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    M.L.S. Playoff Preview: An L.A. Derby and More Questions Answered

    Major League Soccer’s playoffs have reached the conference semifinals as the league sprints to finish before the World Cup.Major League Soccer is in a hurry to crown its champion this season, with its final set for Nov. 5 — just over two weeks before the World Cup opens in Qatar. The final sprint, which begins with four quarterfinals this week, includes some marquee matches that will offer some players a final opportunity (or two or three) to impress national team coaches before the final rosters for the World Cup are due in mid-November.This year’s playoffs feature two previous M.L.S. Cup champions (the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York City F.C.) and two teams (Austin F.C. and F.C. Cincinnati) that are making their first appearance in the postseason. But the postseason also has tracked closely with regular-season results: The top four teams in the Western Conference are still alive, as are four of the top five from the East.Philadelphia and Los Angeles F.C., which earned first-round byes by finishing first in their conferences, will enter the postseason at last on Thursday: Philadelphia faces F.C. Cincinnati, and L.A.F.C. hosts its crosstown rival, the Los Angeles Galaxy.On Sunday, New York City F.C., the league’s defending champion, will play C.F. Montreal, and F.C. Dallas will meet Austin F.C. in an all-Texas affair.The conference semifinals, which are single-game elimination matches, start on Thursday and will wrap up on Sunday. The conference finals are scheduled for Oct. 30, and the M.L.S. Cup final is set for Nov. 5 — the earliest date for the game in league history. The final will be played at the home of the finalist with the best regular season record.Read More on the 2022 World CupLavish Spending: No expense has been spared in putting on a show in Qatar. But the tournament is a feeling that money can’t buy, our soccer correspondent writes.United States: The American men’s soccer team has cycled through strikers during the qualifying period. It needs to settle on one before heading to Qatar.Brazil: As the team begins its quest for a sixth World Cup, it appears to have the resources needed to succeed — though Neymar still shoulders much of the load.Sticker Shock: In Argentina, the prospect of Lionel Messi’s last World Cup has helped feed a white-hot market for a beloved collectible, featuring long lines, surging prices and, briefly, government intervention.Here’s a quick catch-up of where things stand.The Battle of Los AngelesL.A.F.C., which won the Supporter’s Shield for posting the league’s best regular-season, will begin what it hopes is a home-field run to M.L.S. Cup on Thursday night, when its hosts the crosstown Los Angeles Galaxy at Banc of California Stadium. The venue has been a formidable challenge for visitors this season: L.A.F.C. went 13-2-2 there this season.L.A.F.C.’s first playoff test, though, like all games in the teams’ nascent rivalry, brings the potential for fireworks. The last time the two Los Angeles teams played against each other in a playoff game was in 2019, when L.A.F.C. won, 5-3, in one of the highest-scoring playoff games in M.L.S. history.Gabriel Pereira and New York City F.C. will be playing away from Yankee Stadium for as long as the Yankees remain in baseball’s playoffs.Mark Smith/USA Today Sports, via ReutersRoad Team F.C.New York City F.C. is trying to become the first team to win consecutive M.L.S. Cups since the Galaxy did it in 2011 and 2012. But unlike L.A.F.C., its path to the final — for now — looks to be a road trip.As long as the Yankees remain alive in Major League Baseball’s playoffs, N.Y.C.F.C. will be unable to play on its regular home field at Yankee Stadium. That proved to be little trouble in the first round, when the team beat Inter Miami, 3-0, at Citi Field in Queens. On Sunday, New York City F.C. will head to Montreal for a conference semifinal.In the quest for another title, N.Y.C.F.C. will count on their pair of Brazilians, Gabriel Pereira and Héber, who each scored eight goals in the regular season, and the potential of a return from injury of Talles Magno. Those three, and midfielder Santiago Rodríguez, have helped fill the offensive hole left by the midseason departure of last season’s leading scorer, the Argentine striker Valentín Castellanos, who joined the Spanish side Girona F.C. on a loan in July.N.Y.C.F.C. has been led since June by an interim coach, Nick Cushing, who took over after Ronny Deila left to join Standard Liège in Belgium. The team wobbled badly after the change, losing seven of nine games in August and September, but it closed the season with three straight wins.Montreal, meanwhile, might be the hottest team in the league: It has lost only once since July.Jesus Ferreira of F.C. Dallas was named this season’s M.L.S. young player of the year. The playoffs can serve as an audition for him to play for the United States in the World Cup.Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports, via ReutersFinal World Cup AuditionsFor some players, the playoffs offer more than just a shot at the M.L.S. Cup title. A number of players also are playing knowing that national team coaches will be watching.One player looking to lock down his spot — and some playing time — ahead of the World Cup is the 21-year-old forward Jesus Ferreira of F.C. Dallas. Ferreira, who was just named this season’s M.L.S. young player of the year, led Dallas with 18 goals in 33 games. He is in contention for a striker role for the United States, but a poor showing in a friendly against Japan in September didn’t help his case. A good run of playoff form, however, might help restore his confidence, and his place in U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter’s plans.Another American hopeful is N.Y.C.F.C.’s goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who posted 14 shutouts during the regular season and started every game for New York. Johnson has an outside shot at making the roster and going to Qatar, even if he is not likely to be starter.Ismaël Koné, a 20-year-old midfielder for Montreal, is looking to earn a spot on Canada’s national team, which will be returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Koné scored two goals and had five assists for Montreal during the regular season, and he scored a key goal in Montreal’s 2-0 victory over Orlando City in the first round of the playoffs. More

