Chelsea Gray Leads the Aces to the W.N.B.A. Finals

SEATTLE — Chelsea Gray had just given the Las Vegas Aces a 3-point lead with a minute left in Game 4 of a W.N.B.A. semifinals series on Tuesday night — comfortable enough to give the team a quick sigh of relief, but not enough to put the game out of reach. Gray backpedaled on defense with a stoic look, and after a Seattle Storm miss, she seemed determined to end the game.

Gray dribbled left, then crossed right, hitting a fadeaway jump shot a few steps inside the 3-point line over the outstretched arm of Gabby Williams, a W.N.B.A. All-Defensive first teamer, to give the Aces a 5-point lead, effectively ending the game. And Gray knew it as she ran back, trading her stoicism for exuberance, as she yelled in celebration at the Seattle crowd that she had silenced.

With 31 points to go with 10 assists, Gray became the only player to reach both totals in a playoff game in league history, which served an exclamation mark on one of the most dominant playoff series performances in league history. After the 97-92 win, Las Vegas advanced to the W.N.B.A. finals, where it will meet the Connecticut Sun or the Chicago Sky.

“This is something that’s just in her DNA,” Aces Coach Becky Hammon said. “She is stone cold with the game on the line. And, you know, it’s a luxury. You can just put the ball in her hands and let her go to work. So the smartest thing I could do is just get me and everybody else out of the way and let her go.”

Aces forward A’ja Wilson said: “I’ve never ever seen someone honestly live do that and dictate the game and just stay composed in all moments. Like she’s built for this moment.”

Gray has advanced far in the playoffs before, winning a championship with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016, but on that squad, she was much more of a role player averaging just 9 points in the playoffs. Now 29, Gray has evolved into the most important player on arguably the most talented team in the league. A team that had four W.N.B.A. All-Stars in the regular season, none of whom were named Chelsea Gray.

She is a calming presence on the floor for teammates and even in the huddle for Hammon, who said Gray does “everything differently” from other players across the league.

“I’m her assistant coach,” Hammon said with a smile, adding, “I want to hear what she has to say. And what she hears and what she thinks, and what she sees out there. And she loves big moments. That’s nothing I taught her.”

Gray is averaging 24 points and 7.7 assists through six playoff games and making 60 percent of her 3-pointers, along with a 63 percent field goal percentage. Those are career highs in every category for Gray: The only season that comes close is when she averaged 16.5 points and 4.5 assists in the playoffs with the Sparks in 2018. And yet, Gray said she didn’t feel any noticeable difference.

“I approach the game the same way every single time,” Gray said, adding, “I’m taking the shots that I know I could hit. Maybe there have been a couple of shots where it was like, maybe uncharacteristic, but we work on it every day.”

Breanna Stewart had 42 points, but like the rest of the Storm could not stop Gray.Credit…Lindsey Wasson/Associated Press

Gray’s play style often results in the kind of oh-no-oh-no-oh-yes shots that stun spectators and opposing teams, Like a step-back 3 with seven minutes left that Gray hit over 6-foot-3 Storm center Tina Charles before the shot clock buzzer sounded. It looked like a heave, but went through the hoop without even touching the rim. Such scores have become normal to her teammates. They watch Gray take ridiculous shots at practice, even some with her feet turned in different directions that consistently go through the net.

“I know that ball is going in every single time,” Wilson said.

And the fascinating part about Gray’s performances is how she scores and finds teammates. It’s a league where speed is paramount for guards, like her teammate, Kelsey Plum, who averaged 20 points in the regular season by blowing by defenders for open layups or using quick crossovers for step-back 3s. Or Chicago’s Kahleah Copper, who runs out on fast breaks and routinely races past guards to score. Gray is the contrary.

She moves down the court at a somewhat lethargic pace — her feet barely leaving the ground as she commands the offense and keeps defenders at a distance. She creates separation with crossovers that put defenders a step behind her, which is all she needs to use her 5-foot-10, 170-pound frame to muscle them on her way to a crafty finish around the rim. Or she creates a sliver of separation that allows her to get the ball over the arms of a defender.

“She’s super methodical,” Storm guard Jewell Loyd said. “She’s super smart, intelligent, understands her body, what she can do, and what she can’t do. She doesn’t do anything that she can’t do. She understands where her spots are on the floor when her team needs a bucket.”

Gray’s historic night and the Aces’ victory spoiled the final game of guard Sue Bird’s 21-year career in Seattle, where she won four championships. The Storm lost each game in the final minute or seconds and very likely should have won Game 3. But a defensive lapse let Aces guard Jackie Young send the game into overtime, where Las Vegas pulled away. In Game 4 on Tuesday night, Breanna Stewart’s 42 points, tying a playoff record, weren’t enough.

The most significant challenge was “a lot of Chelsea Gray,” Storm coach Noelle Quinn said, repeating that point for emphasis.

“I don’t think anyone on planet Earth can guard her,” Quinn said. “I mean, she was unconscious. We did a lot of things in this series to try to slow her down. But you slow down her scoring, limit her scoring, and she has the ability to pass and playmake. She’s an incredible player.”

When Gray is “rocking and rolling,” like she has been in the playoffs, Wilson knows what to do: Get out of her way, she said.

And staying out of Gray’s way may be the key for Las Vegas to reach their potential and win a first W.N.B.A. title.

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