September 2, 2021 

Diagnosing the New York Liberty’s struggles

Inside the Liberty’s five-game losing skid

After the Liberty’s second game against the Seattle Storm at home on August 20, head coach Walt Hopkins wasn’t frustrated with the Liberty’s 31.6 field goal percentage in the third quarter in the 99-83 loss. Shots not going in is something he can live with, but what upset him was the way in which the team responded to their own fatigue. Instead of mustering up some energy to finish the game and put themselves in the best position to win it, the team let the exhaustion get the best of them in their first loss of five in a row.

“I was frustrated with the lack of defensive pride and Seattle wanting it more,” he said postgame. The Storm, a team about to hit its Olympic hangover, found a way to capitalize on the low energy and inexperience of the Liberty.

Veteran leader Sami Whitcomb explained that she believed her current team spotted her old team in the second half and noticed that New York didn’t get back in transition to prevent some easy buckets. And that’s where the Storm capitalized.

“We only had ten turnovers but they had 21 points off of that, that’s remarkable, so it’s understanding those kinds of things and coming out with a little more of a sense of urgency because they were always going to make a run, have their run,” she said after New York’s first loss in their five-game skid. “ I don’t think we came back with a run quick enough, we didn’t respond fast enough, we let it get to [a] 13 or 14 [point deficit] before we responded.”

After playing what Hopkins thought was their best half of the season, scoring 47 points on shooting 15-for-36 from the field and holding Seattle to 46 points on 14-for-28 from the field, the Liberty flashed subtle warning signs of what was to come in the next week and a half of losses.

The Liberty’s struggles since the Olympic break are apparent on both sides of the ball. Their field goal percentage decreased 6 percent to 40.3 percent per game, their total rebounds per game decreased 3.5 percent from 34.2 per game to 33 and their average assists dropping from 19.5 to 18.3. Their defensive rating has plummeted from 102.5 before the break to 108.1 after it.

After a three-week Olympic break that was supposed to give New York the boost it needed to throw together its first playoff run in four years, those playoff hopes look less probable wit 538 giving New York a 38 percent chance of making the postseason. It’s not over yet for the Liberty, however, who while they no longer completely control their postseason destiny, still aren’t completely out of the race either. 11-17 is not 2-20.

But how exactly did they land in a position with their playoff hopes teetering? And what set them on a five-game losing streak? Adjustments that came with injured personnel, struggles with urgency and general growing pains for every player on the roster, including the veterans, are all what the past five games have come down to for New York.

Betnijah Laney hi-fives Natasha Howard with Bec Allen and Michaela Onyenwere looking on in the Liberty’s loss on Wednesday, August 25 against the Phoenix Mercury at home. Photo credit: The New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty.

Shaking off the Rust and More injuries

When the Liberty beat the Storm 83-79 two nights before on August 18, some headlines read “Liberty beat the short-handed Storm”. While that was true since both Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart missed that game, Hopkins felt that his team was not given the appropriate credit for battling all season without its best players.

New York’s battle with injuries began in the pre-season when they lost second-year Jocelyn Willoughby for the season to a ruptured Achilles. Once Natasha Howard and Rebecca Allen finally were out of COVID protocols and ready to play after their international seasons, Howard sprained her MCL and was sidelined for almost two months. While Howard was out, Sabrina Ionescu dealt with some ankle tendinitis during the month of June after the Liberty’s 5-1 start.

Whitcomb is now battling back from a second-degree ankle sprain that she suffered on August 22 against the LA Sparks and Jazmine Jones has been out with a right foot injury that she re-injured after hauling down an offensive rebound. And Michaela Onyenwere is questionable for Thursday against Seattle with a chest injury. The Liberty are no strangers to being short-handed.

As for Howard, the Liberty signed her so she could blossom into the star she and the team believe she can be. Also, the goal was for her to be a pick-and-roll machine alongside Ionescu. Now a wrench was thrown into those plans in 2021 and her adjustments back to the court after being cleared by the Liberty’s medical staff have been far from smooth.