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    Zion Williamson Is Finally Feeling Like Himself Again

    Injuries have hampered the N.B.A. career of the Pelicans’ Williamson, but a grueling summer of early morning workouts has him back on track.MIAMI — At the start of the summer, as he waded into an off-season workout program that he hoped would build his body back into dynamic shape, Zion Williamson began setting his alarm for 4:30 a.m.For the first week or so, those early wake-up calls were unpleasant. Sure, he knew the forms of torture that awaited him in South Florida, where his personal team had set up shop: 400-meter sprints on the track, rep after rep in the weight room. But rolling out of bed before dawn?“Tough,” Williamson said. “But after that first week and a half, it was satisfying. Like, there was a purpose behind it. I would see 4:30 on my phone, and I knew it was time to go to work.”In the process, Williamson became a big nap guy. Ahead of his nightly workouts, he would sleep through the afternoon. There were times, he said, when he wound up feeling detached from the world, as if he had missed everything that had happened that day.For someone used to being the center of attention, the summer was a reprieve in a way — a chance to recalibrate his mind and restore his confidence. Now, armed with a new five-year contract extension worth about $190 million, Williamson is back with the New Orleans Pelicans, back as one of the presumptive faces of the N.B.A., and back to face the same question that has shadowed him since the team made him the top overall pick in the 2019 draft: Can he stay on the court?Since his days at Duke, when his dunks vaporized defenders, and through his celebrated debut with the Pelicans, when he scored on seven straight possessions after returning from knee surgery, Williamson, 22, has tantalized fans with his potential. So big. So powerful. And so seemingly susceptible to injury.Williamson is back to flexing his muscle (literally and figuratively) after a summer of tough workouts.Gerald Herbert/Associated PressA 6-foot-6 forward entering his fourth season, Williamson has appeared in just 85 games. After making his first All-Star team in 2020-21, he missed all of last season with a broken right foot. But Williamson considers it progress — for good reason — that he no longer thinks about his foot or the surgery he had on it. In fact, he said, he forgets that he broke it in the first place.“It’s only when someone mentions it,” he said, “and I’m like, Oh, yeah, I did break my foot.”Sure enough, there is cautious optimism in New Orleans, where the Pelicans showed themselves to be a resilient bunch without Williamson last season. In February, CJ McCollum was the centerpiece Pelicans acquisition in a big trade with the Portland Trail Blazers that helped jolt the franchise forward. The Pelicans closed the regular season by winning 13 of their final 23 games, and then defeated the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in tournament to make the playoffs.“I think we got a taste of what it can be like if we stay healthy and do the right things,” McCollum said.Even though the Pelicans lost to the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs, they pushed the series to six games, and several first-year players — Herbert Jones, Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy III — played important minutes.“It was massive,” said Larry Nance Jr., a veteran forward who came to New Orleans as a part of the deal for McCollum. “When I was young, I didn’t get that type of experience. Now that they’ve been there, they’re just going to hunger for that level of basketball even more.”After spending part of the season quietly rehabilitating at Nike’s facilities outside Portland, Ore. — which caused no small amount of agita for fans wondering about his whereabouts — Williamson returned to New Orleans for the Pelicans’ late-season run. He enjoyed watching his teammates succeed, he said, especially after he had gone through so many of his own struggles.“It definitely mentally matured me beyond my age,” Williamson said of last season. “It made me accept that certain things are going to happen. I can’t control everything. So control what I can control.”At the start of training camp last month, Nance was immediately struck by what he described as Williamson’s “gravity,” by his ability to pull defenders into his orbit whenever he had the ball. His presence makes life easier for his teammates, Nance said, as long as they “learn to move around him.”Few players have that sort of outsize effect on opponents, Nance said. He cited “super superstars” like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, both of whom Nance played alongside earlier in his career, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.“It’s the freaks,” Nance said. “You know who they are.”Asked what separates those players from everyone else, Nance said: “They do what they want with the ball. They’re a threat to score. They’re a threat to pass. They’re a threat to dunk on three guys’ heads if you don’t give them the defensive respect they deserve.”In recent weeks, Nance has regularly matched up with Williamson at practice, a role that Nance said he embraced. He wanted to make Williamson work for baskets. He wanted to be physical with him. He wanted to help prepare him for the regular season.“The only thing I want from him is to see him become the Zion Williamson he wants to become, and I think I can help him with that,” Nance said. “Honestly, there are times when we’re like, ‘Are you sure he didn’t play last year?’ You can see his timing coming back, his handle coming back.”Williamson has played in just 85 games over the past three seasons, but he has looked strong during the preseason.Michael Reaves/Getty ImagesIn a preseason game against the Heat on Wednesday, Williamson offered up a bit of everything — some highlights, some rust and another injury. In the process of cramming 11 points and 4 assists into 11 minutes of playing time, he rolled his left ankle on a drive to the basket in the second quarter.With a noticeable limp, Williamson remained on the court for several more minutes. And he produced, shoveling a pass to McCollum for a 3-pointer before sizing up Nikola Jovic, a 19-year-old forward for the Heat who, on a subsequent possession, found himself defending Williamson on the perimeter. Williamson treated Jovic as if he were a soggy paper towel, busting through him for a layup while drawing a foul. Williamson soon left the game and did not return for the second half.At a Miami-area high school the next day, he was a spectator at an afternoon practice as he received treatment on his ankle. It was another setback — albeit a minor one — in a young career full of them. His availability for the Pelicans’ season opener against the Nets on Wednesday is uncertain.“A little sore,” he said. “Just kind of turned it over a little bit.”Ankle injury aside, Williamson said, he is honing his timing and his rhythm. He said that he could get to his preferred spots on the court, but that finishing around the rim was a work in progress.“Shots that I usually kiss off the glass, I just sometimes feel like I don’t have the right touch,” he said. “With some shots, it’s there. But that’ll come with time.”For a player long accustomed to imposing his will, and using his size and strength to hammer dunks, draw defenders and create for teammates, Williamson has had to develop in new ways over the past year and a half, by being resourceful and patient and determined.It was the only way he could get back to being himself again. More

