LAS VEGAS — Last year, a potential Sky-Aces playoff series was highly anticipated.
In pursuit of back-to-back titles, the Sky finished the regular season tied for the best record in the league. Eventual MVP winner A’ja Wilson led the Aces’ freight train of a team toward their first title. It was a marquee matchup waiting to happen.
But in Game 5 of the semifinals, the Sun went on an 18-0 run to knock out the Sky.
What came next was an overhaul of the Sky’s championship roster, not by design. After a tumultuous season, the Sky finally will face the Aces but under entirely different circumstances.
Game 1 in the best-of-three first-round series between the No. 1 Aces and the No. 8 Sky tips off at 9 p.m. Wednesday. This Sky team will be lucky to force a Game 3.
“Going into the postseason, you see teams peak at the right time,” Kahleah Copper said after the Sky’s playoff-clinching win over the Lynx last week. “You see teams figure it out, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
Copper, who signed a two-year supermax extension with the Sky on Sunday, deserves the bulk of the credit for the team’s fifth consecutive postseason appearance. Not only did she average a career- and team-high 18.7 points per game, Copper was the glue that held the franchise together after the departures of Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Candace Parker in free agency and the eventual resignation of coach/GM James Wade.
“This was a tough season,” Copper said. “It was hard. It was very hard. For me to be able to rally the troops through adversity, through everything, and to make the playoffs is an accomplishment that I’m going to relish in this moment. When the playoffs start, it’s a new season. It’s zero-zero.”
The Sky have harped on their slim margin of error all season, and against the Aces, who boast the top offense and defense in the league, that margin is even slimmer. The Aces won all three meetings in the regular season by an average of 9.3 points.
During the season, the Sky had a net rating of -2.1, eighth in the league. In the three games against the Aces, that number was -13.4.
To even have a shot at stealing a game will require big efforts from not only Copper but starting backcourt mates Courtney Williams and Marina Mabrey.
Last season for the Sun, Williams averaged 14.3 points in the last three games of the best-of-five semifinal series against the Sky. She scored 19 points in Game 4 to help power the Sun to the most convincing win of their postseason run to the Finals, where they lost to the Aces.
Mabrey, meanwhile, closed the regular season on a tear, averaging 16.9 points in the final eight games while shooting 45.9% from three.
“They’re the No. 1 team,” Mabrey said. “They have a ton of weapons. We respect them. But you also want to go out there and demand respect, too.”
Coach Becky Hammon’s team closed the season on a four-game winning streak. The core four of Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young each averaged at least 15 points during the season. When Parker was ruled out indefinitely after having surgery to repair a fracture in her left foot, Wilson elevated her game.
Dethroning the reigning champions is a tall order for even the best teams in the WNBA. For the Sky, it’s wishful thinking.
“We’re playing for something that’s our destiny at this point,” Wilson said after the Aces’ last regular-season game. “The legacy, what we want to build with the Las Vegas Aces.”
NOTE: Alanna Smith (ankle) was listed as questionable for Game 1. Kahleah Copper (toe), who missed the regular-season finale, was upgraded to probable/available.