July 31, 2020 

Ionescu’s improved stat line is still not enough for her or the Liberty

What went wrong for New York during a night when Sabrina's star shimmered?

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Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the New York Liberty shoots the ball against the Dallas Wings on July 29, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

The New York Liberty had been struggling to move around Katie Lou Samuelson on both sides of the ball. But with six seconds left in the third quarter on Wednesday evening, Sabrina Ionescu finally figured her out. Samuelson began to hedge Ionescu, but Kiah Stokes’ screen allowed for the rookie to roll to the right with loads of space waiting for her at the top of the key.

Ionescu picked up her dribble and Bella Alarie was too late to get a hand on it. And just like that, Sabrina’s made her sixth three, giving her 27 of her eventual 33 points. After the quarter buzzer sounded, Ionescu sat down on the bench to catch her breath for the final quarter. She clapped repeatedly to get herself and her team pumped and ready.

Exciting, yes. But for Ionescu, all it meant was a loss. So while her 33-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist performance proved that she’s more “comfortable and confident” on the WNBA stage during the second go-round, she’s still not satisfied. And she won’t be until she and the Liberty get their first win of the 2020 season.

“Obviously not happy because we didn’t win so that part, still isn’t, you know, up to my standard, our standard as a team and an organization,” she told reporters after the loss.

How within three days’ time did Ionescu find her shot?

  • Step 1) Why she was missing? According to Sabrina, shooting without confidence and rushing her shot were what she saw looking back at her film from game one against Seattle.

  • Step 2) She took a sped-up shot back to the lab, perfecting it in practice.

  • Step 3) She reveled in the support she got from her teammates. “They’ve helped me just as much getting me the ball, [but] giving me confidence.”

Before Wednesday night’s game against Dallas, head coach Walt Hopkins didn’t want to say that his team struggled in their loss to Seattle, as he believed the Liberty held onto their principles and their style of play for most of the game. Consistency, however, would remain a challenge. But after the loss to Dallas, his tone completely changed. He was encouraged by Sabrina’s performance but disappointed by the collective.

“She did everything she could to get our offense going and, the same thing that essentially she tried to do in the last game when she saw that we needed a boost offensively, she went out and created one,” Hopkins told reporters after the loss. “The shots fell tonight, she did a great job getting to the rim, an efficient game. We just didn’t have enough holistically.”

Hopkins has spoken at length about concentrating on “controllables,” meaning there’s cause for concern if New York doesn’t stick to its “principles” such as how they “treat one another,” how they communicate on the floor and sticking to their game plan.

 Against Dallas, New York’s attention to detail lacked: they forgot plays and didn’t set screens according to Hopkins. While Ionescu clearly wanted her first professional W, the Wings collectively wanted it more than the Liberty, and they played like it.

How the Liberty got away from playing their game

Layshia Clarendon #7 of the New York Liberty handles the ball against the Dallas Wings on July 29, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Amanda Zahui B. was blunt when she addressed reporters following the loss. She took responsibility noting that her team didn’t “execute” and became “passive.”

“[The Wings] ran on us,” she said. “And we just went away from the game plan. [We] let them get open threes and get into the paint, we wanted them to take mid-range shots.”

There were glaring issues on both sides of the floor, even for anyone named Ionescu. So far, something that hasn’t changed from 2019 to 2020 is the magnitude of turnovers the Liberty commit. But in 2020 the turnovers have a slightly different aesthetic. Rather than underthrown passes or sloppiness from veterans who should have known better, 2020’s turnovers result from overthrown passes and naiveté from rookies who have only played less than a week in this league. The starters turned the ball over 14 times including 5 from Ionescu and 2 from Kia Nurse.

Speaking of Nurse, she didn’t look like herself on both sides of the ball. Good looks were falling short, and her footwork wasn’t smooth on defense. At 100 percent, however, she’s one of the most consistent and effective defenders on this youthful squad. It’s still a shock that she started. Her toughness and willingness to give whatever she can to New York is admirable, but when it hinders a team more than it helps them, her presence would have been better felt as another set of eyes and a counsel on the bench.

Against Dallas, New York’s struggled to communicate effectively on both ends of the floor. What resulted was a stagnant offense that appeared mostly stuck in quicksand when Ionescu had the ball, and a muddled defense that gave the Wings too much space from beyond the arc.

The offense couldn’t get to its actions

Offensively, while the Liberty found multiple opportunities to run the floor on long chest passes from ball handlers Clarendon, Ionescu and even wing Jocelyn Willoughby, players off the ball were mostly stagnant, and the cutting that New York displayed against Seattle in game one had mostly disappeared. The three-ball fell a bit more against Dallas as Ionescu, Willoughby, Jazmine Jones and Stokes all scored from beyond the arc.

An adjustment that Hopkins noted after the Seattle game was he was going to increase the use of split cuts. It was implemented a bit against Dallas, but not enough. Sabrina’s first three-pointer was scored off a split cut and Nurse initiated one in the second quarter, but then Clarendon and Ionescu could have found Zahui B. while she was posting up on the block instead of wresting through another trap, which led to another turnover.

In the third with less than 8 minutes left on the clock, Zahui tried to set a screen for Nurse, but was overpowered by a 9 inches shorter Arike Ogunbowale, which set up an airball from long.

Why did this team look so stagnant, and why was their spacing off? The bigs weren’t moving, and when Ionescu had the ball, they planted themselves on the wing or the elbow. So again, what’s the reason?