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    Rachel Nichols Joins Showtime After Contentious ESPN Exit

    Nichols was pulled from the air at ESPN last year after The New York Times reported on disparaging comments that Nichols, who is white, had made about a Black colleague.One year after the high-profile canceling of her television show, Rachel Nichols is back.Showtime Sports announced Friday that Nichols would be joining the premium television network to contribute to its basketball coverage, with her first appearance coming on the “All the Smoke” podcast Friday.For five years, Nichols was the face of ESPN’s N.B.A. coverage, sitting down for interviews with big stars, covering the playoffs and hosting its daily basketball show, “The Jump.” But she was pulled from the air and her show was canceled last year after The New York Times reported on disparaging comments Nichols had made about Maria Taylor, who at the time was her colleague at ESPN.In a conversation with an adviser to the Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James that was unknowingly recorded in July 2020, Nichols, who is white, said that Taylor, who is Black, had been chosen to host 2020 N.B.A. finals coverage instead of her because ESPN executives were “feeling pressure” on diversity.Shortly after The Times’s report, Taylor left ESPN for NBC, where she hosts “Football Night in America,” among other duties. ESPN replaced “The Jump” with a similar daily show called “NBA Today,” which is hosted by Malika Andrews.On the “All the Smoke” podcast — which is hosted by the former N.B.A. players Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, who worked with Nichols on “The Jump” — Nichols made her most extensive comments yet on her departure from ESPN, though she revealed little that had not already been said or reported.Nichols said that the job of hosting N.B.A. finals coverage had been written into her contract with ESPN. But as the company was preparing for the unprecedented airing of the rest of the regular season and the playoffs from a bubble environment near Orlando, Fla., because of the coronavirus pandemic, she was asked instead to be a sideline reporter so that Taylor could host finals studio coverage.“They stressed it was my choice; they weren’t telling me to do this, because it was in my contract,” Nichols said on the podcast. “But they were putting a lot of pressure on me. I was being told, ‘Well, you’re not a team player.’ Which any woman in business knows is code, right?”An ESPN spokesman declined to comment last year when asked whether hosting the finals was in Nichols’s contract. The spokesman declined to comment when asked again Friday. Generally, most ESPN contracts for on-air commentators are what are known as “pay or play” contracts, meaning ESPN has the right to take anybody off the air for any reason, but the company must continue to pay them.Nichols was inadvertently recorded from her hotel room near Orlando. A camera in her room was left on after she finished taping for a show, feeding its recording to a server at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. Her conversation came as the country was roiled by racial justice protests after the police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, and right after The Times reported that many Black employees at ESPN felt they were harmed by racism at the company.On the recording, the adviser Nichols was speaking to, Adam Mendelsohn, who is white, said he was “exhausted” by Black Lives Matter and Nichols laughed.Maria Taylor left ESPN and joined NBC, where she has covered the Olympics and hosts “Football Night in America.”Nick Cammett/Getty ImagesOn the podcast Friday, Nichols said she believed that ESPN was asking her to help fix employee and audience complaints about a lack of diversity in a way they would not have asked a man to do. “Do you think ESPN would ever say to Rece Davis: ‘Hey, we want to give Maria this opportunity. You go be the sideline reporter?’” Nichols said, referring to Davis, a white man who hosts “College GameDay.” “They don’t say that to men.”Nichols added that she attempted to set up a meeting to apologize to Taylor after Taylor learned of her comments but that Taylor would not meet with her.“I feel sorry that any of this touched Maria Taylor,” Nichols said. “She’s a fellow woman in the business. It wasn’t her fault what was going on.”Nichols, without naming anyone, said she thought “people who had bad feelings” held on to the hotel room recording, then leaked it to the media for “leverage with their own situations.”It is not immediately clear how big of a role Nichols will have at Showtime, which does not have rights to show N.B.A. games. According to a statement from Showtime, Nichols will “contribute to multiple programs and projects from Showtime Basketball across multiple platforms.” More

