the unknown. Wasn’t like it was new to us,” Wilson said. “We’re not done. We’ve got to keep pushing through for Game 5.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.