May 27, 2021 

How Bec Allen, Natasha Howard change the Liberty

And what will New York do with Howard out the next 4-to-6 weeks?

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Natasha Howard #6 puts up a floater on Izzy Harrison against the Wings on Monday, May 24. (Photo by Jesse Louie/ Just Women’s Sports..)

With under seven minutes left in the second quarter on Monday night, Bec Allen bodied herself behind Izzy Harrison before the Wings’ post caught the ball on the block. Allen, still staying with Harrison, leaped up and stretched her spider-like arms out, blocking Harrison’s field of view as she hauled her one-handed hook shot up to the basket. Allen altered the shot, but the rebound landed not in her teammate Kylee Shook’s hands, but in rookie Charli Collier’s. Allen saw that Shook needed help, but angled her arm at 50 degrees rather than at 90. A foul was called.

After Collier’s second free throw, Allen collected the rebound on the miss. Ionescu found her outside the arc to the left of the key for an open look thanks to Shook’s screen. She fired away and the ball bounced off the back of the rim. Another miss. Less than 30 seconds later, Allen fouls again, but this time it’s on a driving Arike Ogunbowale.

Coach Walt Hopkins called Betnijah Laney to come out and replace an angsty Allen, who once she hit the bench, was followed by her coach over to the area outside the baseline. After getting acknowledgment and encouragement from Neah Odom, Kiah Stokes, and Michaela Onyenwere, Hopkins took her aside. He knew exactly what that second foul was, an act of pure frustration, and he wanted to help her take the edge off and remind her that missing shots don’t concern him. That was the purpose of their middle of the quarter conference.

“Bec, go shoot 8 more,” Hopkins said postgame describing their discussion. “I don’t care. Go 0-for-8. You’re doing so many good things. Just stay out there and don’t let that affect you and get you frustrated.”

The past two weeks for Allen and Natasha Howard have been anything *but* easy. Spending days straight isolated inside a Brooklyn apartment is infuriating. Not being able to officially practice with the Liberty while chemistry is building has limited the two players, who were expected to bring a plethora of intangibles including leadership, experience, size, rebounding ability, silky smooth shooting, and defensive toughness. These COVID restrictions put a steep learning curve into the rhythm of both Allen and Howard.

“It was pretty rough, pretty tough for me,” Howard noted in a postgame presser on Sunday after the Liberty’s 93-85 win over the Chicago Sky. “Especially my first game back playing with the team as well. It took me a minute to get in my rhythm you know playing-wise and stuff.”

In her first couple of outings with New York, Howard started slowly in both contests. She scored only 2 points, hauled down 2 boards, and turned the ball over three times in the first half against Chicago. On Monday night, she entered the second half against Dallas with four turnovers which resulted in 8 Wings points.

Allen put up 4 points, 2 boards and missed both of her threes in the first half on Sunday afternoon. On Monday, she entered the third quarter having not scored on six shot attempts, along with racking up two rebounds and fouling twice.

Those starts are rough, but it was how both finished in the Liberty’s back-to-back wins on Sunday and Monday that willed the team into the win column without a day of rest in between. The discomfort and angst of both Howard and Allen was outnumbered by their collective will to continue contributing and play through mistakes and misses.

Allen’s value outside of her shooting

Bec Allen #9 sits on the bench next to DiDi Richards during a time-out huddle. (Photo by Dominic Allegra.)

Allen was visibly glum after the Liberty’s blowout 101-72 loss on Friday against the Mystics and former franchise player Tina Charles. Her energy was low and her guard was up. She felt like she had the need to defend herself and her abilities amid three straight shooting performances under 35 percent. Before Sunday, she hit 4-16 from deep, not the sharpshooting performance expected out of a player who was touted to be one of the Liberty’s missing pieces in 2020.

On Friday, Allen made her case for patience, not only to the press but for herself. After the game, she explained what her plan is moving forward. With a shooter’s mentality, she understands the slumps and purple patches. She pointed out that there’s more to her game or her capacity to be successful than just how well she shoots the ball.

She left the postgame Zoom telling us exactly what we’d see on Sunday and Monday. “Yeah mate, as I said before, I’ve played this game for a while,” she said. “So this is one game, the next game is going to be different.”

On Sunday it was the block of her driving layup from Chicago’s Astou Ndour-Fall that was the last straw. Right after Sabrina Ionescu inbounded the ball to Allen on the next play, she beat Ndour-Fall to the wing thanks to a Kylee Shook screen, she hopped to her left, planned her feet, fired away, and made a long-two right over the head of her defender.

Around a day later after Allen watched her teammates Natasha Howard get mauled in the Stomach by Kayla Thorton and Kylee Shook get gassed out on a running Izzy Harrison. On the next offensive possession for New York, Allen took matters into her own hands, blowing by both Thorton and Harrison on a drive straight to the basket. She couldn’t finish, but the whistle sounded and Allen would take and make two shots.

That motivation to show the opposing team that she’s not just a courteous three-point shooter came back to bite the Sky and the Wings in the final halves.

“I thought Bec Allen got much more physical,” Hopkins said postgame on Sunday. “I thought she kind of had a coming-out party with her intensity or energy and her aggression on both ends. And she is really starting to figure out, you know kind of how we play and what’s needed from her, so much so that we’re able to trust her down the stretch.”

Hopkins has made it a point with players like Allen and Sami Whitcomb to emphasize how much more they have to offer besides their shooting abilities. He wants them to know that their worth on the Liberty isn’t incumbent on their shooting percentage but rather how else they contribute to the game. While Allen is shooting 22.7 percent from three in five games this season, Hopkins sees value in how she has deflected passes and shots, forced steals, flew in for rebounds, and imposed her will defensively.