Hopkins noted that especially in the Seattle home series, she was rusty all over: on defense and especially on her finishes around the rim. While I’ve written about some of her adjustments as a leader on and off-court, her struggles have continued to be visible. Against the Lynx on Tuesday night, Howard scored 8 points on shooting 4-for-12 from the field and hauled down 8 boards.

Hopkins sees improvement since her return to the court official commenced on August 15.

“I think every game she does something a little bit better than she did the game before and I thought she had a couple of really nice composed physical post moves tonight,” Hopkins said on Tuesday night. “I thought she rebounded the ball really well.”

But Howard still remains sped up. Take this pick-and-roll she tried to execute with Betnijah Laney with a little over two minutes left in regulation on Tuesday. Laney finds Howard rolling right after the Liberty’s power forward set a screen on Rachel Banham. But when Howard catches the perfect pass from Laney, she rushes her finish and doesn’t realize that Bridget Carleton is trailing her trying to close out her layup attempt. A simple hesitation before the finish could have left Howard with the easy basket. 

Sustaining trust, energy and a sense of urgency

Two days following the home loss to the Storm, the Liberty fell to the Sparks 86-83 in a must-win game to a team that had also been dealing with injury issues all season. The game was played on the day when Hurricane Henri took the New York Metro area by storm, preventing most fans and media members from attending.

After giving up an 11 point lead in the third quarter and turning the ball over 26 times, Hopkins could only say that what caused the momentum shift was that his team “didn’t trust each other.” When asked if he saw any improvement from the Sparks who played with both Ogwumike sisters this time, Hopkins provided the same response: “We didn’t trust each other.”

An example of that came in the fourth quarter. Howard penetrated into a clogged paint, and instead of kicking out to a very open Allen or DiDi Richards, Howard tried to bulldoze through the lane herself and couldn’t finish at the rim. With the four other Liberty players out of the paint, Los Angeles was able to secure the easy rebound.

Ionescu explained that the turnovers were a combination of being not only self-inflicted but a part of how the Sparks compete.

“I think we were a little sped up obviously,” she said postgame. “The refs let a lot go tonight and so we had to adjust to the physicality of the game and we weren’t going to get many calls and we adjusted to that a little bit too late.”

Allen felt as though for the second game in a row the Liberty didn’t want the game as much as their opponent. She also believed that her team wasn’t as physical as they needed to be.

“Trust comes in so many ways,” she said following the loss. “If you look at the game, there’s moments where we need to step up especially in that fourth quarter where we have to take the game and make it ours I guess. I think there’s just moments where we have to be stronger, that’s mental, that’s physical.”

By the time they got to August 25’s game against Phoenix, the first quarter defensive disaster meant allowing 35 total points to the Phoenix Mercury. While the Liberty went on a run, winning both the second and third quarters, they couldn’t dig out of their original first-quarter hole. Aside from veering from their team defensive schemes, the Liberty were just asleep, especially in transition.

And on offense, Natasha Howard struggled to made an impact with Brittney Griner in the paint.

After a game two against Phoenix sans-Griner where New York’s defense paid more attention to detail but not enough–– including feisty defense from Allen on Diana Taurasi–– Skylar Diggins-Smith playing with some juice directed toward the Liberty’s Jazmine Jones, broke the game open and got downhill for two straight and-ones.

“The Team needs to believe in themselves. And I think they get they get to points in games now when lose a few games, you start to: ‘uh oh here it comes again,’” Hopkins said after the Liberty’s fourth straight loss on Friday. “You start to feel like it’s the same thing. It’s not the same thing. You always have an option or some choice to adjust, make the changes. And really, I think that down the stretch of these last few games, we haven’t made the choice to go take the game… we’re playing scared.”