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    Las Vegas Aces Beat Sun for First WNBA Championship

    The Aces shook off their reputation for being better in the regular season by holding off several rallies by the Sun.UNCASVILLE, Conn. — With a championship on the line for a team with some of the W.N.B.A.’s biggest stars, the Las Vegas Aces leaned on Riquna Williams, who had scored in double digits just twice this postseason.Williams raised her index finger to her lips to silence the Connecticut Sun’s white-knuckled fans in Game 4 of the finals as she hit one big shot after another in the fourth quarter. The last of her 17 points came on a step-back shot just inside the 3-point line over the outstretched arms of Natisha Hiedeman. Guard Kelsey Plum raised her hands, and Williams ran around the court with her arms spread wide as Sun fans began to leave.The Aces defeated the Sun, 78-71, on Sunday to win their first W.N.B.A. championship, their postseason reflecting the regular-season dominance that led them to tie Chicago for the best record in the league.The Aces led by as many as 10 but had to fight off several furious rallies by the Sun before clinching the title in the final minutes of Las Vegas’s third win in the best-of-five series. Chelsea Gray led the Aces with 20 points and was named the most valuable player of the finals.“I worked so hard for this,” Gray said as she became emotional and her teammates cheered.The Las Vegas Aces had long been considered better in the regular season than in the playoffs.Maddie Meyer/Getty ImagesGray and the Aces’ loaded roster kept Las Vegas a step ahead of the league all season. Four Aces were named All-Stars — A’ja Wilson, Plum, Jackie Young and Dearica Hamby — and Plum was voted M.V.P. of the All-Star Game. Wilson won her second league M.V.P. Award and was named the defensive player of the year. Becky Hammon, in her first season with the team, was named the league’s coach of the year.But coming into Game 4, Williams, who scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, hadn’t scored more than 14 points all season. The Sun held Wilson to just 11 points on Sunday, her third-lowest scoring performance of the playoffs.“I got a group of really resilient players,” Hammon said, adding: “You saw different people step up at different moments tonight and that’s what makes us difficult to beat.”The Aces finished with the best regular-season record in two of the past three seasons and second in the year they didn’t finish first. The Seattle Storm swept them in the 2020 finals. Las Vegas had shouldered the reputation of being a team good enough to win in the regular season but not able — or willing — to make the adjustments needed to succeed in the postseason. Its star-laden roster was seemingly too talented for its own good, with the best players often leaning on the isolation basketball they excel in but that has kept the Aces from closing out championships.This year, a large group of fans in red, black and gold Aces gear made their way down to the lower levels of Mohegan Sun Arena as the Las Vegas players flooded the court after the game. It was an invaluable moment for Gray.“I’ve been on two teams and that was loud,” Gray said of the Aces fans. “They’re going to celebrate us, and we’re going to celebrate them.”Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray had 20 points and 6 assists on Sunday. She was named the most valuable player of the finals.Jessica Hill/Associated PressLast season, the Aces lost the decisive Game 5 of the semifinals to the Phoenix Mercury, who celebrated on the Aces’ home floor. Gray said that ending had stuck in her mind since.“And now I’ll just have a different replay in my head,” Gray said with a smile.As the buzzer sounded on Sunday, the Aces players — now champions — yelled and hugged each other, their cheers of excitement bouncing around an otherwise quiet stadium that had been rocked with the deafening roars of Sun fans just moments before.As Connecticut players exited the court in tears, Sun center Jonquel Jones walked the length of the floor into the Aces’ celebration to hug and congratulate Wilson. As Jones walked away, she paused to clap and thank the fans that remained before heading to the locker room. Jones dominated the Aces physically in the Sun’s lone win of the series in Game 3, and she nearly led them to another victory in Game 4.Wilson spoke highly of Jones after the game.“I had to go and speak to her because she played her heart out,” Wilson said of Jones, who was last season’s M.V.P. “It’s so hard to guard her, and I just have all the most respect for J.J.”The loss for the Sun, the No. 3 seed, is another disappointing finish for a franchise with the second most wins in W.N.B.A. history but no championships. For the second straight game, Sun forward Alyssa Thomas had a triple-double. She is the only player to have a triple-double in a W.N.B.A. finals game.Hammon said it was a “battle” to beat the Sun. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” she said.Bill Laimbeer, who had been the Aces’ coach for four years, stepped down before the season. The Aces hired Hammon, who had been an assistant with the N.B.A.’s San Antonio Spurs. She took over a team led by Wilson, who won her first M.V.P. Award in 2020.Riquna Williams of the Las Vegas Aces hit big shot after big shot during the fourth quarter of the championship-clinching victory.Maddie Meyer/Getty ImagesAs Hammon guided the Aces to the first seed, she said she saw glimpses of the style of play that had kept the Aces from winning a title. But that shifted in the Aces’ semifinal win over the Storm, during which Hammon said the players were “choosing each other” and learned how to “take a punch.”That proved true as the Aces found ways to win playoff games while their stars struggled and they faced deficits — precisely what happened on Sunday — finally shaking the reputation of a team with unfulfilled potential.Hammon thanked Laimbeer for putting the team together and praised her players.“What I’m most proud of is we became a real team out here, and a team that cares about each other and trusts each other,” she said.Hammon said it was a “little surreal” to win her first W.N.B.A. championship. She played in the league for more than a decade, including several seasons with the Las Vegas franchise when it was in San Antonio.She said the Aces had “tremendous leadership” among the players, and that they had persisted when they weren’t playing well during the season. She applauded Williams for coming through on Sunday when the Aces had been struggling to score.“She knows she’s got the ultimate green light,” Hammon said.Wilson also spoke about growth — hers and the team’s.“I know who I am now more than ever,” Wilson said. “I feel like I’ve established myself in this league. And the Aces aren’t done yet.” More

