Trotter: After Commissioner’s Cup loss to Liberty, is doubt suddenly creeping in on Aces?

LAS VEGAS — The Las Vegas Aces have to be really careful. Doubt is knocking at their door. The question is whether they will answer.

Over the first two months of the season, they appeared dominant. Seven consecutive wins before their first loss, nine more victories before their second. And then, with a 24-2 record, they traveled to New York to face the Liberty and were walloped by 38 points, a margin that doubled the combined total of their previous two defeats.

While some attempted to write it off as a blip on their season-long radar of excellence, we now know it was more than that because it happened again Tuesday night in the Commissioner’s Cup championship. They cut the margin in half this time, falling 82-63 to the Liberty in front of 8,967 in Michelob ULTRA Arena, but in some respects this defeat was worse than what transpired on Aug. 6.

Prideful teams don’t like losing any game, let alone one by 38 to a club that is considered the chief threat to the WNBA title you won the previous season. And they definitely don’t like losing to that same team nine days later on their home court when everyone is expecting them to get payback.

Tuesday’s game didn’t count in the standings, but it was important for the Aces for both financial and psychological reasons. The $30,000 guaranteed to each player on the winning team was a nice incentive, but so was the opportunity to show the previous meeting was an aberration. Alas, it was not.

Rather, the Liberty appear determined to make good on the words of general manager Jonathan Kolb, who said in the offseason the franchise was “hell-bent” on bringing a championship to New York. He showed his commitment by bringing in forward Jonquel Jones, the 2021 league MVP and a four-time All-Star; forward Breanna Stewart, the 2018 league MVP and a two-time champion and finals MVP; and point guard Courtney Vandersloot, a five-time All-WNBA player and 2021 champion — teaming them with two-time All-Star Sabrina Ionescu.

Liberty forward Jonquel Jones stops the ball from going out of bounds in the second quarter. (Candice Ward / USA Today)

Some rolled their eyes when the Liberty lost both their preseason games as well as their season opener, but they now have won six in a row (not including Tuesday) and appear ready to live up to expectations — the same expectations that now threaten to weigh down the Aces.

“We know we’re better when we play out of our defense,” Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon said. “Bottom line is, our defense has had some slippage in probably the last 10 games and New York’s defense has gotten better. I think before that, that was a separation factor for us.”

Hammon acknowledged the primary challenge for her is figuring out how she can compensate for the loss of forward Candace Parker, who is out indefinitely after foot surgery. While not the dominant statistical force she was in her prime, the 16-year veteran remains a force on the defensive end and an outlet on offense.

The Liberty have capitalized by basically playing 5-on-4 on defense in her absence, doubling center A’ja Wilson in the post and forcing Las Vegas’ perimeter players to be on point with their shots. Though talented enough to beat good teams regardless, the Aces have yet to show they are capable of defeating an elite team like the Liberty.

On Tuesday, Las Vegas shot 5 of 26 (19.2 percent) from 3-point range and finished 23 of 69 (33.3 percent) overall from the field. They got good looks at times but simply could not get the ball to fall, which was surprising for a club that is shooting nearly 40 percent on 3s and almost 50 percent from the field for the year.

Parker’s absence is also being felt along the boards, where the Aces were dominated for the second straight time by New York. The Liberty outrebounded them by a 97-52 margin in the games, including holding Las Vegas to four total in the second half Tuesday.

“We had 24 rebounds at halftime and we ended the game with 28,” Hammons said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in my life. … There’s definitely some stuff we have to shore up. But when you’re playing against a half-court defense every time down the floor and they’re not guarding certain people, and we’re not figuring out ways to make them pay, it puts a lot of pressure on everybody else to be perfect.”

From a fan standpoint, I hope Parker is able to return this season. The popularity of the WNBA has been on the rise in recent years, particularly its viewership numbers on cable television. One way to take the game to an even higher level is by having great teams face off regularly.

Casual fans will tune in to see a great player or even a great team. But rivalries involving individual and collective greatness raise the level of expectation. Games become must-see television. It appeared we had that with these teams, who were both constructed with a talented starting five and enough depth to push the other. But that’s no longer the case with Parker out.

For now, it seems the Aces are trying to survive more than thrive.

“We’re just going to have to keep it moving and not miss the forest for the trees,” Hammon said, “because the most important part of the season for us is coming up and it’s only going to get harder.”

(Top photo of the Aces’ A’ja Wilson trying to get a shot off against pressure from Breanna Stewart: David Becker / NBAE via Getty Images)

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