August 16, 2023
How the New York Liberty won the Commissioner’s Cup
Jonquel Jones dominates, Marine Johannès finds her flair in Liberty win over the Aces
The last time the New York Liberty defeated the Las Vegas Aces, head coach Sandy Brondello did the griddy. This time, it was Jonquel Jones’ turn. The Liberty’s center hopped across the visiting locker room with her new, shiny and engraved MVP trophy in hand, celebrating her team’s 82-63 Commissioner’s Cup win over the defending cup champion Aces.
The Liberty, behind the 16-15 double-double performance of Jones, hoisted their first trophy ever as an organization, something it took 27 years to achieve. But Jones made it clear: this is only the beginning.
“I think this Commissioner’s Cup is definitely a step in the right direction for us as a team to be able to put the pieces together and move toward the ultimate goal, which is to win the championship,” Jones said postgame. “But anytime you’re able to be a part of a first as always a special thing. So to be able to do that for New York City, for Callen-Lorde [the nonprofit that will be receiving $25,500 total in honor of the Liberty’s wins during the Commissioner’s cup games and championship ]. For this team.”
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The Liberty outscored the Aces 50–29 in the second quarter to beat their rival for the second time in a row, but for the first time in Las Vegas. The Aces hadn’t lost on their home floor prior to Tuesday night, and fans in attendance weren’t used to it. The crowd’s loud roars dialed down in the second half.
“I think it really just gives us some extra confidence obviously and to be able to do it for a second time,” Jones said. “We know exactly what our level of play is and know what we can do out there on the court.”
Commissioner’s Cup MVP Jonquel Jones
Jones, who continued her second half of the season tear, scored 9 of her 16 total points in the first half. She flashed her full arsenal as a scorer, nailing a wide open midrange jumper to start, followed by a couple of layups and a three. While the Liberty were clearly making an effort to establish Jones inside in the first half, she turned the ball over three times and got flustered by the pressure that 2022 Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson applied to her every time she caught the ball.
But following halftime, it wasn’t Jones’ scoring that helped put her team in a position to win on Tuesday night, but rather was her absolute domination of the offensive glass. Jones had 10 of her 15 rebounds in the second half, and six of those were offensive. Jones outrebounded the Aces 10 to 5 in the second half, just a microcosm of New York’s sense of urgency to out work their opponent on the 50-50 balls.
With 4:42 left in the fourth quarter and down 14 points, the Aces were still within reach. Of course they were still in it with under five minutes to go, they have the best offense in the league. But following a tough shot from Ionescu that was altered in the paint by Wilson, Jones crashed the glass, and secured the ball with two hands without putting the ball on the floor, an adjustment from the first half. Jones hoisted it up, shouted “hey,” and got the foul call. Ionescu, who was right behind her, shouted: “Oh yeah.”
The Aces ended the game with 28 total rebounds, including just four in the second half. Jones outrebounded the entire opposing team in the final 20 minutes of play, including the third quarter, when she hauled down five boards to the Aces’ three.
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“I thought the third quarter was the quarter that got away from us and it got away from us because of the glass,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said. “Not our first initial defense. Our intital defense was pretty good. It’s those second and third opportunities that are just back breakers. It just puts too much pressure on your offense and defense, and not only that, it kills our pace.”
Jones and her will to pursue and rebound the basketball once again forced the Aces to play out of their comfort zone. She helped her team dictate and play the Liberty’s way.
The impact of the New York Liberty bench
Playing the Liberty’s way also meant forcing the core four, the offensively limited Kiah Stokes, Alysha Clark and sophomore Kierstan Bell to guard and keep track of 3-and-D swing woman Kayla Thornton and combo guard Marine Johannès. The Aces flustered Betnijah Laney early. She hesitated on closeouts from Stokes, missed shots and got into foul trouble when she was switched onto Wilson. While Laney can guard most fours as a natural small forward, Wilson knew what buttons to push.
In came both Thornton and Johannès, who not only filled in the offensive and defensive gaps while Laney was on the bench, but rather were the difference makers. Thornton and Johannès were the difference between the Liberty beating the Aces decisively rather than by a thinner margin. The pair combined for 25 points including 7-for-11 from three, seven rebounds and four assists. And both played between 14 and 16 total minutes each.
