Can the Aces win the WNBA Finals without Gray, Stokes?

Michael Voepel


Michael Voepel

ESPN.comMichael Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Alexa Philippou


Alexa Philippou

ESPNCovers women’s college basketball and the WNBA
Previously covered UConn and the WNBA Connecticut Sun for the Hartford Courant
Stanford graduate and Baltimore native with further experience at the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and Cincinnati EnquirerOct 17, 2023, 05:40 PM ET

NEW YORK — WNBA fans were anxiously awaiting news on the status of Las Vegas Aces point guard Chelsea Gray for Wednesday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) of the WNBA Finals after she suffered a foot injury Sunday.

But Tuesday’s update delivered a double blow for the Aces. Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon ruled out Gray and center Kiah Stokes for Game 4 with foot injuries. Stokes and Gray entered practice at Barclays Center using crutches and a scooter, respectively.

Hammon said both are questionable should the series go to a decisive Game 5, which would be held Friday in Las Vegas. Stokes said she is awaiting MRI results and word from doctors on her status moving forward, while Gray said she’s not holding out hope of playing in Game 5.

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After being down 2-0, the Liberty had already swung momentum in their direction with a dominant performance in Sunday’s must-win Game 3 — even before the Aces’ injuries. Las Vegas still has two shots to come out with a win and secure back-to-back championships. The Aces will just have to do it in a way they haven’t had to play for the past two years.

No WNBA team has ever come back to win the title after trailing 2-0 in the WNBA Finals. In fact, teams that trailed 2-0 were swept seven of eight times. The outlier was when the Aces beat the Connecticut Sun in Game 4 at Mohegan Sun Arena to clinch the championship last year.

Could this be the year a team comes back from down 2-0 to win a title, albeit amid extraordinary circumstances?

We examine what Gray’s and Stokes’ absences mean for Las Vegas in games on Wednesday and potentially Friday, and for the series as a whole. Las Vegas is 0-3 in New York this season.

Chelsea Gray kept things light at practice Tuesday, a calmness that is important for the rest of the Aces to see. AP Photo/Doug FeinbergHow does Gray being ruled out for Game 4 and likely Game 5 change the rest of the series?

Voepel: Gray is one of the best distributors in WNBA history, and she’s also an underrated defensive presence. Hammon has said many times how much Gray’s impact on the defensive end is sometimes taken for granted.

Coming into this series, forward A’ja Wilson and Gray were likely the two most indispensable players for Las Vegas.

The upside of having a three-guard starting lineup is that both Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young are able to play point guard. Handling the ball and initiating the offense are things both are used to doing and have confidence in.

“Our sum has to be greater than our individual parts,” Hammon said. “Jackie, KP and Syd [Colson] are all more than capable. Syd has been in this league a long time. KP is used to when Chelsea goes out, she goes [to point guard] or Jackie swings there. They’re all very capable scorers and passers.”

Philippou: Having Gray on your team is basically like having a coach on the floor for the Aces. Gray will no doubt be as involved as she can from the sidelines, but players like Wilson (their MVP) and Alysha Clark (their vet) will likely look to step up even more as leaders on the floor.

Kiah Stokes is a big defensive presence for the Aces. She started all eight playoff games for Las Vegas, averaging 21.6 minutes and 7.9 rebounds in the postseason. Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesHow does Stokes’ absence change Las Vegas’ lineup Wednesday?

Philippou: Cayla George, who is in her first year with the Aces, could be inserted into the starting lineup in place of Stokes. The 6-foot-4 stretch-5 from Australia hasn’t played big minutes in a WNBA Finals situation before, but at age 34 she is an experienced player with the Australian Opals, and she has been a part of their Olympic and World Cup squads.

“I love the challenge,” George said. “I think as athletes if you don’t feel that pressure, you want the challenge, you’re chasing that challenge, you want to be able to overcome and succeed in those challenges, and I’m really looking forward to doing what I can when my number’s called to help this team get the win.”

Clark could also be inserted into the starting lineup. She’s expecting to have to be more aggressive offensively, a role she hasn’t had to do recently in her career but one she has experience with, particularly as a big scorer in college at Middle Tennessee.

Voepel: When the Aces came out for their pre-practice media session Tuesday, everyone was expecting to see Gray on the scooter. The surprise was seeing Stokes on crutches.