“I felt like we couldn’t get to our actions, a lot of the time sometimes it was because we wouldn’t be in the right spots or somebody just didn’t set a good screen,” Hopkins said. “Oftentimes, though the good screen wasn’t set because Dallas pushed us off our spots, they were more physical they fought their way through screens. I really just think they were the more assertive team.”

Hopkins thought that the Liberty didn’t assert itself into the paint as much as he would have liked, and that includes not only drives to the rim, but kick-outs leading to three balls. New York wasn’t physical or quick enough to execute the offense on Wednesday night.

“We don’t just want to shoot threes to shoot threes that’s not at all the point of the offense, it should be a nice balance of getting into the paint driving and kick. Moving without the ball, cutting when they overplay us,” he said.

The ‘New Era’ defense relies upon hedging and switching

Satou Sabally #0 of the Dallas Wings handles the ballagainst the New York Liberty on July 29, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Defense has always been a question when evaluating the Liberty’s “New Era” system. How exactly would the Liberty be able to battle in the paint with bigs like A’ja Wilson or Brittney Griner? How does their lethargic perimeter defense of yesteryear that was known to overhelp improve in 2020?

Well, while New York hasn’t given up north of 90 points, on Wednesday night, Dallas shot over 43 percent from three and an even 50 percent from the field. From an initial eye test, the Liberty left too much space for the Wings’ shooters. But how exactly did this happen and how can it be altered moving forward?

In the postgame presser following game one against the Storm, Layshia Clarendon discussed how moving forward New York needs to vary its actions defending ball screens. Against Seattle, the Liberty went under screens more than going over. In game two, New York continued going underneath screens, but without switching or hedging.

In the middle of the second quarter, Kia Nurse was stuffed when she went underneath a screen set by Moriah Jefferson, leaving Katie Lou Samuelson who she was covering wide open. Kiah Stokes stayed stagnant on the elbow for too long and didn’t switch to help Nurse who got to Samuelson way too late. Her three-ball landed.

With a little under 8 minutes left in the second quarter, Clarendon went underneath Bella Alarie’s screen set for Ty Harris. While Clarendon followed Harris in a foot race toward the hoop, Kylee Shook, who was already closer to the rim, didn’t switch to cover Alarie, leaving the Princeton Alumna wide open to drive right through the lane for an easy layup.

Instead of hedging Allisha Gray, Jazmine Jones rolled underneath the screen set by Ty Harris with 30 seconds left in the first. She got stuck behind a larger body in Astou Ndour. Jocelyn Willoughby didn’t switch to cover Gray. If the Liberty can’t hedge, they ought to switch. Willoughby gave Gray too much space to take the long jumper.

Being aware of opportunities to hedge a penetrator in conjunction with communicating on and executing switches is what will allow for this defense to tighten up. Also, against Dallas, the Liberty got caught in way too many mismatches. Sabrina got caught in multiple mismatches, guarding Izzy Harrison and Astou Ndour. With around eight minutes left in the first quarter, Ionescu didn’t try to hedge her former college teammate Satou Sabally and therefore got trapped by Harrison’s screen. She couldn’t go over or under it.

Rookie Jocelyn Willoughby struggled to contain Arike Ogunbowale. She gave her too much space because she and New York collectively didn’t try to take away her handle or run her off the three-point line. On August 27, she’ll have a chance at redemption.

The Liberty look to ‘build on the positivity’

Amid the offensive and defensive units lacking synchronization, Wednesday night had some bright moments for some first years who hadn’t seen much floor time. Against the Wings, Joyner Holmes stood out, flashing exactly what she was known for with the Longhorns, but now with the Liberty. She drove to the basket multiple times, drawing an and-one and completing the three-point play in the third quarter. She even zoomed past Sabally, and later caught a perfect pass from Ionescu after running the entire floor on transition.

Now Jaz Jones and Megan Walker were clearly hyped for their first WNBA minutes. While Walt Hopkins didn’t think both rookies looked 100 percent, and understandably so, he didn’t see anything “alarming” coming off their first appearances.

For Walker’s first professional points, they came with 8:36 left in the second quarter. Fellow first-year Willoughby fought with Bella Alarie for the rebound and snatched the ball, and after three dribbles, she found Walker right in the key for a layup over a hopping Samuelson.

Jones netted 8 points in under 12 minutes of playing time, flashing her jumper and her effort on the offensive glass. The former Louisville Cardinal showed that energy Jonathan Kolb and Walt Hopkins have lauded her for. Her most memorable moment, however, came with under 25 seconds left in regulation.

She challenged Ty Harris’ handle near center court and as a result, she batted away the ball, grabbing the steal and fired an athletic hook shot for the and-one. That energy off the steal and score gave Jones her first technical.

Young Vet Amanda Zahui B. was pleased with the young energy off the bench. She noted that the Liberty need it at all times to be successful and win games. 

“I think they did great coming off the bench with energy,” she said. “Even Neah Odom came off the bench and great energy. You know Jocelyn as well. So we got to take that right. This is a growing process and it sucks to lose and especially when you could have won that. We gave this one away. But we got to build on the positivity.”

And this is something Hopkins practices as well amid his own in-game frustrations. 

Later in the third quarter, Ogunbowale handed the ball it off to Kayla Thornton, who then looked to her left about to hand it off to Sabally. But Amanda Zahui B. hedged Thorton and prevented the handoff, lodging herself in between the two. Zahui then switched back to Sabally and Neah Odom swooped in to guard Thornton. Hopkins, who was a few feet away from the proceedings piped up from the socially distanced bench clapping rapidly and shouting: “That’s it Zahui.” 

That’s also growth. 

Written by Jackie Powell

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