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After the final buzzer sounded in the Aces’ win against the reigning WNBA champion Sky in the 2022 Commissioner’s Cup, Chelsea Gray huddled around her teammates at halfcourt inside Wintrust Arena. Gray assembled a supreme 19-point, five-assist performance to go along with Jackie Young’s (18 points) and Kelsey Plum’s (24) double-digit production and A’ja Wilson’s massive double-double outing that included 17 points, 17 rebounds and six blocks.

Gray, thrilled for the victory, had thrown on her Commissioner’s Cup champion T-shirt and black fitted cap to celebrate the in-season exhibition win. Just a month earlier, the Aces gave up a 28-point lead at home for Chicago to complete the biggest comeback in league history. But as WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert shared her overall remarks at her midseason event, she announced Gray as the game’s Most Valuable Player.

The four-time All-Star, who felt she was snubbed of her fifth All-Star distinction this season, was in some level of shock as her teammates grabbed her in jubilation. In Gray’s eyes lies the blueprint of an unprecedented vision for team success that has never been unilaterally focused. Becoming the face of the franchise? Averaging the most points? That’s not Gray’s mentality. “She’s just the ultimate competitor,” Plum says.

Her DNA, one of a WNBA champion, is concocted with elements powered to overcome adversity, anatomize defenses as an aid to orchestrate the Aces’ offense, and deliver in colossal moments like an avenger in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She does not allow her individual play to be the prime focus, describing her gifts as merely getting to her spots on the floor, putting people in position to thrive with head-turning passes and demonstrating a never-ending will to win.

But as Gray sat between Wilson and Plum with a bottle of McBride Sisters Black Girl Magic sparkling wine on the table after the Commissioner’s Cup, her teammates provided her with proverbial flowers. “She’s the best point guard in the world … the clutchest player in the WNBA … consistently makes big plays … she’s been leading our team the whole season,” Plum said.

Gray possesses potent powers—think Iron Man and his efforts to lead Marvel’s Avengers. “He’s smart, he knows his stuff, he dissects things while also being able to make something out of nothing,” Gray says. But with far-reaching abilities comes the demand for Gray to use them efficiently and responsibly in an Aces offense stacked with heroic All-Star players with individual powers.

Las Vegas has come up short in winning a WNBA championship the last three seasons, which includes being swept by a veteran Storm team in the 2020 WNBA Finals. However, the Aces need just two more wins against the Sun to win their first championship. Gray is averaging 23.6 points, four rebounds and seven assists while shooting 61.1% from the floor and an astronomical 59.5% from three-point range through seven playoff games. But before reaching the brink of what could be the franchise’s first championship, the league’s Point Gawd underwent some adjustments with the team’s personnel during the offseason.

“She’s been leading our team the whole season,” Plum says of her teammate Gray, who was named MVP at the 2022 Commissioner’s Cup. 

“She’s been leading our team the whole season,” Plum says of her teammate Gray, who was named MVP at the 2022 Commissioner’s Cup. 

Nearly three months after the Aces’ disappointing 3–2 series loss to the Mercury in the 2021 WNBA semifinals came the hiring of former Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, replacing Bill Laimbeer as head coach. Less than two months after Hammon’s arrival, former Aces center Liz Cambage joined the Sparks. Then Hammon picked up two veteran free agents, Sydney Colson and Theresa Plaisance, before rounding out the current roster with three rookies.

Laimbeer favored an old-school approach to the game with two frontcourt players on the floor for nearly every possession and playing through the interior. Hammon, on the other hand, established a more modern offensive game plan that features a five-out, wide-open scheme, giving her players more freedom and space to fully display their talents on the hardwood. It gave players like Wilson, who had never contested a three-pointer under Laimbeer, the chance to add long-range jumpers to her arsenal.

Hammon’s strategy called for continuous communication, especially in pick-and-roll scenarios, screens and understanding the multiple layers of defense. When the 2022 season started, Gray was still adapting to the new approach.

“I was figuring out how to lead as a point guard, making the right play and looking at different plays where it creates an advantage for us offensively,” Gray says. “Understanding that it wasn’t always me handling and scoring the basketball but also understanding how defenses are defending.”

Gray is no stranger to making necessary adaptations: She’s played for three different franchises—including a five-year stint in Los Angeles, where she won her first title in 2016—and has learned from four different coaches, including Laimbeer after signing with Las Vegas before the ’21 season. Every year, the veteran guard seeks to improve her craft through intense film work to better understand timing, scores, pivotal moments and matchups to exploit for her team’s benefit. “If A’ja, Kelsey or Kia [Stokes] is screening, how are they being defended?” Gray asks. “Maybe I’m in the pick-and-roll. It all depends on the flow of the game.”

But if Gray’s eagerness to be great and to make others around her exceptional are not enough, her wife, Tipesa, who fits into the Pepper Potts role well, knows exactly what to say to get Chelsea in motion. Ever since the two met through a mutual friend during Chelsea’s days at Duke, the gifted leader and her wife–a former four-year basketball player at Long Beach State—talk through nearly all of their plans together. In fact, it was Tipesa who challenged Chelsea to go to Las Vegas. “I wanted something different, and she pushed me outside of my comfort zone,” Chelsea says. When Tipesa felt Chelsea was not playing at her best before the All-Star break, she didn’t shy away from voicing her opinion. “She gave me a piece of her mind,” Chelsea laughs. “I was probably mad at her for like two or three days but it lit a fire under me. … She’s my best friend; she’s honest and makes sure all I have to do is focus on basketball.”

A focused Gray is a menacing weapon. While she navigated the early-season adjustments under a new coach, the Aces won 13 of their first 15 games to start the season. But leading up to the All-Star break, Las Vegas went 2–5. This stretch included that debacle against the Sky, a defensive rating of 111.4 (second-to-last in the WNBA), and sitting at the very bottom of the league in opposing team’s field goals made, opponents field goal percentage, opponents defensive rebounds, opponents assists and points allowed per game.