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    WNBA Upgrades to Charter Flights for Finals

    For the first time ever, the W.N.B.A. is providing charter flights throughout the finals. Aces and Sun players are loving it — and hope it becomes permanent.UNCASVILLE, Conn. — There were “oohs and aahs” of excitement as the Connecticut Sun players entered their chartered plane on the way to Las Vegas for Game 1 of the W.N.B.A. finals, guard Nia Clouden said.Waiting for them were pillows and blankets, seats that fully reclined and a generous menu of complimentary food. Clouden typically never eats the roasted salted almonds, cookies, chips and other snacks offered on the team’s commercial flights. But on that night, she ordered a pepperoni pizza.Sun center Jonquel Jones pointed to the long legs that make up part of her 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame to show how the leg room on the charter flight made a difference for her. She usually tries to find the exit row seat on flights, but the space is never enough. Jones said she was also happy to avoid “all the unnecessary stuff that happens at airports.”“Sometimes after a game, you don’t really feel like talking, and you go to the airport and people want to talk about the game,” Jones said while laughing. “Or they want to ask you how tall you are — constantly — all the time. ‘How’s the weather up there?’ And it’s just like, dude, I’m just trying to get to the next destination.”She added: “As much as we love our fans — we appreciate them — sometimes it does really get a little exhausting, and it makes the season a little bit tougher.”This season, for the first time ever, the league agreed to provide charter travel throughout the W.N.B.A. finals. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said that the league does not have enough revenue to cover travel for all teams during the regular season and playoffs, which she estimated would cost more than $20 million. Teams fly commercially during the season and playoffs, with rare exceptions for extreme travel difficulties.Athletes in major professional sports leagues like the N.F.L., N.B.A. and M.L.B., and even many men’s and women’s Division I athletes, have grown accustomed to charter travel. But those men’s leagues have been around much longer than the W.N.B.A. and have billions of dollars of revenue, while the women’s league regularly operates at a loss.The W.N.B.A. hasn’t committed to offering charter flights for next year’s finals or expanding them to the regular season or any other part of the playoffs. Engelbert said the league was able to provide charters for the finals because of its efforts to increase revenue.“As we focus on growing this league by adding more corporate partners, increasing media exposure and disrupting the outdated media rights valuations of women’s sports,” Engelbert said in a statement, “it would be our hope to continue offering these opportunities when possible.”More on the W.N.B.A.Swan Song: Sue Bird, who had said she would retire after this season, shepherded the Seattle Storm to the playoffs. The team’s loss on Sept. 7 marked the end of her incredible career.Greatness Overshadowed: Sylvia Fowles, who has also announced her retirement from basketball, is one of the most successful American athletes ever. Why isn’t she better known?A Critical Eye: As enthusiasm for women’s basketball and the W.N.B.A grows, fans are becoming more demanding of the league and more vocal about their wishes.Making the Style Rules: Players in women’s basketball are styling themselves before the games. Their choices are an expression of their freedom, and can be lucrative too.The W.N.B.A.’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union prohibits teams from chartering flights without league approval. The Liberty were fined $500,000 for secretly traveling to several games by charter last season.So players fly commercially, dealing with the delays, Covid risks and the many flight challenges that everyday customers also deal with. If you’re wondering why professional athletes should have different travel standards anyway, many W.N.B.A. players said it started with rest.Having a relaxing night’s sleep is paramount for playing in a 36-game regular season — with half of those games on the road — when a player’s future salary and place in the league depend on their performance each night, players said. Rest can be especially challenging on a commercial flight for the tall humans that occupy women’s basketball teams. But more important, delays and flight cancellations can result in teams’ having to forfeit games.The Aces forfeited a game in 2018 after dealing with over 25 hours of delays and layovers on their way to Washington, D.C., to play the Mystics. They arrived just four hours ahead of their game. The Aces cited health concerns as the reason not to play and were the first team in league history to forfeit a game. Las Vegas missed the playoffs, finishing one game behind the Dallas Wings.“I definitely think having charters is a trickle-down effect to people being able to take care of their bodies better and rest,” Aces guard Sydney Colson said. “And then you have better games to watch because people are rested and injury free.”Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones said though she loved the Sun’s fans, it can be challenging running into them at the airport after games when players might not feel like talking.Joe Buglewicz for The New York TimesFor those players who played college basketball for major programs in the United States, the special finals travel is a welcome return to the norm, as many of their schools provided charter flights to all games.“There aren’t many times that I can remember at all that we flew commercial,” said Aces forward Theresa Plaisance, who played at Louisiana State University. “And when you get to the W.N.B.A., and you’re going to your middle seat on Southwest — sometimes it’s really hard to swallow that pill and think like: ‘Oh, this is my progression. I went from college to make it to a professional league, and I have to go backward.’”For Peter Feeney, the basketball operations manager for the Sun, who has handled all flight logistics for the past four years, the simplicity of the travel blew his mind, he said. Feeney typically arrives at airports an hour before the team to ensure that they can pass through security without any hiccups. But on their two charter flights, they’ve arrived at the plane less than an hour before takeoff, and the flight staff handled almost everything.The moment made Feeney realize that if the league switched to charter flights for the entire season, he would become less useful in his role. But he also serves as a video coordinator, so he welcomes the idea. “That’s a good problem, right?” he said with a laugh.Aces forward A’ja Wilson, who has been outspoken about the W.N.B.A.’s travel woes, said that the players had talked about what life would be like if chartered flights were normal after they comfortably made the cross-country trip to Connecticut from Las Vegas for Game 3 on Thursday.“We need it. Ain’t nothing else,” Wilson said. “We need to be able to fly like that after every game. I can only imagine how my body would feel if we did. So, I think it’s a huge deal for us to do it. We need to continue to push it.” More