Reflecting on the series with Phoenix, Howard explained what she knows that she and her team need to not only improve upon but also can control. She laid out a list including rebounding, turnovers, and communication. “Laney always talks about us communicating consistently and doing a better job at that as a team and what I learned from it is be more leader-like,” she said. “Be more of a leader on the floor, you know helping my teammates out the best way I can and not get frustrated.”

DiDi Richards, Sami Whitcomb and Michaela Onyenwere help Sabrina Ionescu get up in the Liberty’s loss on Friday August 20 at home against the Storm. Photo credit: The New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty.

Growing pains for all

After some incredibly frustrated postgame pressers, Hopkins understands that there’s adjustments and maturation needed for every single person on this team. For some of the first and second-year players, it’s getting used to how to sustain the energy that’s appropriate for every game in the WNBA. Playing with consistency in this league is a muscle that is only grown via repetition and a lot of patience. These young people are only human and won’t be able to execute properly on both offense and defense unless they have the appropriate amount of opportunities to do so. Taurasi and Griner and Bird and Stewart’s infamous chemistry was built not in a day, but over time.

But the growth needs to come from everyone. While Whitcomb has proven in 2021 that she was truly ready to be a starter in this league, she’s not going to improve without some bumps in the road either. It’s not just about how she functions individually on this roster, but also how she functions alongside her teammates and how she’s building chemistry with plenty of newcomers.

Something that Whitcomb, Laney, Howard, and Allen all share is before this season they haven’t been given the keys to the car and had this level of leadership during their WNBA careers. The three New York newbies in from this offseason made the choice to come to New York because they knew this was a pursuit that they desired in their pro careers, but that change isn’t seamless either. The 2020 Seattle Storm and the Atlanta Dream ran different sets and had different principles compared to the 2021 Liberty.

As for Allen, the 28-year-old is finally in a role where her skillset and abilities are trusted, another first for her in the WNBA. For the first time in her pro career in the states, she’s being given the opportunity to will her own team, something that was on full display when the Liberty played against the Mercury on Friday.

“This is just part of the growing pains,” Hopkins said before facing the Lynx for the final time this regular season on Tuesday. “You’ve got to have the reps to get good and get consistent at something. And there’s just still a lot of learning going on and a lot of just execution. So it’s definitely a test of patience. I think the challenge for all of us is, it’s just remembering that giving them the grace and the space they need to grow.”

After that second dagger of a game against Phoenix on Friday night, Hopkins lamented that he thought his team was going through some regression. While he alluded to the playoff race that the Liberty initially controlled their own destiny in, he was mostly disappointed with the lack of steps forward he’s seen from his group since the losing streak began. He wanted to see progress instead of “head hanging” and shame. Allen picked up on that energy and when asked about why she had thought the team had regressed, she looked forward rather than back.

It’s all about us growing from each game, it’s all about us learning from the last one and making adjustments. I do believe in this game we did make some adjustments from the last one? Yes. Did we make enough? No. Was it consistent? No. But ultimately I think that each of us need to take a minute to look at what we did today, and in past games as well and seeing like what do we need to do and what area do we need to grow in for us to be successful going into the next game against Minnesota. It’s going to be another game to just steal it, just take this win because no on is going to give it to us.

While the losing streak wasn’t broken against the Lynx, Hopkins could finally see some progress from his team and he thought that they finally put themselves in a position to win a game, something he hadn’t seen since August 18.

“I thought our energy was really good,” he said. “That’s one of the things we just talked about. The main thing we talked about was that I thought that their intensity and effort, and talk togetherness was really good tonight, I thought it was good enough to win a game and we held them to 74 points.”

The struggles came for the Liberty on shots not falling and the offense getting a little stagnant down the stretch of the game. New York got taken out of their offensive principles a bit settling for long twos instead of creating open looks and their ability to get to the charity stripe simmered down in the second half.

But for Hopkins and his players, they could see and feel the progression rather than regression this time, which is all an integral and essential part of this multi-year long journey.

Written by Jackie Powell

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