Las Vegas had gotten away from the team it was defensively. But following a “coming to Jesus moment” during a team meeting in New York, the Aces were moving in the right direction again, winning five of six before the Commissioner’s Cup and finishing 6–2 in the regular season with defense as the team’s top priority.

Gray was well-equipped in understanding the strengths of her teammates through Hammon’s scheme when the regular season ended. Her mastery was on full display in their season finale victory against the Storm, when she flirted with a double-double, notching a regular-season career-high 33 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, as well as a 16-point fourth quarter.

The win secured the Aces the No. 1 seed in this year’s playoffs. But, it also added another test to their strength heading into the postseason. Three days prior had seen a different result on Vegas’s side of the stat sheet in a win against the Sky when Plum and Young shone and Wilson and Gray took more of a backseat. “Everyone has their moments to impact a game,” Plum says. “It’s not the same person every single night. Any of us can get hot on any given night. … This team was built for everyone to play their role.”

It's also why Gray’s vision to facilitate the Aces’ superheroes are exceedingly important. Plum reads defenses in front of her but makes many of her on-court moves based on instincts, like Spiderman relying on his enhanced senses to utilize his webbing. Plum converted 42% from beyond the arc in the regular season but has struggled in the playoffs, shooting 26.1% from three-point range. While still averaging 17 points per game this postseason, the All-Star Game MVP says Gray’s dimension to the team is unparalleled. “She really sees the game in a different way,” Plum says. “I give a ton of energy but the way she dissects the game makes it easy for me to play in the backcourt with her.”

“I was figuring out how to lead as a point guard,” Gray says of the start of the 2022 season. 

“I was figuring out how to lead as a point guard,” Gray says of the start of the 2022 season. 

Wilson, who was recently named the Defensive Player of the Year while earning her second MVP honors, is Captain America. She is undeniably the leader of the franchise. But for the Aces to win a title, Wilson will need Gray’s insight. “Her vision is incredible,” Wilson says. “Sometimes, I think I am out of the play and she puts the ball where only I can get something out of it. I haven’t played alongside a point guard with that type of vision and basketball IQ.”

Insert Young, who comes in as Black Widow. Young, who is extremely lethal, elevated her production this season while still managing to guard the best perimeter player on opposing teams. She is shy and won’t be the loudest in the room, but her physicality and her ability to stretch the floor stands out. “She’s like a silent assassin,” Gray says. “She comes up to do her job, doesn’t really talk much but will be chilling with you the next day.”

Then, there’s Dearica Hamby, who plays the role of the Hulk. Before Game 1 of the Finals, the two-time WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year had been sidelined since Aug. 9 with a bone contusion in her knee and wasn’t sure if she’d be able to play. As Hammon recalled the Sun’s desiring to play a rough game, she needed some reinforcement. “I was like my biggest, baddest beast is sitting over there,” Hammon told reporters. “I’ve just got to throw her in.” While not 100% healthy, the 6'3" forward played 11 minutes and provided a boost for Las Vegas in its first Finals win in franchise history.

Wilson added: “[Hamby] is just indestructible and just gets in the way of everything.”

Gray’s teammates can feel her evolution with every high-arching, fading jump shot from the elbow, top of the key, corner or the wing. From her unconventional, low-to-the-ground crossover before dishing a did-you-see-that pass to her level of calm in the storm, Gray is relishing the moment.

She has been preparing for this since her childhood days of watching film and imitating Ticha Penicheiro, Magic Johnson and Jason Williams while playing basketball with her brothers in the driveway of her Hayward, Calif., home, always finding a way to polish her playmaking abilities. Even Gray’s multiple knee injuries have propelled her for the challenges she faced in the postseason.

After sweeping an injury-laden Mercury team depleted of its stars in the first round, Las Vegas encountered a grueling matchup with Seattle in the semifinals. The series that featured seven former No. 1 draft picks between both teams and Gray was ready for the prolific matchup, pulling from her experience in the Commissioner’s Cup when the Aces went on the road to defeat the Sky, an experience Gray says was necessary for her team to solidify. “A lot of times to be champions, you’re going to have to win some games away,” Gray says. “It’s hard to do in the playoffs.”

But Gray’s vision made a matchup for the ages appear seamless in Game 3 of the semis. With the series tied 1–1 in Seattle, Gray delivered two key assists—one to Riquna Williams for a three pointer and an inbound pass to Young for a layup at the buzzer—for the Aces to force overtime. Gray finished the game with 29 points, her most important ones coming within the final two minutes of OT. With a three-point lead, Gray got a switch off Gabby Williams to connect on a 26-footer. Gray then followed up the massive three pointer with a driving layup and another triple to put the game out of reach. In Gray’s mind, that game—one in which she became the third player in WNBA history to score at least 25 points while dishing out 10 or more assists—was a defining moment. “The bigger the moment, the calmer and more collective she is,” Plum says. “She’s like Patrick Mahomes under pressure.”

While many will remember this series as the one that brought Sue Bird’s legendary career to an end, Gray’s performance epitomized the pieces of her DNA that serve as the motor to the Aces’ master plan of hoping to hoist the championship trophy at the conclusion of the Finals.

But until then, the Point Gawd remains in the lab, cooking up schemes for opposing defensive threats and sharpening her vision to aid her teammates in battle. 

More WNBA Coverage: 

Aces Escape Sun’s ‘Sludgy’ Defense to Win Game 1
Brittney Griner’s Off-the-Court Impact Remains in Phoenix
Jackie Young Learned to Trust Herself, and It’s Paying Off in Threes for Vegas