WNBA Finals: How Chelsea Gray's 'clutch factor' is propelling an All-Star snub to a historic playoffs run

·8-min read

LAS VEGAS — If you can bear to take your eyes off of Chelsea Gray, take a glance over at the Las Vegas Aces bench when she pulls up in the lane. Before the ball is even touching the net, Kierstan Bell is among the teammates on their feet, arms raised, ready to yell. Money. Guaranteed.

There’s a confidence and calmness emanating from the reserves when the game is tight and the Aces point guard has the ball in her hands. Need a bucket? Gray will find it. Need a game-deciding dagger? Watch this.

“It helps that our whole team is really good. But it’s [Gray’s] clutch factor,” veteran guard Sydney Colson told Yahoo Sports. “A lot of people don’t have that. A lot of people can hit shots at different times. But to hit them consecutively when we need them and when they’re game-separating moments is pretty incredible. It’s different.”

It’s been a postseason of superlatives for Gray, who earned the nickname “point gawddd” by former teammate Candace Parker. She’s lived up to every bit of the moniker and more as she continues to take over the 2022 postseason. The eight-year veteran out of Duke is, in her own description, “just ultra focused right now.” There’s a look in her eye that might soon have the reflection of a championship trophy in it. Maybe a WNBA Finals MVP one, too.

“Playoff Chelsea is a different beast and I’m so glad that she’s on our side because it’s not just about the shot-making, it’s not just about the playmaking, it’s how she dissects the game for us so it can be easy for us,” two-time MVP A’ja Wilson said ahead of the Finals.

Jackie Young called her an “extension” of Aces head coach Becky Hammon. Bell said Gray will take the clipboard and draw up plays to put them all in good positions. Her impact on this Finals group is everywhere.

“And the calmness that she has in our locker room is huge,” Wilson said.

Las Vegas Aces players A'ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young laugh during a news conference after the Aces defeated the Connecticut Sun 67-64 in Game 1 of the 2022 WNBA Finals at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas on Sept. 11, 2022. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Las Vegas Aces players A'ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young laugh during a news conference after the Aces defeated the Connecticut Sun 67-64 in Game 1 of the 2022 WNBA Finals at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas on Sept. 11, 2022. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The reason the Aces entered the final stretch with a few days of rest in a condensed schedule is because she took over the fourth quarter of Game 4 against the Seattle Storm. It was four tight, tough, anyone-could-win games, and she ended it with 12 of their final 20 points.

“Unconscious,” was the descriptor Storm head coach Noelle Quinn used. “I don’t think anyone on planet Earth can guard her.”

Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller, who is tasked with limiting her impact in this Finals, put it another way.

“Those numbers are video-game numbers right now,” he told Yahoo Sports before Game 1.

Heading into the Finals, she was averaging 24 points and seven assists on 63% shooting and a bonkers 59% from beyond the arc. Those numbers had only ever been reached in a six-game span by NBAers Chris Paul and Larry Bird. Neither were in the postseason.

And she’s playing on hard mode. There are constantly hands in her face, bodies all around her. Teams are throwing her different defenses, switching it up throughout games, trapping, putting on speed, putting on size. She’s still been “remarkable” and “dynamic,” Miller said.

Gray torched the Sun for 21 points, but the rest of her line fell below what she’s set as her postseason norm. She was 9-of-17 (52.9%), an outing that actually brought her average down, and only 2-of-7 (28.6%) from 3-point range. Her six turnovers were a season high and her three assists were less than half of the seven she averaged.

“She just is a tough shot-maker,” Miller said after the Sun lost Game 1, 67-64. “But as long as they are contested, we are going to be pleased that over the course of 40 minutes, if you just continue to try to make them as difficult as possible.”

Still. This is Chelsea Gray. She came up clutch when needed, including taking a charge on defense that Hammon called out postgame. Combined with the energy of Dearica Hamby off the bench, she lifted the Aces back into the lead in the third quarter. Her pull-up jumpers in the fourth kept the Aces at a four-point distance they would need in the end to pull two wins from the franchise’s first championship.

“It’s so much highs and lows throughout a game,” Gray told Yahoo Sports. “Being that even-keel, keeping my composure, it’s always how I’ve been, how I operate, even outside of basketball. It keeps me grounded throughout a game [and] all the noise. I kind of have this ability to quiet it out a little bit. And that’s what makes it fun.”