When Johannès first checked into the game with 3:19 minutes left in the first quarter, she passed up an open shot to Breanna Stewart in the left corner pocket. The angle wasn’t great for Stewart and her shot knocked off the backboard. Would Johannès continue to defer to her teammates? Not for long.
Around a minute later, Johannès curled off the Thornton screen and let it fly. She had plenty of time and space to create. And then 20 seconds later Courtney Vandersloot found her with the defense sagging off her. And another trey.
The French guard would go on to knock down three more three balls, and another off-balanced 16 foot shot that got Kiah Stokes up in the air. When Becky Hammon was asked about Johannès, she replied that there’s no defense for that offense. “Good shot, play on.”
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Four of Johannès’ makes came off Vandersloot assists. The Liberty point guard found her teammate right in her spots, places that Johannès often likes to create from — in transition on the wings or cutting and fading away into the corner pocket. Vandersloot is much more aware of where Johannès likes the ball and that was on full display on Tuesday night.
What has contributed to this? The Liberty have been practicing a bit differently as of late. Instead of the starters practicing with each other and then the bench, Brondello and her staff have made an adjustment, making sure that the combinations she often tries during games get a fair amount of run during practice.
A day before, Vandersloot spoke about the value of that adjustment and how when Johannès comes in with the starters rather than practicing with the second unit, her role is different.
“We’re creating chemistry, the starting five is not doesn’t play the bulk of the minutes together,” she said. “We’re always mixed up and we have to be able to, you know, be really efficient and trust each other, no matter what the lineups are.”
Thornton applauded the coaching staff for making this change and has welcomed these adjustments. “Just getting us, the bench players involved in and kind of knowing how to move with Stewie, how to move with Sloot and how to move with different players.”
And Johannès certainly looked more comfortable moving with both of those players rather than just differing to them.
When Brondello was asked about if this contributed to Johannès comfort and confidence in the offense, the Liberty’s head coach turned to Johannès like she was a reporter and asked her. Johannès had wide eyes while Jones moved the microphone to Johannès and Brondello continued giggling.
“JJ spoke about her growth with this team just overthinking it and it’s like ‘don’t overthink Marine, just shoot it, that’s what you do,’” Brondello said. “Sometimes she gives up open shots. I’m never happy with that. I want her to take those shots and be confident with that.”
But on Tuesday night, Johannès had a different type of confidence, one that allowed her to help her team achieve one of their many goals this season: a Commissioner’s Cup championship.
New York Liberty practice patience
Issues the Liberty have often dealt with this season have been offensive stagnation when down in a game and a drop in defensive intensity when the offense struggles. What was impressive on Tuesday night was how even when both teams failed to score for the game’s first 14 possessions, the Liberty didn’t get frustrated and their defense didn’t lack.
Was it jitters or was it two defenses playing aggressive and asserting more energy defending rather than on offense making shots? That’s hard to know, but what isn’t hard to discern is how the Liberty just continued shooting. And their shooting was strategic. On Tuesday, the Liberty didn’t get their shots out of one-on-one play, but instead on ball and player movement. Sabrina Ionescu shot 4-for-14 from the field but kept shooting and made three huge threes coming off assists from Vandersloot, Jones and Stewart in the fourth quarter.
The combination of Ionescu’s chutzpah and her teammates’ willingness to continue moving the ball put the Aces away for good.
After the champagne bottle pops and showers, dances and a whole lot of hype, Brondello brought the team back to earth for a moment. She reminded them all that there’s still a whole lot left to play for and the Commissioner’s Cup was just the beginning.
“Let’s not be satisfied, but enjoy tonight,” Brondello said to her team as the group brought it in. And she’s correct. The Liberty play the Aces once again in less than 48 hours.
But at that moment, the New York Liberty could enjoy what they had just accomplished. After Brondello’s speech, Ionescu got in the center of the team huddle while holding the Liberty’s new and first trophy. The team put their hands on it in unison and then Laney chanted the word that has brought them all together. “HEAAARRTTT.”
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.