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    The Sun Get Physical to Stay Alive Against Las Vegas

    On the brink of elimination, Connecticut locked down Chelsea Gray and got superb performances from Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas.UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The Las Vegas Aces were leading the W.N.B.A. finals heading into Thursday largely because of explosive first quarters. They had outscored the Connecticut Sun, 58-32, in the opening period of the first two games, a number that Sun Coach Curt Miller was well aware of. Before Thursday’s Game 3, Miller said he would “love” for the Sun to have an explosive start and force the Aces to take a timeout.It went the other way. An animated and furious Miller sprinted onto the court just over two minutes into the game as the Aces took a quick 9-2 lead.“I was frustrated, but not discouraged,” Miller said. “We’ve been in that situation before. We are in our home building. We just needed to not lose contact with them before the game settled in.”He added: “It’s scary to take a timeout quickly knowing that you have an eight-minute quarter — the rest of the quarter — without a timeout. But it was needed, and we gathered ourselves, and again, the veterans led through that huddle.”The Sun responded to the quick timeout with a 32-10 run, closing the first quarter with 34 points — a W.N.B.A. finals record — and a 19-point lead as their raucous fans were on their feet, swinging white towels.The Sun went on to defeat the Aces, 105-76, and now trail the Aces, two games to one, in the best-of-five series.Jonquel Jones led the way for the Sun with 20 points and 5 rebounds, and Alyssa Thomas added the first triple-double in finals history with 16 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists.Miller said the win showed “toughness,” adding: “You know, a grit, a fight, that we’re not going to go away; that we are going to force Vegas to beat us.”Courtney Williams and the Sun were physical all night, limiting Kelsey Plum and the Aces to 76 points.Joe Buglewicz for The New York TimesThe Sun improved to 4-0 when facing postseason elimination this year. On Thursday, they relied on their height and physicality to dominate the Aces on both sides of the ball. The Sun outscored the Aces, 64-26, in the paint thanks largely to Jones, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2021. Jones used her 6-foot-6, 190-pound frame to outmuscle this year’s M.V.P. and Defensive Player of the Year, A’ja Wilson, scoring layup after layup, finishing through contact and drawing fouls.“Jonquel played like Jonquel,” Wilson said. “She’s an M.V.P. She played exactly how she’s supposed to play. I’m not going to take anything away from her. She dominated the game the way that she should.”Jones was dominating with 11 points in the third quarter, but with two minutes left, and the Aces comfortably ahead by 11, Miller removed Jones who had reached four fouls. The Aces quickly went on a 5-0 run, cutting the lead to six. A Brionna Jones layup just before the end of the quarter put the lead back at 8, but Jones stayed on the bench as the fourth quarter began.The absence made an Aces comeback seem inevitable, but the Sun were able to hold thanks to strong play from guard DeWanna Bonner and Thomas. When Jones returned with 7 minutes 35 seconds left in the game, the Sun were up 10. The Aces made a free throw, but Natisha Hiedeman knocked down a 3-pointer that put the Sun up by 12, igniting the crowd.Odyssey Sims, a guard for the Sun, mimicked the “night, night” celebration made famous by Golden State’s Stephen Curry as a way to signal to the crowd that the game was over. Minutes later, the Sun extended the lead to 14, and Aces Coach Becky Hammon began pulling her starters.“This game was about physicality and mental toughness, and they smoked us, period,” Hammon said.Part of the turnaround came from the Sun finally finding an answer for Chelsea Gray, the Aces guard who had stepped up during this postseason. Gray has had numerous crucial moments throughout the Aces’ run, but on Thursday she looked decidedly uncomfortable.The Sun matched the 6-foot-4 Bonner on Gray and aggressively double-teamed her on screens to force someone else to beat them. The strategy resulted in four turnovers from Gray and her struggling to get anything going offensively. In the second quarter, Gray tried to assert herself by pulling up for a few deep 3-pointers, at one point scoring 9 straight points. But that was it for Gray. Her last 3-pointer in the first half was her 11th and final point of the game.“I’m just trying to stay locked in and limit her touches as much as I can, not give her too much room,” Bonner said. “Try to use my length more than anything. I’m a 6-foot-4 guard for a reason, so I just try to use my length, use my speed.”The Aces got 22 points from guard Jackie Young — her highest scoring game of the postseason — and Wilson added 19 points, but just four rebounds. It was the worst defensive game of the postseason for Wilson and, by extension, the rest of the Aces.“We just were not locked in on the defensive end,” Wilson said, adding: “For us to come out and lack that, it was going to be a long game regardless of who we played.” More

