In a season in which there could have been several possibilities for the last two teams standing in the 2022 WNBA Finals, it looked as if chalk was going to win. Until suddenly, it didn't.
The No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces and No. 2 Chicago Sky tied for the best regular-season record at 26-10 and appeared headed toward a matchup in the championship series. That is until the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun rattled off a "what just happened?" 18-0 run to stun the Sky on Thursday and win their semifinal series.
And now, the Aces will host the Sun in the best-of-five WNBA Finals starting Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC) in Las Vegas.
That means one of these franchises will win the WNBA title for the first time. The matchup will pit first-year Aces head coach Becky Hammon against the Sun's Curt Miller, who was an assistant coach at Colorado State during part of Hammon's time as a player there in the 1990s.
This season's MVP, Las Vegas' A'ja Wilson, will take on last season's winner, Connecticut's Jonquel Jones. Between the teams, they also won Coach of the Year (Hammon), Defensive Player of the Year (Wilson), Most Improved Player of the Year (Aces guard Jackie Young) and Sixth Player of the Year (Suns forward Brionna Jones).
The Finals will feature the hottest shooter on the planet right now, Aces guard Chelsea Gray, and the high-powered Las Vegas offense against a Sun defense that held the Sky to 63 points twice in the semifinals, including in Thursday's close-out game.
Both the Sun and the Aces are franchises that started out somewhere else. The Aces were the Utah Starzz as an inaugural team when the WNBA launched in 1997, became the Silver Stars in San Antonio in 2003, then dropped the "Silver" and were just "Stars," and then became the Aces in Las Vegas in 2018. The Sun initially were the Orlando Miracle, an expansion franchise in 1999, but relocated to Connecticut after just four years in Florida. This will be the Sun's fourth appearance in the WNBA Finals (2004, 2005, 2019) and the Aces' second (2020; the Stars went to the Finals in 2008).
What can we expect from the Finals matchup most people were not expecting? Here are the biggest questions for the series, and our prediction for which team will hoist the trophy.
Can Connecticut slow down Chelsea Gray?
Gray burned through the Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm defenses, but this could be a harder matchup. The Sun have relied a lot on their defense, and Alyssa Thomas is one of the most versatile and tough defenders in the league. When Miller and the Sun players put their minds to stopping someone, guard or post player, they are often pretty successful.
The thing is, Gray has been scoring from what seems like every spot on the court. It's one thing to scheme to force someone into an area of weakness, but Gray's hot spots have been everywhere. Wilson, Young and Kelsey Plum also are all elite-level scorers. In Tuesday's Game 4 victory over Seattle, Wilson, Plum, Gray and Young scored or assisted on all 97 points for the Aces. So as much as the Sun might want to prove they are the team that can finally disrupt Gray, they will have their hands full.
From a personnel and playing style standpoint, the Sun will be more physical with Gray than the Mercury or Storm were able to be. However, that generally doesn't bother Gray. She talks about practicing making uncomfortable shots, the type she knows teams will try to get her to take. And from a strength perspective, she's not going to back down against any defensive effort.
There has been a lot of stellar play in this postseason, but Gray has been the most outstanding performer so far. She also has won a championship before. She comes into the Finals with a ton of confidence, while the Sun probably feel just as good about their defense. This is going to be a fascinating battle to watch.
Who has the edge in the battle of MVPs?
At least based on the playoffs so far, this has to go to Wilson. She didn't have the best game in the semifinal-opening loss to Seattle, and she said that really ate at her. But she came back with three outstanding games.
Wilson was already a very good defender her first four seasons in the league, but she has taken on an even bigger role on that end of the court this season. Hammon said the Aces are asking Wilson do more and different things defensively than she did before, and she has fully embraced that.
Jonquel Jones, who had one of the Sun's two double-doubles in Thursday's Game 5 victory, showed some of her best postseason stuff in that game. Her shooting percentage the past three games (12-for-33, 36.4%) and turnovers (seven on Thursday) are concerns, though.