“It’s really really important that they understand how much value they have outside of their shooting,” he said on Monday postgame. “It’s going to take reminders. It’s something that you know is kind of beaten into your head as someone who specializes in shooting.”

No practice? No problem 

Natasha Howard #6 goes for a layup in her first game on the Liberty vs. the Chicago Sky. (Photo Credit: the New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty.)

Hopkins threw Natasha Howard into the fire on Sunday afternoon. On one of the Liberty’s first offensive possessions on Sunday, Ionescu initiated her first official pick and roll with Howard. She bobbled a ball she’d usually catch, and Ndour-Fall was able to bat it away from Howard, making the Liberty center roll it out of bounds. A couple of minutes later, Howard and Ionescu tried the same action. Howard caught it this time, but dribbled right into a triple-team with no room to pivot. Travel. She turned it over again.

Before the game against the Sky, Hopkins explained that even without any practice, New York would be getting Howard touches on the weak side of the floor. In their previous game against the Mystics, the Liberty didn’t hit the roller enough, but with Howard on the floor, how could they not.

With over two minutes left in the third, Ionescu and Howard finally connected on a laser pass she made coming off a Betnijah Laney screen. Howard crept behind Azurá Stevens, Ionescu and Howard’s eyes met and boom not a Sky defender was anywhere near Howard on the catch and the hoist up to the basket for two.

Finishing with 12 points and 7 rebounds in 21 minutes during her first game with New York, Hopkins was pleased with the flashes of Howard’s game that he saw functioning in the Liberty’s offense. But, he knew that Howard had ways to go before she’s completely comfortable with how the Liberty play. “She looked a little sped up,” he said Sunday afternoon. “At first, you know, a little jumpy as should be expected with no practices just coming in and starting.”

A day later against Dallas, Howard started the first quarter a bit disoriented, turning the ball over due to losing her handle a couple of times and under-throwing a pass meant for Laney on the block. The Flash got scored on by Ogunbowale and then turned it over again on a moving screen she placed on Marina Mabrey. After a rocky seven-minute burst in the first, Howard returned in the second and helped New York get out of 12 point hole. She got to the line, picked-and-popped on a three with help from Whitcomb, forced Kristine Anigwe to lose her handle, and she flew in from the weak side to get an offensive board.

Defensively Howard helped the Liberty hold the Wings to 11 points in the third. Before Monday, Dallas scored over 90 points against their first two opponents but put up a bit over 80 against New York. In 20 minutes on the floor, she finished the game with 17 points on 5-for-8 shooting along with six boards and two threes.

“She’s so impactful,” Hopkins said about Howard’s performance on Monday. “And I know our players really trust her cutting through the lane. They trust her ability to catch the ball. They can gun passes at her that maybe we wouldn’t throw to other players…and obviously, it goes without saying, that when she really gets comfortable and knows what we are trying to do and learns her teammates, it’s going to be scary.”

Wing Laney agrees. In postgame she wanted reporters to “just imagine” what it will be like when the team gets to practice with both Howard and Allen. And when they both get more comfortable, that will make the Liberty even better.

But Howard will be delayed once again from practices and extra training. Early in the fourth quarter while Howard was setting a screen for Laney at the top of the key, Ty Harris passed over her screen, and Harris’s calf colliding with Howard’s knee, sending her to the ground in pain.

The team announced on Wednesday that after an MRI and an exam at Hospital for Special Surgery on Tuesday, Howard suffered an MCL sprain. The Liberty’s medical staff determined that she won’t be available for 4-6 weeks, missing between 8 and 14 games. New York’s schedule tightens at the end of June with another 5 games in 11 days stretch due to the upcoming Olympic break in mid-July.

Ionescu: Ultimately that’s being a basketball player

The slow starts. The confusion. The turnovers. The missed shots.

That’s what being a basketball player is all about, according to New York point guard Ionescu. It’s about the journey players take to work out the kinks and figure out functioning in-sync. But rack up a double-double, shoot 50 percent from three or not, what matters most continuing to work through it.

“But at the end of the day, it’s: go make a play, go do something to help your team win and that’s what they’ve done extraordinarily well,” Ionescu said on Monday night about both Howard and Allen’s adjustment to the Liberty.

According to Whitcomb, the duo has been “invaluable” in helping New York execute their identity, the hard-nosed, disruptive, and gritty defense. Both Allen and Howard can switch to defend guards on the perimeter but then can body other forwards and posts on the block. They both have long wings spans, capable of altering and tipping any field goal attempted.

“They are just smart basketball players and they work really hard and again they are trying to just do whatever they can out there,” she said postgame on Monday. “So if shots aren’t falling you know one game, they are making it up by getting rebounds, by getting stops, by doing all of those things and it’s that kind of ability to impact a game even if you are not scoring. That’s really really valuable to this group.”

What’s also valuable to the Liberty is the example that both Howard and Allen set as veterans still finding their way. On Sunday, Hopkins came to the realization that both Howard and Allen are rookies to him and his staff. He aims to give the same amount of patience and trust that he gave to the rookies last year in the Wubble. But Hopkins also noted that the journey Allen and Howard are on right now and the ways in which they have responded and adjusted prove and confirm his belief in their success.

“Part of it is a testament to them,” he said. “I think the bigger part probably 80-90 percent of it is a testament to them and their mental toughness…I think most of it is just that they are resilient people.”

Both Allen and Howard are looking to find their way and their role on this team. Howard was asked on Sunday what exactly her role is going to be in New York. She hesitated and was at a loss for words. She just didn’t know, *yet.* But the one thing she did know was that whatever her role might be, she’s just going play the only way that she knows how.

“Me just doing me,” she said.

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.

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