September 22, 2021 

‘Do or die’: How the Liberty can build on their momentum

What to expect for the Liberty’s first playoff game in four years

The Liberty entered the regular season’s final day Sunday uncertain if the standings would fall their way. But Betnijah Laney and Rebecca Allen kept tabs on the Mystics falling to the Lynx together in the training room at Barclays Center. Laney had just completed a workout in the gym. 

Allen noted that a bunch of her teammates were in the training room altogether for that first game but dispersed for Sparks-Wings. Jazmine Jones, DiDi Richards, Michaela Onyenwere and Reshanda Gray watched all together, with Jones live-tweeting her thoughts and feelings. When the second game fell New York’s way, the group danced around their Brooklyn apartment on Instagram live.

It was official: the Liberty had made it to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. 

“I think it’s important for everyone, not just the young players,” Allen said before it happened, when New York had to watch and wait. “I know it will be a great experience for them but it will be great for the organization as a whole. You know we haven’t made playoffs in a little while now. So it will be great for us is playing in this game as hard as we can and putting our best foot forward.”

And the Liberty did put their best foot forward against the Mystics, defeating Washington and the Liberty’s former franchise player Tina Charles 91-80. The Liberty paid very close attention to detail by swarming Charles into double teams and New York made shots, shooting over 50 percent from the field. That performance, in particular, is one that New York believes they can build on with the momentum and confidence they gained taking them all the way to Phoenix for their battle on Thursday night against the Mercury at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

“I think our last game gave us a really good amount of momentum and just showed us what we were capable of when we’re locked in doing everything that we need to do for 40 minutes,” Laney said. “So more than anything I think we’re just ready and ready and willing to take on the moment.”

Not only will the Liberty have to build on their momentum against the Mystics, they’ll also have to play to win rather than to not lose, a lesson that all young teams grapple with. This matchup against the Phoenix means more than just having the opportunity to advance. In addition to their being some personal juice, the Liberty lost on their home floor in embarrassing fashion twice back in August. This could be where they get some revenge. 

Building on the momentum from the end of the season 

Head coach Walt Hopkins noted after the team’s first practice in Phoenix on Tuesday night what it takes for the Liberty to continue to build on the momentum they displayed in their final game of the season. He saw what worked and he thought one of the main takeaways was the team’s attention to detail, their ability to execute the strategies they were taught in practice consistently.

“Everyone continuing to do what we do more consistently is always going to be the goal,” Hopkins said. :And I think the attention to detail has to be really really high in any game in the WNBA if you want to win, but a playoff game against a veteran team, who’s done this a lot of times, it’s going to be vital that we are locked in on small details.”

If the Liberty want to give themselves a shot at beating the Mercury, New York also has to be communicating on defense, something that was missing from their two matchups at home against Phoenix in August. According to Hopkins the Liberty have to “swarm more” and force the Mercury into their less comfortable “second and third options” on offense. 

Natasha Howard has noticed the focus on defense that Hopkins has asked for and she’s taken on some of that responsibility by being a bit more vocal in practice and leading by example. The former DPOY has made seven playoff appearances in her career and she loves herself some defense. In practice on the West Coast this week, she hasn’t been shy about making sure her younger teammates are on the same page as her defensively. 

“Help me,” Howard says while on the floor in practice. “I don’t care, I’m just yelling.”

But to also keep that momentum rolling for the Liberty, they’ll need Howard to show out like she did against Washington, when she notched a 24-10 double-double. According to her, the Mercury didn’t get to see how she really performs. During the home series in August, Howard wasn’t as confident as she is now. She was apprehensive about making certain cuts that she typically would make and she initially didn’t trust her strength coming back from injury. Mentally she’s a lot clearer than she was back in late August. 

“I feel confident 100 percent, 1,000 percent,” she said on Tuesday night.  “I’m bouncy now, I’m back, I’m bouncy how I was back before my injury. I’m more mobile. I don’t think about my knee anymore. I just go out there and just play. I don’t think about nothing besides just playing and just being free.”

Playing not to lose but rather to win

Reshanda Gray looked into the camera on Tuesday night after practice and said: “go hard or go home, literally.” Howard followed her: “Do or die.” 

Gray has been working on that, how she can go as hard as she can in her new more veteran role. When asked what she wrote on the board during the Liberty’s accountability exercise on Thursday before their final regular-season game against the Mystics, she explained that she wants her teammates to make sure that she sustains the energy and motivation necessary to contribute to the team even if she’s not on the floor.

“Something I wrote on the board was to bring it no matter what, push through,” she said after practice on Tuesday.  “…pushing through if something doesn’t go as planned.”

And that is something that not only Gray is steadily learning to incorporate but the entire team is working on this as well. Gray explained a real growth point that the Liberty went through publicly when the Mystics went on their run in the third quarter. The players themselves called a timeout and with the coaching staff just listening and standing back, the team talked through how they could counter their opponent’s punch. 

“We knew that we had been through that situation before and we wanted to be better and grow,” Gray said on the moment. “I think them taking a step back and us calling the timeout our growth of us realizing to things and adjusting to them.”

Allen believes that a vital step in the Liberty’s team journey this season has been learning to win rather than being afraid or worried to lose. Initially it was difficult for the young veteran to explain. 

“Yeah, it’s a funny thing,” Allen told The Next.  “It’s something that can’t always be explained but it’s just a mentality thing… that comes along with confidence and being confident. Hey, I’ve taken this shot a million times before and I feel confident to take it, it’s making the right decision, it’s being staying aggressive I think that’s the thing and not just becoming okay I’m protecting the leads that we have.”

Is a rivalry finally reborn? 

When Crystal Robinson returned to New York to have her moment as a newly inducted member of the Liberty’s ring of honor on August 25, she explained the history that once existed between the Liberty and the Mercury, two original WNBA franchises. 

“We had an unbelievable rivalry with them,” she reflected. “They had sellouts when we went there and we had sellouts when they came to us.”

Could we be in the midst of a rivalry reborn? It sure looks like it. First let’s start out with the obvious, the Mercury have five former Liberty players in Bria Hartley, Kia Nurse, Megan Walker, and Kia Vaughn. 

When Nurse was asked if she thought it was fate that she was going up against her former team in the playoffs, her response was sharp. “Nope it’s number 5 and number 8,” she said. “That’s about it. That’s how it goes.”

In addition to Nurse, there’s Hartley, who has been itching to play more minutes since returning from tearing her ACL in the Wubble. The former New York combo guard scorched the Liberty in her first game against them back in 2020 scoring 27 points on 10-18 shooting

But on the Liberty side, there’s one player in particular who is ready to get her comeuppance and that’s one Jazmine Jones who was famously told to STFU on Twitter by Mercury star Skylar Diggins-Smith. Jones missed the first game in August against Diggins-Smith due to a foot injury but then played as hard as she could defending the 5X All-Star. But the sophomore’s efforts weren’t good enough against the Mercury veteran as she scored 27 points on 7-16 shooting.

With Jones healthier than she was in August, the result of that matchup might change. But whether the Liberty win or lose, head coach Walt Hopkins stressed that any postseason experience is valuable and foundational for such a young group. 

As for Nurse?

“I don’t know, I’ve never been in the playoffs,” she said. “New York, when I was there, never made it. So I couldn’t tell you.”

Written by Jackie Powell

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