Wilson said when she got her Defensive Player of the Year award last month she wanted to engrave Stokes’ name on it, too, and called her the anchor of the Aces’ defense. Stokes has been so dependable for Las Vegas; she doesn’t try to do more than she’s supposed to. She plays her role well and doesn’t make many mistakes.

As much as the Aces will miss not having Gray, Stokes’ absence is also a major concern. Even though Clark is undersized at 5-foot-11, she can guard anyone and has a ton of experience. Clark’s reputation as an elite defender at least gives the Aces some cushion with Stokes out. But this is still such a big worry for Las Vegas.

.The Aces haven’t had much depth this season, but Alysha Clark was the WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year. She’s averaging 22.5 minutes, 8.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game in the playoffs. Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty ImagesWhat was the mood and mindset around the Aces after news broke?

Philippou: All things considered, the team was in a decent mood at the open portion of practice as media badgered the Aces with questions about Gray’s and Stokes’ absences. Hammon joked she’s planning for Sydney Colson to play the “backpack position” — sticking her on Jonquel Jones’ back in an effort to slow her down (Colson proceeded to climb on the back of the Aces’ quite tall security guard to illustrate the game plan).

Hammon and the Aces were united in how they viewed this bout of adversity: just another obstacle to overcome in their effort to win a championship. For as good as Las Vegas has been all summer, it hasn’t been the smoothest ride. As Plum told reporter Erica Ayala, “We’ve been through a lot. I mean shoot, we’ve been hurt, sued, arrested. You name it, we’ve done it.” (Plum was referring to Candace Parker’s season-ending injury, former player Dearica Hamby filing an EEOC complaint against the team and Riquna Williams’ arrest on domestic violence charges.)

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The Aces have embraced a “next woman up” mentality all season and have learned to stick together amid adversity, Clark said.

“It’s not something you have to scramble and try to fix and find now at the end of the season,” Clark said. “It’s already been established, it’s there. It’s our culture, it’s who we are as people, who we are as teammates.”

Wilson said she made sure to tell her teammates that she loves them.

“I think we kind of miss out on saying those things when we’re in these moments, and it’s a lot of emotion, a lot of mental games, physically, all this. At the end of the day, I love them,” she said. “And we’ve got enough and I’m going to make sure that no matter what it takes, when we play in between these 94 feet, we’re giving it our all and we’re playing for each other. Yes, we have two down, but we have enough in this locker room that if we mold together, we’re going to be good.”

Voepel: Gray wasn’t feeling sorry for herself, and that calmness from her is important for the rest of the Aces to see. Plum and Wilson are two of the Aces’ more emotional players in how expressive both are, but they were also even-keel Tuesday. Young is as steady a presence as you’ll see in a pro athlete.

All that said, there is a lot of emotion under the surface for a team that a few days ago seemed on the brink of a championship and now must overcome the huge obstacle of injuries. Gray said she thought the Aces would have a “pissed-off locker room” — as in angry at the bad luck but motivated by it.

Can Las Vegas win Game 4 without Gray and Stokes? Can the Aces still win the title?

Voepel: We’re constantly reminded that sports doesn’t follow a script, and this series is a great example. When the Aces went up 2-0, with an especially dominant Game 2 victory, it seemed like they were headed for a coronation. Now, the momentum appears to have swung toward the Liberty.

Considering how well the Liberty have played — and how the Aces have struggled — in New York this season, Game 4 is more likely to go in New York’s favor. If the Aces are to win the title, it’s more likely to come in Game 5 on their home court.

However, we have also seen so many times over the years in all sports that sometimes the more adversity a team has to face, the more bonded it is. The Aces don’t want this to go to five games. They want to close it out Wednesday and show that as a team, they can overcome these curveballs.

That said, the Liberty are going to take care to not change anything about their mindset or preparation just because two Aces starters are out. They want to concentrate on how they play their best — similar to what they did Sunday — and not on what the Aces are dealing with.

Philippou: Wilson, Plum and Young are a three-headed threat who can’t be overlooked, but the injuries might be too much for the Aces to bear, especially given how short-handed they already were without Parker and even Williams, who had a big role in the Finals last year.

Gray is the head of the snake of Las Vegas’ high-powered offense, while Stokes’ absence will be felt especially defensively, and make it easier for Jonquel Jones to go off. I think this series will go back to Las Vegas, and while the circumstances are definitely more in New York’s favor now, the Aces will keep fighting to win a championship, and they’d benefit from being back on their home floor.

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