Fans and teammates are having just as much fun watching her. Colson, an eight-season WNBA veteran, called Gray “the most clutch player that I’ve ever played with.” She has a combination of excellent ball-handling, top-tier passing and unbelievable shooting skills Colson said is not usually seen at such a high level at the position.

“You don’t usually have a lot of point guards that hit huge shots like that,” Colson said. “So it’s pretty incredible to be courtside and just watch.”

The Las Vegas Aces bench reacts behind Chelsea Gray after she knocked down a 3-pointer in a regular season game against the New York Liberty on July 14, 2022. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
The Las Vegas Aces bench reacts behind Chelsea Gray after she knocked down a 3-pointer in a regular season game against the New York Liberty on July 14, 2022. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Colson and Theresa Plaisance, the clowns of a reality TV-show ready team, are front-row witnesses to the absurdity Gray puts on display every other night. The superstar hit more contested shots than uncontested ones on Sunday. At home, in a raucous Michelob Ultra Arena, it’s jubilation. When they hit the road to Connecticut later this week, it will be like every other road trip. Colson and Plaisance will turn to the hostile crowd and essentially shrug.

If previous experience is any indication, the Mohegan Sun crowd will be Big Mad. Some fans have called out the Vegas bench for being disrespectful. Colson and Plaisance are just being themselves. It’s a ride to hear their own reactions to their superstar teammate.

“We just [told the crowd] she’s good. Y’all can’t guard her,” Colson told Yahoo Sports. “What do you want us to do? It’s not our fault.”

“I get worked up,” Plaisance added.

“But sometimes she hits a shot and we’ve seen her hit it,” Colson said. “So a part of you is not even reacting the proper way anymore because you’re like, she does this. She just does it.”

“You’re just numb to the fact she hits these incredible shots,” Plaisance said. “Other free-throw line, behind the back?” Colson asked. “In,” Plaisance answered.

“What is it, Thursday? All right,” Colson added.

“That’s so Chels. That’s how we feel about it,” Plaisance said to sum it all up.

Gray has been a headache for every opponent the Aces have faced since she missed out on an All-Star nod in July. The honor is a weighted vote by fans, media members and players who submit ballots; Gray was the only Aces starter not in Chicago playing.

Maybe next year they’ll vote her in to save themselves. Since the break, she’s averaged 3.4 more points a game and increased her shooting efficiency by 19% to 54.3%. Her 3-point clip took a larger jump (29.1% to 40%) even on more attempts.

“She’s just been on another planet. It’s been working,” Hammon said. “I’ve been trying to stay out of her way, give her the ball.”

Teammates are sometimes numb to the difficulty because Gray’s eye-popping highlights haven’t come out of nowhere. To do something over and over — and over — again takes repetition. No, she said, she never surprises herself.

“I’ve been in the gym practicing those types of things, so when it gets in the game, they are more of a natural feel,” Gray said. “It’s not something that’s out of the ordinary, and my teammates know that it’s coming.”

Wilson remembers watching and playing against Gray when she was the Sparks point gawd.

“She’s just nice with it,” Wilson said. “She’s just cold. And now being on the court with her, I’m even catching myself looking like, she really just made that!”

Rookies Bell and Aisha Sheppard, who calls Gray “just different,” noticed her behind-the-back passes immediately.

“Nobody in college is doing that,” Bell told Yahoo Sports. “That’s why it’s different, college and the WNBA. That’s the next level. You make plays like that. And that’s what she’s been doing ever since I stepped into this training camp.”

Gray told Yahoo Sports the “little moments” like practice and training camp work make the “big picture happen.” She’s hitting shots at a 61% clip, ranking seventh in postseason history for players with at least 75 attempts, per Across the Timeline. The record is 66.304% held by Candice Dupree in 2014 and everyone in the top-15 plays in the frontcourt.

Even when she plays below what she’s set as a historically high scoring benchmark, she can draw on other ways to win. Assists you wouldn’t dream up. Ball handling that would break a fan’s ankles. A calmness that spreads down the bench.

“She’s special,” Colson said. “That would be the word I would focus on. She’s special.”