How Becky Hammon, Aces draw inspiration from the 2014 Spurs

LAS VEGAS -- Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson had the thought more than once as she watched a video about the 2014 NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.

"These guys," she thought, "are a lot like us."

Center/forward Tim Duncan, small forward Kawhi Leonard, shooting guard Manu Ginobili and point guard Tony Parker were the core of that Spurs team. Wilson and guards Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young are the core of the Aces, the defending WNBA champions driven in their quest to repeat their title this year.

Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon thought it would help the Aces to watch how the Spurs played and supported one another in 2014, when San Antonio won its fifth and most recent NBA title.

The Aces' championship under Hammon last year showed the players' ability to bond together. They haven't needed external motivation this year in trying to run it back. Still, Hammon wanted the Aces to take note of how the Spurs rallied around one another in 2014.

"I see lots of similarities in the character of the teams," Hammon said. "The care factor that 2014 team had, the unselfishness, the commitment to whatever it takes to win, no matter who gets the credit.

"That's what I wanted from us going into this postseason. I told them, 'You have the character to do it. There are going to be some games where we have to win with defense and unselfishness.'"

The Aces are 6-0 in the playoffs, beating the New York Liberty 99-82 on Sunday in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. Las Vegas will try to take a commanding lead in the best-of-five series in Game 2 on Wednesday (9 p.m. PT, ESPN/ESPN App) at Michelob Ultra Arena.

No team since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-2002 has won back-to-back WNBA titles. Hammon played against that Sparks team, just as she did versus the Houston Comets (four consecutive titles from 1997 to 2000) and the Minnesota Lynx (four titles from 2011 to 2017).

Hammon was near the end of her playing career in 2014, having suffered a torn ACL early in the 2013 WNBA season. So she began preparation for her coaching future, spending the NBA season with the Spurs throughout 2013-14 as she rehabbed her knee.

Hammon returned to the court to play her final WNBA season in 2014, then officially joined Gregg Popovich's Spurs coaching staff that fall.

Soccer is frequently referred to as "the beautiful game," but basketball the way it was played by the 2014 Spurs at their best was just as stunning. It was like a symphony of passing. The Spurs could work the ball around as if they were magicians doing sleight-of-hand tricks until they had the best look, possession after possession.

Coming off the disappointment of losing the 2013 NBA Finals to the Miami Heat, the Spurs returned their core players and went 62-20 in 2013-14. They led the NBA in assists per game (25.2), 3-point percentage (39.7) and net rating (8.1); were second in field goal percentage (48.6); and ranked sixth in scoring average.

"We know we are fully capable of being individual stars. But we can't reach our overall goal without each other." A'ja Wilson on the Aces

Their cohesiveness and how supportive they were of one another stood out even beyond the numbers.

"Watching the Spurs now makes me think of some of the similarities there are between us," said Wilson, who was a high school senior in 2014. "They all had the ability to take over a game, but they knew they couldn't win a championship without each other.

"That's us, too. We know we are fully capable of being individual stars. But we can't reach our overall goal without each other. We hold each other accountable, we'll make sacrifices. They were very disciplined, and so are we."

In the regular season, the Aces led the WNBA in scoring average (92.8 PPG), field goal percentage (48.6), offensive rating (114.8) and defensive rating (99.2) and were second in assists (24.1) as they went 34-6.

"Just seeing things like Tim Duncan's relationship with Pop, and mine with Becky -- it's incredible how much they seem the same," Wilson said. "I really related to that."

Gray also recalls seeing one sequence from 2014 in which Parker was briefly talking to Popovich in a coaches' huddle on the court, then went back to the bench with the dry-erase board to show his teammates. Gray as a point guard said she has done that a few times herself.

"What really stood out to me is that everybody was playing for each other," Gray said. "You have the most success when you want the best for people playing next to you. Then it just flows through the whole organization."