Will a lack of depth finally catch up to the Aces?
Las Vegas has relied heavily on its starters all season, and that is not going to change. Wilson played all but 4 minutes total in the four games against Seattle, and when asked about that, she more or less shrugged it off. She is 26, is in fantastic shape and hasn't looked tired all season. Don't expect her to be bothered by fatigue now.
What has admittedly been a concern for the Aces is Dearica Hamby, who started in the regular season, was out nearly a month with injury before returning for 4 minutes each in Games 3 and 4 of the semifinals. Yet that means Las Vegas has come this far in the postseason without Hamby being able to contribute much. Whatever she can provide in the Finals will help the Aces.
Connecticut is perhaps slightly deeper, as having the Sixth Player of the Year winner would suggest. But Thursday in the close-out game of the semifinals, the Sun relied pretty heavily on their starters.
Both teams have reserves whose contributions could be difference-makers. The Aces wouldn't have won the Game 3 overtime thriller without the clutch shooting of guard Riquna Williams, for instance. And Sun guard DiJonai Carrington can be a strong factor on perimeter defense.
Which franchise is more desperate for a title?
Since neither has won a championship, you could say both. As mentioned earlier, both franchises have been around for a while and have had their heartbreaks in the postseason.
It's been worse for the Sun, who were good enough to win any of their three previous trips to the WNBA Finals. In 2019, for example, a few key second-half stretches were the difference against the Washington Mystics, who won their first title then.
Seattle swept Las Vegas in the 2020 WNBA Finals. That was not a series the Aces had much chance to win, frankly, with how well the Storm played that season. The Aces have grown up a lot since then.
Which team will win the 2022 title?
Kevin Pelton: Las Vegas in five games. I get why people think this might be a lopsided series. It's hard to trust the Sun given we never know which version of the team will show up from night to night, and stylistically the Aces' high-powered offense is a far cry from Connecticut's tendency to grind to a halt in half-court settings. Still, it's worth remembering that the Sun had the league's best point differential during the regular season. Connecticut's powerful front line will make it difficult for Las Vegas to use small lineups in this series, which will make it important for the Aces to get Hamby back closer to 100%. I expect a competitive series, if not as fun a one as we saw between the Aces and Storm in the semifinals.
Alexa Philippou: Las Vegas in five games. The Aces went 2-1 against the Sun during the regular season, but Connecticut missed Coach Miller (COVID-19) in the first game and Jonquel Jones (COVID-19) in the third meeting.
The Sun have shown they are capable of imposing their "messy" style of play on opponents -- and their relentlessness led to a historic late-game surge in Game 5 -- suggesting this series will be closer than many might assume. Outside of a horrendous third quarter Thursday, the Sun really figured out their offensive flow in Games 4 and 5 for the first time this postseason, momentum they'll seek to bring into the Finals. It could bode well for them against a Vegas team that has struggled at times defensively.
The ultimate difference will likely be that the Aces have the best individual player on the court and that she will elevate them in the biggest and brightest of stages. Without Jasmine Thomas on the floor to contain her, it's easy to see Gray continuing her absurd postseason run in the Finals. And while the Sun have a frontcourt capable of containing her, one would be remiss to count out 2022 MVP Wilson from coming through with championship-winning plays.
Either way, we're in for a treat as two teams that have been on the brink of winning it all for four seasons now square off, as two young MVPs -- arguably two of the three top players in the world -- seek to add to their legacies, and as each team is fighting to win its first title.
Voepel: Las Vegas in five games. Getting past Chicago, a team the Sun just couldn't solve during the regular season, should make Connecticut very confident heading into the WNBA Finals. So should the leadership of DeWanna Bonner, who won two WNBA titles during her days in Phoenix and brings a championship mentality every night for the Sun.
It won't be a surprise to see the Sun push the top-seeded Aces the distance. But Las Vegas has the kind of team bond that Chicago seemed to lack during crucial moments in the playoffs. And the Aces can flat-out score.