No. 4 seed Las Vegas played by far its sharpest, most bruising defense of the playoffs thus far, looking like a team that Coach Bill Laimbeer could be proud to lead. The Aces finally solved their Emma Meesseman problem, constricting Washington’s offense so that Elena Delle Donne was the only Mystics starter who scored in double figures. And A’ja Wilson and Cambage dominated in the paint, combining their forceful defense with smart offense.
“That’s who we are,” Laimbeer said. “We’re not Washington, who runs around and shoots a million jump shots and a bunch of threes. We’re, ‘Let’s get the ball inside and pound it in there and get to the free throw line and get some easy baskets and those type from the perimeter.’ . . . We are a rebounding, inside basketball team, and tonight we went out and played our game — and got a win.”
If the Aces finally played like the team Laimbeer imagined when he first got Cambage and Wilson together, the top-seeded Mystics appeared utterly unrecognizable.
Early on, Washington looked as if it had relaxed just a hair — rebounds that should have been grabbed and corralled were instead bobbled and sent out of bounds or to Las Vegas, and rapid-fire passes that had previously reached their targets were instead snatched out of the air.
Most unusual for those who have watched the Mystics, who recorded the highest single-season offensive rating in league history this season with 112.9 points per 100 possessions, was that Washington often looked hesitant on offense.
Delle Donne had 22 points, six rebounds and four blocks, but none of the other starters could get anything going. Meesseman, who scored 27 points in Game 1 and 30 in Game 2, had just six points on eight shot attempts. The rest of Delle Donne’s help came from the bench — Kristi Toliver had 14 points, including four three-pointers, and Aerial Powers had 13 points.
The 5-foot-7 Toliver shot one three over 6-5 JiSu Park and another over 6-9 Cambage. But those moments of confidence and willingness to take risks were few and far between for the rest of the roster.
“I thought we passed up some open shots trying to get even a better shot, and I’m not sure if there was a better shot necessarily to get,” Mystics Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault said. “I thought we were a little bit more tentative shooting the ball. This is the first really stinker game we’ve had in a long time.”
To add to its offensive woes, Washington did another uncharacteristic thing and turned the ball over 13 times. The Mystics had eight turnovers in the second quarter alone, which is when Las Vegas went on a 16-2 run to create initial separation after a more closely competed start of the game. When the Aces took a 10-point lead before halftime, it was the largest lead they’d had all series.
Washington was shooting so poorly that Las Vegas’s lead rose to 22 in the second half. The Mystics shot 38.6 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from deep in the face of Las Vegas’s suffocating offense, while the Aces shot 48.6 percent from the field.
“They switched a lot, and they just got a little more aggressive. . . . They used their length, they had a great presence, and they got away with a lot of fouls, I think,” Toliver said. “And I think that makes a huge difference when in the first two games those things weren’t allowed. So now it’s just a matter of adjusting. . . . But they definitely picked up the physicality aspect in this Game 3.”
Said Thibault: “I’ll say Cambage got a lot of post position where we have some people with a lot of bruises on their neck and throat. But she worked hard. She worked to get the ball.”
Cambage led Las Vegas with 28 points on 12-for-15 shooting and added six rebounds. Wilson had 21 points and a team-high eight rebounds, and Kayla McBride added 18 points. As a team, Las Vegas outrebounded Washington 40-28 while taking just two more shots.
Laimbeer attributed the turnaround to the Aces simply playing faster and harder on defense as much as any strategic adjustments they made, and it was a physical playoff game. At one point in the second half as the players were running in transition, Toliver appeared to make contact with Cambage. The center chirped at her, and the two players then had a running dialogue for much of the rest of the game — sometimes with real heat, sometimes with laughs.
“Yeah, man, just having fun!” Toliver said after the game. “We’ve done that all year long, and then she wanted to have a little attitude, throwing a little temper tantrum for a bit today. I think she got over it when the timeout was called and we were able to keep the peace. But I was like, ‘Liz — chill out.’ . . . It’s fun to have that edge. That’s what the playoffs is. And when you’re playing against a team like that, it’s fun, and it’s all part of the game.”