Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Aces’ Chelsea Gray caps historic, unforgettable playoff run with 2022 WNBA Finals MVP

When the full player pool for the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game was announced back in June, one name was notably absent from the list: Chelsea Gray. Though perhaps not at her best in the first half of the season, the veteran point guard was still one of the league’s leading assisters and had the Las Vegas Aces in first place when the names were announced. 

As it turned out, the snub, which ended a streak of four consecutive All-Star appearances for Gray, was the most important thing that happened to the Aces this season. Once play resumed after the break, Gray took out all of her frustration and disappointment on the court, using those feelings as fuel to elevate her game. 

“I went to go visit my younger brother and his fiancée, and then we just relaxed and I took a break from basketball, from social media and everything, and just reset,” Gray said after Game 2. “I got hungrier and got in even better shape than I was before All-Star Break. I was in the gym. I was locked in to film. Just made it — just went to another level mentally and then I let my — my work ethic bring it along.”

On Sunday afternoon, Gray got the last laugh, capping off one the greatest individual playoff runs in professional basketball history with a title and the 2022 WNBA Finals MVP. 

“They can keep that All-Star and that [All-WNBA] First Team,” Gray said. “I got the ring.”

Finishing with a game-high 20 points, five rebounds and six assists on 9 of 13 from the field, Gray led the Aces past the Connecticut Sun, 78-71, in Game 4 of the 2022 WNBA Finals to clinch the franchise’s first-ever championship. Over the four games she averaged 18.3 points and six assists, while shooting 58 percent from the field. 

“I mean, Chelsea is a gamer,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said after the team won the Commissioner’s Cup back in July. “She is a huge part of what we do. She is the extension of the coach out there. Hell, I’m her assistant. I tell them all the time, if Chelsea calls something and I call something, you listen to Chelsea. When the head coach calls something, you run it.

“But really, she’s somebody who likes big moments, and she likes to take and make big shots. To me, she is the cooling factor. When things get a little hot, out of control, the pressure starts to rise, she is the cooler.”

Those words proved prescient. 

Gray’s MVP trophy is for the Finals, but it may as well be for the entire playoffs. She was majestic the entire month, putting together a postseason that will go down as the stuff of legend, not just for the historic numbers and championship, but the style and difficulty along the way. 

Over the Aces’ 10 games, Gray averaged 21.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, seven assists and 1.2 steals per game, while shooting 61.1 percent from the field and 54.4 percent from 3-point land. For the playoffs she was second in scoring, first in assists and first in field goal percentage. She either scored or assisted on 379 of the Aces’ 860 points (44 percent), the most by a single player in WNBA postseason history.

“I don’t think anyone on planet Earth can guard her,” Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn said after Gray eliminated her team in the semifinals. “She was unconscious. We did a lot of things this series to try to slow her down. You limit her scoring; she has the ability to pass and play make. She’s an incredible player.”

In the three series the Aces played, Gray shot 57 of 87 on 2s and 31 of 57 on 3s. Her 72.3 true shooting percentage was the highest ever in the postseason for a player with at least 50 field goal attempts, and she’s one of four players to shoot better than 60 percent from the field for an entire postseason with a minimum of 100 shot attempts. 

And she did so despite taking only 11 attempts at the rim. Nearly all of Gray’s looks were jump shots, with many of them off the dribble and well-contested. None of it mattered. Gray shot 64.2 percent and scored 1.495 points per possession on off-the-dribble jumpers in the postseason, per Synergy Sports, a feat that may never be replicated. 

In crunch time she was even better. Whenever the Aces needed a basket late in games, Gray delivered. Six of the Aces’ 10 playoff games had clutch minutes, defined as within five points with five or less minutes remaining. They went 5-1 in those contests, and Gray shot an incomprehensible 78.6 percent from the field in those situations. 

“I don’t really know how,” Gray said after Game 4 of the semifinals. “I’m going into my shots like I practice them. It’s not anything different.”

Gray may not ever be able to explain how those shots were going in, but perhaps that’s for the best. Unbelievable moments, games, series are what make sports special. We can’t always know why or how something happened, but we can enjoy that it did. And what did happen is that Chelsea Gray played the best basketball of her career and the Las Vegas Aces won a championship.

In between sips of champagne straight out of the bottle, a jubilant Gray sat at the podium deep inside Mohegan Sun, with A’ja Wilson at her side and Kelsey Plum interrupting at various intervals with a boombox on her shoulder. Her hard work complete, Gray could turn her attention to a different kind of shot, one that’s never hard to explain. 

“The shots will definitely be of tequila,” Gray said. 

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