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    Aces Score Just Enough to Take W.N.B.A. Finals Lead

    The Las Vegas Aces’ high-powered offense scored a season-low 67 points, but a double-double from A’ja Wilson, the league’s most valuable player, helped them outlast the Connecticut Sun.LAS VEGAS — The W.N.B.A. finals have many compelling story lines: two franchises, and two coaches, looking for their first title; a high-powered offense taking on a stingy defense.But those story lines faded into the background Sunday afternoon, and it quickly became A’ja Wilson’s day as she led the Las Vegas Aces to a 67-64 victory over the Connecticut Sun in Game 1.Before the game, Wilson received this year’s Most Valuable Player Award at halfcourt with her family and the league’s commissioner by her side. The M.V.P. honor was the second of her career, making her the seventh player in the W.N.B.A.’s 26 seasons to win the award more than once. As the public-address announcer called out the Aces starters’ names, Wilson ran out, high-fiving teammates amid the loudest roars for any player.Then, when the game began, she got to the basket with ease, missing only one shot on the way to 12 first-quarter points. The Aces ended the first quarter leading by 8 points, then were buoyed throughout the game by Wilson’s dominant play. She met the moment with 24 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks and 2 steals. Game 2 of the best-of-five series is scheduled for Tuesday in Las Vegas.“She can score the ball, ultimately,” Sun center Jonquel Jones said of Wilson, with a laugh. “She’s able to score on different levels. I think that’s a tough challenge. She’s attacking the rim really aggressively right now. So it’s tough.” Aces guard Chelsea Gray added 21 points, and Alyssa Thomas led the Sun with a double-double of 19 points and 11 rebounds. Las Vegas’s win came on one of its worst offensive nights of the year, with the team’s lowest point total of both the regular season and playoffs. And Aces guard Kelsey Plum, who averaged 20.2 points per game in the regular season, struggled with just 6 points on 1-of-9 shooting.“Credit to their defense, and give credit to us for missing,” Aces Coach Becky Hammon said with a smile.Despite the loss, Coach Curt Miller and the Sun players did not seem dejected afterward, as some teams would be after losing a W.N.B.A. finals game. Miller said he was “really pleased” with how the Sun dictated the style of play to one that they were more comfortable with, forcing the league’s highest-scoring offense to struggle to find baskets. The Sun lost by a close margin despite shooting only five free throws to the Aces’ 19. “Ultimately, I’m happy with the game that we played,” Jones said, “and we gave ourselves a good opportunity to come out there and get a win. And it just didn’t go our way, but we’re excited about Game 2.” But the Aces were looking at the game from a similar perspective. They held the Sun to their lowest scoring total of the playoffs and, even while playing arguably their worst offensive game of the season, they still won. “We do take a lot of pride in getting it done on the defensive side because that’s the most important side,” Wilson said. “They can hold us to however many; we have to also hold them down as well. So if we can play on both sides of the basketball and execute on the defensive end, I got us all the way.”Two years ago, Wilson won her first M.V.P. Award, leading the Aces to their first finals appearance since moving to Las Vegas in 2018 and the franchise’s second overall. But Wilson and the Aces quickly looked like a team unprepared for the moment, as the Seattle Storm beat them by double digits in each game, including a 33-point drubbing in Game 3 to win the 2020 title. Wilson said that they were “happy to be there” in 2020 but that now they were less overwhelmed by the aura of the finals and more focused on the basketball. The Aces’ defense limited the Sun’s Courtney Williams and DeWanna Bonner, not pictured, holding them to a combined 8 points on 3-of-18 shooting.L.E. Baskow/Associated Press“We know that feeling,” Wilson said. “It sucks getting swept. It’s the worst thing ever, but that’s the chip on your shoulder. That’s the fire. That’s the grind that you want to say, ‘I don’t want to get swept anymore. I don’t even want to have a gentleman sweep.’ You want to go out there and play for your teammates because you felt the way that you felt in 2020, and you hate it.”On Sunday, the Aces showed their evolution in the two years since that finals appearance. After the Aces’ strong first quarter, the Sun responded by slowing the game down and using their physicality and height to make scoring arduous. The Sun outscored Las Vegas in the second quarter, 21-9, to take a 4-point lead into halftime.Hammon was furious in the locker room at halftime, more “lit” than she had ever been this season, she said, because “everything we talked about, we didn’t do any of it.” “I don’t even yell in my real life,” Hammon said, adding: “But when you go out there, and you don’t execute, it’s frustrating, but at the end of the day, they know it, OK. They’re smart, they get it. But they beat us in every hustle category. And that can’t happen. You can’t lose a championship or a game or quarter on hustle — that can never be the case.”Gray and Wilson began shaking their heads and laughing before they were even finished being asked to share what Hammon had said to the team. “We cannot. It is unedited. We got children watching,” Gray said with a smile, as Wilson laughed next to her, nearly uncontrollably shaking her head. “But she was just on us to play our style defensively. We were letting them get offensive rebounds, easy scores, turning over the ball,” Gray added. “That’s the edited version. I can’t give you everything.” But the Aces had been in that position before during these playoffs. In their semifinal series win against the Seattle Storm, nearly every game featured dramatic lead changes and comebacks. Hammon said the Aces’ ability to “take a punch” in that series was significant.And it showed Sunday as the Aces reclaimed the lead in the second half and held on, despite a furious rally from Connecticut down the stretch. The Aces found a way to beat the Sun at their own style of basketball to move closer to their first title.“Tonight we struggled a little bit, and we’ll be better Game 2,” Hammon said. “I already know what we’re going to do. My mind is reeling.” More

