WNBA’s best performance of 2022: Chelsea Gray’s stellar playoff run for the Aces

Chelsea Gray has been clutched before. Whether a miraculous shot or perfectly-timed bounce pass, the 30-year-old Las Vegas point guard has done the impossible often enough throughout her eight-year WNBA career, you’d think we’d all be used to it by now.

Late in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the semifinals against the Seattle Storm last season, she did it again. With less than 40 seconds to play, Gray dribbled left off of a screen, crossed to her right and hit a 16-foot jumper from the foul line over the outstretched arm of Gabby Williams. The Storm immediately called timeout. The Aces bench players leapt up, pumping their fists into the air. Fans’ mouths fell agape. And social media lit up.

“Just a little bit of space, and sometimes no space is all she needs,” said ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, her voice filled with awe, during the broadcast. “The fade, the finish…”

Thanks to Gray’s brazen bucket, the Aces went up 92-87 and never looked back — winning the game 97-92 and claiming the series 3-1. Gray finished the game with 31 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, making her the first player in WNBA history to reach the 30-point and 10-assist milestone. But that was just one game. During the first two rounds of the playoffs, she shot a mind-boggling 63 percent from the field and 59 percent from 3 in six total games.

It was a must-watch tear rarely witnessed in sports. Gray’s playoff run is The Athletic‘s WNBA best performance of the year.

According to AcrossTheTimeline.com, Gray ranks fourth all-time for a single playoff in total points (217), fourth in assists (70), second in field goals made (88), and second in 3-point percentage (54.4 percent) . She averaged 21.7 points and seven assists per game, while shooting 61.1 percent from the field. And Gray’s 72.7 true shooting percentage, which measures a player’s overall efficiency at shooting the ball, is just bananas. But stats can only ever tell part of the story.

There’s no stat to capture the swing of momentum and the silencing of an opposing team’s crowd. And that’s a skill set Gray has mastered. Whenever the Aces needed a bucket or a big play, she came through time and again.

“That was the best personal performance of an entire playoff run that I’ve ever seen, across all sports,” teammate Kelsey Plum said in a statement provided by the Aces. “It was absolutely incredible. I don’t think it will ever happen again.”

After Gray’s impressive semifinals performance against the Storm, the Aces moved on to the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun — a team that excelled at defense and led the league in steals per game (8.8) while holding opponents to 77.8 points per game, second- best in the league. And with All-Defensive second-team players Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas, the Sun were primed to snuff out Gray’s fire. But that didn’t happen. Gray and the Aces kept rolling.

“Throughout the 2022 playoffs, Chelsea had an unbelievable knack of making tough, contested shots, which put her in rare air,” says former Sun coach Curt Miller, who was recently hired by the Los Angeles Sparks. “For us, we tried numerous different coverages, including a variety of different types of defenders within our roster on her. And she just continued to take tough contested shots.”

Miller says he was pleased with the Sun’s overall defensive effort against Gray, forcing her into difficult and challenging shots. But when a player is that locked in and doesn’t miss no matter how many hands are up, there’s no way to defend it.

“At one point in our series, she hadn’t made an uncontested shot,” Miller says. “So you’re almost like — the analytics say, don’t guard her. Because when we were watching her, she made every one of her. It was just an uncanny run for her.”

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Gray averaged 18.3 points and six assists while shooting 58 percent from the field against the Sun, but it was her overall play in the 3-1 series that helped secure the Aces’ first WNBA championship in franchise history, and the first Finals MVP award of her career.

“Classic,” said ESPN women’s college basketball and WNBA analyst Debbie Antonelli. A “one-for-the-ages performance where underdog mentality leads to work ethic, opportunity and production on the greatest stage in the WNBA playoffs. She was motivated, had the skill set and opportunity, and she produced at the biggest moment.”

Coming up big in key moments is part of the reason why Candace Parker once dubbed Gray the “Point Gawd.”

During the 2016 finals, when Parker and Gray were teammates with Los Angeles, Gray was instrumental in a decisive Game 5 against the Minnesota Lynx. She reeled off 11 consecutive points late in the third quarter and early into the fourth, helping the Sparks keep pace with the Lynx down the stretch to ultimately come away with the WNBA championship. Both teams met again in the 2017 finals. In Game 1, Gray scored a then-career-high 27 points, hitting a last-second shot to give the Sparks a one-point win. Los Angeles, where Gray played until she joined the Aces in 2021, eventually lost the series, but Gray’s reputation as a clutch shooter and point guard was on the rise.

On an Aces team stacked with talent and multiple scorers, Gray’s points and field-goal attempts per game went down slightly in her first year in Las Vegas. But this past season, her assists, field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage and PER all went up. She also had the best 2-point field goal percentage of her career (54.6 percent). Still, while four of the other five Aces starters — Jackie Young, Plum, A’ja Wilson and Dearica Hamby — made the All-Star Game in Chicago, Gray was surprisingly left off the roster.

The apparent snub by voting fans, media members and players ignited Gray’s competitive fire. She was on a mission the second half of the season, averaging 15.8 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting. By the time the playoffs rolled around, it was apparent Gray was playing at a completely different level.

“She played with a big chip on her shoulder, and when your point guard has that in her, we had no choice but to fall in line and win it all with her,” Wilson said in a statement.

WNBA veteran and Phoenix Mercury legend Diana Taurasi knows a thing or two about playing with a chip on her shoulder, especially during the playoffs. In 2021, she connected on eight 3s in a dominating Game 2 semifinals performance against Las Vegas — all on an injured foot. Taurasi scored a playoff career-high 37 points on 76.9 percent shooting. It’s only fitting that Gray returned the favor this year in Game 2 of the first round against the Mercury, scoring 27 points, dishing out eight assists and hitting seven 3’s of her own. The Aces walked off the court with a 117-80 win and the 2-0 series sweep.

Gray made it look easy. But Antonelli says there’s much more that goes into a clutch performance. It requires a lot of hard work and hours of film study.

“I call that understanding the three Ws of good point guard play,” she says. “Who to get the ball to, when and where. Creative shot-making abilities and a competitive focus to allow all the study and work to come together. … No one understands the amount of work that was put in.”

Gray’s hard work paid off. Her entire playoff run, from the first round to the Finals, is one of the best ever in WNBA history. Take a look at the record books and you’ll find Cappie Pondexter’s six-game run of 25 points or more in 2007 and Candice Dupree’s 66.3 field goal percentage through seven games in 2014 — both with championship Mercury teams. Courtney Vandersloot racked up 102 assists in 10 games for the Chicago Sky in 2021 on their way to a title, and Lisa Leslie had 31 total blocks for the Sparks in seven games in their 2001 championship. Similarly, what Gray was able to accomplish over a 10-game stretch for the Aces is remarkable.

Plum might be right about the rarity of Gray’s feat. We may never see another playoff run as efficient and consistent.

But as long as the Point Gawd is still playing, there’s a chance. The next time Gray lifts up for a shot with a hand in her face, fading away from the basket off her back foot as the ball flies high into the air and sails through the net, we’ll be reminded.

And we shouldn’t be surprised that she did it again.

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(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Ethan Miller, Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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