SEATTLE -- Coming through in the same round where they fell short a year ago, the Las Vegas Aces returned to the WNBA Finals for the second time in the past three years with a 97-92 victory on Tuesday in Game 4 of their semifinal series against the Seattle Storm, winning 3-1.
The Aces, who lost to Seattle in the 2020 WNBA Finals, were on the verge of returning last year before losing Game 5 of their semifinal series against the Phoenix Mercury with home-court advantage under former Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer.
"We didn't go last year, and it hurt," Aces guard Chelsea Gray said. "It stung. That was the hardest game."
In the wake of that loss, Gray and teammate A'ja Wilson texted about how to get over the hump. It turned out Gray's shot-making was the best solution, making the difference on Tuesday in a fourth quarter that featured three ties and three lead changes.
Gray scored three consecutive jumpers with a high degree of difficulty in the game's final 2:03, the first two giving Las Vegas the lead after Seattle tied the game and the last one extending the advantage to five with 30.7 seconds remaining. The Storm never got closer than three points again.
On the other side, Seattle coach Noelle Quinn was left with no answers for Gray.
"I don't think anyone on planet Earth can guard her," Quinn said. "She was unconscious. We did a lot of things this series to try to slow her down. You limit her scoring, she has the ability to pass and playmake. She's an incredible player.
"I think that our team did a very good job of trying to limit her, but I think she's been on a roll; and when a player's on a roll like that, it's very hard to stop."
With 31 points and 10 assists, Gray became the first player in WNBA playoff history to top 30 points and 10 assists, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. For the postseason, Gray is averaging 24.0 points per game on 63% shooting, including 59.5% beyond the arc.
"I don't really know how," Gray said of her hot shooting. "I'm going into my shots like I practice them. It's not anything different."
Storm stars Jewell Loyd (29 points, a playoff career high) and Breanna Stewart (42, both a career high for any game and tying Angel McCoughtry for the most in the WNBA postseason) smashed their own record for combined playoff scoring, with their 71 points bettering the 65 they scored against the Aces in 2020.
"Jewell and I texted before the game that we wanted to make sure that we left it all out on the court," Stewart said. "We did everything we possibly could."
Las Vegas was able to overcome those performances with more balanced scoring. In addition to Gray, Wilson (23 points, 13 rebounds) had her second double-double of the series, Jackie Young scored 18 points and Kelsey Plum tallied 15 points. Those four players either scored or assisted on all 97 Aces points, per ESPN Stats & Info.
By contrast, Loyd and Stewart were the lone Seattle players to score in double figures.
The loss ended the WNBA careers of Storm guards Sue Bird and Briann January, who had both announced they would retire at season's end. The moment was particularly poignant for Bird, who played all 19 of her seasons in Seattle.
As when Las Vegas spoiled Bird's final regular-season game in Seattle by winning last month at Climate Pledge Arena, the Aces expressed some mixed emotions about the outcome.
"You kind of feel like the girl that beat Serena [Williams]," said Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon, referring to Ajla Tomljanovic, who defeated Williams in the US Open last week in the final match of Williams' legendary career.
"It's bittersweet. I know myself, our whole staff and team and organization have so much respect for Sue. She has a fairy-tale career. One that kids dream of. She got to live it. She lived it out loud. Her thumbprint on the game is forever etched in."
Although the series did not go the distance, it's likely to be regarded as a classic in WNBA history. Just one of the four games was decided by more than five points, and that one (Sunday's Game 3) went to overtime following a game-tying basket by Young at the buzzer. The Aces gave the Storm credit for giving them everything they had.
"We're obviously thrilled to be going back to the Finals and pumped for our girls," Hammon said, "but it feels weird just because we have so much respect for that other team as a whole, really. They gave us a hell of a shot.
"It was just two titans going at it. It was who's going to be the last woman standing. We feel blessed. We feel like we worked for it and definitely happy to be moving on and out of this arena, for sure."