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    Connecticut Sun Complete Comeback to Reach W.N.B.A. Finals

    Connecticut forced a decisive Game 5, then beat the reigning champion Sky and set up a finals matchup with the Las Vegas Aces.The Chicago Sky looked like they were on their way to their second straight appearance in the W.N.B.A. finals. They led Connecticut by 9 points with less than five minutes to go in the decisive Game 5, and had held the Sun to just 14 points since halftime. Sky guard Kahleah Copper was dominating, forcing turnovers, flexing her muscles and clapping her hands en route to a game-high 22 points.But that was it for the Sky: They were held scoreless for the final 4 minutes and 46 seconds of the game. The Sun used an 18-0 run to stun the Sky on their home floor, 72-63, and advance to the finals, where they will face the Las Vegas Aces starting Sunday in Las Vegas.The Sun’s win avenges their loss to the Sky in the semifinals last year. It also ends the Chicago’s quest to become the first team to repeat as W.N.B.A. champion since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002.The Sun were paced by double-doubles from Jonquel Jones (15 points and 10 rebounds) and Alyssa Thomas (12 points and 10 rebounds). Sun forward DeWanna Bonner added 15 points and 9 rebounds.Through the first three games of the series, Chicago’s Candace Parker was nearly unstoppable. She averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds to help the Sky get out to a 2-1 series lead. But in Game 4, the Sun neutralized Parker, holding her to just 11 points and 9 rebounds.And on the offensive side of the ball, the Sun dominated Parker and the Sky from the inside. The Sun have one of the tallest and most physical frontcourts in the league with Jonquel Jones (6-foot-6), Bonner (6-foot-4), Brionna Jones (6-foot-3), and Thomas (6-foot-2); they used that to their advantage to score a playoff-record 66 points from the painted area in Game 4. They beat the Sun, 104-80, achieving a franchise playoff record for points scored in a game to tie the series at two games apiece.Early in Game 5, Chicago’s offense was stagnant, with players seeming nervous to shoot the ball close to the basket for fear of being blocked by one of the Sun’s bigs. The Sun ended the first quarter down just 8 points, with Parker scoreless. In the second quarter, Copper took over. She scored 9 points to bring the game to a 40-40 tie to go into halftime with the momentum on the Sky’s side.Parker continued to struggle offensively, but she was dominant on defense, blocking four shots and grabbing three steals. The Sky held the Sun to 8 points in the third and led by 10 points heading into the final quarter. But the Sky would score just 5 points for the remainder of the game, as the Sun scored 24 to silence the Chicago crowd and advance to the finals. More