LAS VEGAS — A’ja Wilson reached out to teammate Kelsey Plum after the Las Vegas Aces narrowly won Game 1 of the WNBA Finals with a simple message. To win the series, Wilson made it clear in a barrage of yells and insults that the Aces need Plum to play better.
“We need her to make shots,” Wilson said. “And I know it sounds harsh, but KP is a professional, she went out and took care of business.”
In Game 2 on Tuesday night, Plum responded to Wilson’s rebuke with arguably his best game of the playoffs, scoring 20 points and adding 7 assists in the Aces’ 85-71 win over the Connecticut Sun. The victory gave the Aces a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five finals, putting them in position to close out the series and win their first WNBA title in Game 3 on Thursday night in Connecticut.
Plum said that Wilson’s tirade was not the only message she had received in recent days, but acknowledged that all the exhortations, however, had made a difference.
“I have people trying to cheer me up, I have people cursing me,” Plum said. “But everyone wants to win, you know? So I really, really embraced it a lot.”
To anyone who has watched the Aces play this season, the idea that Plum would need a reprimand from a teammate to improve her game might seem strange. She was the Aces’ leading scorer in the regular season, averaging 20.2 points, and finished third in MVP voting behind Wilson and Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart.
But the regular-season version of Plum had faded for much of these playoffs, quickly becoming an afterthought behind the dominance of Wilson and Chelsea Gray. Scoring suddenly seemed like a challenge for Plum, starting in the Aces vs. Storm semifinal series. He scored in double figures in every game of that series, but the points came inefficiently as he only made 38 percent of his shots.
“She wasn’t KP,” Wilson said. “I felt it in the locker room. She wasn’t herself.”
The most early element of Plum’s struggles was his inability to hit 3-point shots. Plum had established herself as one of the best long-range shooters in the league in the regular season, shooting 42 percent of her 3-pointers while attempting 7.5 per game. But since Game 1 of the semifinals, Plum had been lousy behind the 3-point line, shooting just 18 percent of her shots before Tuesday’s game.
The terrible streak was unlike anything Plum has had in her career. Her ability to score in college was what made her the world no. 1 overall pick in the 2017 WNBA draft. She was one of the best players in women’s college basketball history at the University of Washington, where she set an NCAA record with 3,527 career points and averaged 31.7 points per game in his senior year.
“I don’t remember a period when I felt like she was down,” Mike Neighbors, her coach in Washington, said before Tuesday’s game. “She is like no other human being I have ever been with. She developed this ability to focus more than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
On Tuesday night, that focus took the form of Plum fearlessly attacking the basket. His 3-point shooting woes continued (he shot 1-of-6 in 3s), but he masked it by attacking the Sun’s tall, physical frontline for layup after layup, repeatedly contorting his 5-foot-8 frame around bigger defenders. as Jonquel Jones (6 feet 6 inches), DeWanna Bonner (6 feet 4 inches), Brionna Jones (6 feet 3 inches) and Alyssa Thomas (6 feet 2 inches).
Plum’s most impressive finish came with just over four minutes remaining in the third quarter, when he finished a pass around Bonner’s outstretched arms while drawing a foul.
The play drew a roar from Aces fans, and when he made the free throw, Las Vegas had an 8-point lead. Wilson, who led all scorers with 26 points and also grabbed 10 rebounds, followed with a jumper to extend the lead to 10, and by the end of the quarter the Aces’ lead had increased to 14. They never looked back.
“I’ve been a little, you know, frustrated with my performance all through the playoffs,” Plum said, “so I’m glad they’ve been carrying it, and I decided to join the party.” .”
The length and physicality of the Suns, who had flummoxed the Aces in Game 1 on Sunday, proved ineffective Tuesday night. He also missed the excitement the Sun oozed after their narrow loss that night, a matchup that Jonquel Jones, who led his team with 16 points and 11 rebounds on Tuesday, had said was “our game to take.”
“They were just extremely aggressive,” Jones said of the Aces after Game 2, though he could have been describing Plum specifically.
It was that version of Plum that Wilson hoped to introduce with his message after Game 1. It’s also the version of the Aces that will still be needed to close out the series.
“This is a statement game for KP,” Wilson said. “I don’t care how she sees it. It is a statement game. She makes a lot of people take notice.”