June 15, 2021 

Liberty complete Queen’s Gambit in win over Mercury

Without Sabrina Ionescu, New York found a way to win while addressing old habits

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The New York Liberty huddle before their game against the Washington Mystics at Entertainment & Sports Arena in Washington, DC on May 21, 2021.Photo Credit: Dominic Allegra.

On Friday Jazmine Jones was asked about the week the Liberty just had. They hadn’t played a game since June 5 and returned to the court on Sunday. Technically it was a “week off,” but realistically it wasn’t.

“Week off,” Jones asked before the reporter could finish his question. She giggled. “We’ve been practicing… [more giggles] a week off??”

During that said “week off,” the Liberty focused on returning to who they were to begin the season, a group that won games dependent on defensive stops and thrived off of making the extra pass to find the open player. But in three straight losses to the Dream, Aces, and the Sun, the league’s best transition defense, according to Synergy Sports, looked out of sorts. Not enough shots were made.

Jones referred to the past week as a mini-training camp, a period of time when the team watched game film every day, were challenged in practice every day, and individual players put in extra work outside of practice time every day. It wasn’t easy, but in order to snap a losing streak and slide back into the win column, New York had to get back to work. “The intensity definitely went up this week in practice, it rose to an all time high,” Jones said on Friday.

The Liberty honed in on their defensive rotations, sets and coverages. There was a focus on rebounding with box out drills becoming a mainstay. Reshanda Gray’s return to the roster made sure of it.“She’s getting all kinds of rebounds,” Kylee Shook said with a chuckle last Wednesday. She didn’t just make Shook better in practice, but she even posted up and “screened the hell” out of head coach Walt Hopkins who was serving as a practice player for his team.

According to Jones, the Liberty needed that week especially after getting punched in the mouth by Connecticut, falling 85-64 in the Liberty’s worst offensive showing of the season. After the loss on June 5, Hopkins explained what New York’s next course of action was. He knew that opponents would begin to figure out how to chip away at what the Liberty do best. Sun head coach Curt Miller noted a day before the game that he specifically invested time to prepare for how the Liberty play.

Connecticut had checked New York, but it was time for the Liberty to return to form and pin their opponents. “We’re going to have to have the next chess move,” Hopkins said.

Moments later, Bec Allen reflected on the game, explaining that the Liberty are better than their performance against the Sun. She noticed that New York’s recent opponents were more physical and defended the Liberty’s on-ball screens with more force.

What kept Allen and her teammates looking ahead rather than back was how three losses capped by a blowout made them all feel. “100 percent the motivation is the feeling after this game,” she said. “It’s not a good feeling to lose like this.”

On Sunday, the Liberty left the court with a different feeling. Their adjustments paid off, squeaking by the Phoenix Mercury 85-83. While New York struggled at the beginning of the second half, relenting a 9-0 Phoenix run to start, the Liberty put themselves in a position to win the game, breaking old habits that plagued them in their three straight losses.

Starting well and avoiding defensive slippage

Against both the Dream and the Aces, the Liberty didn’t execute their defensive principles to begin their first quarters. Atlanta exposed New York’s slower and detached Saturday afternoon drop coverages, where they allowed Courtney Williams a barrage of time and space off screens. The Aces took advantage of every mismatch in addition to New York being late on switches and close outs. Both first quarters didn’t make the Liberty’s opponents feel New York on defense and that was a problem.

That was an issue that Sabrina Ionescu diagnosed last week, explaining how she believed her team went away from their identity that had been established since training camp: defense. In the three game skid, she noticed a lack of defensive intensity and urgency.

“I think it really starts on the defensive end for us,” she said last Wednesday. “We are locked in as a team in the right position, where we need to be, bringing defensive intensity all game long, not in spurts. We punch first as soon as we start the game and can continue that throughout the whole game.”

Before the game on Sunday, Hopkins agreed with his star point guard, noting that a key to success against Phoenix was going to be how well the Liberty’s defense communicated and scrambled.

Instead of starting passive, New York took advantage of their defensive matchups rather than getting buried by them. Bec Allen was switched on Brittney Griner, but didn’t get lost or overwhelmed by her size. Allen deflected a pass meant to Griner from Skylar Diggins-Smith. She took it to the hole the other way for a pick 6. Michaela Onyenwere and Betnijah Laney created difficult angles that made drives for Kia Nurse and Sophie Cunningham extra laborious. The rookie of the year candidate also cleaned up her switches, moving quicker and more decisively rather than yielding under pressure.

Against Connecticut, however, the issue wasn’t how the Liberty started the game, but rather how they adjusted throughout and countered the league’s best posts. New York was outrebounded by the Sun in the second half 24-12 on Saturday. The Liberty struggled to make Jonquel Jones work for every shot attempt and board.

New York’s post packages changed against the Mercury. Liberty guards found ways to help their own posts without fouling. When the Liberty were down 4-3 early in the first, Kylee Shook stood her ground against Griner. She and Sami Whitcomb understood how they could play that matchup to their advantage, using quicker hands to block and interrupt Griner’s rhythm.

Mastering the double coverage and executing it decisively was something New York worked on last week, and against the Mercury, the Liberty played aggressively enough to enforce six turnovers from Griner. But also, Hopkins noted postgame that his team was able to recover from the doubles quickly enough “not giving up a ton [of open looks] on the backside.”

Allen agreed. “I think when we doubled aggressively we did it,” she said postgame. “I guess we were more decisive and got there early and it worked so well for us.”

Handling defensive pressure and avoiding stagnation on offense

Sabrina Ionescu sits on the bench before the Liberty’s game against the Washington Mystics at Entertainment & Sports Arena in Washington, DC on May 21, 2021.Photo Credit: Dominic Allegra.

Before the loss to the Sun, Hopkins explained that Ionescu’s scoring struggles were stemming from teams defending her more aggressively on pick-and-roll. As a player in her first full professional season, Hopkins urged patience. But after the loss to the Sun, Hopkins and his staff noticed that her struggles scoring and creating with the same potency to start the season were multi-factorial. Against the Atlanta Dream a week before, Hopkins noticed that Ionescu was playing passively and not moving as quickly.

He insinuated that there could be some lingering soreness from her third-degree ankle sprain that she sustained last July. On Sunday the team announced that Ionescu wouldn’t play against the Mercury, the injury report listing her as out with left ankle tendinitis.

With Sabrina or without her, the Liberty still struggled during their three game losing streak with making the “quick pass out.” Against Connecticut, Betnijah Laney was getting stuck underneath their on-ball pressure, and she didn’t often look for the open player. Last Wednesday, Shook diagnosed her team’s offensive issues. Explaining that her team needed to return to moving the ball and not letting it stick on one side of the floor.

Without Ionescu, there was pressure to take care of the ball, and both Laney and Whitcomb were up to the challenge, combining for 16 assists and 4 turnovers, 40 percent of the Liberty’s lowest turnover count of the season (10).

“You know I was ready, we kind of knew what was going on from it this week so it meant that I had to step up a little bit more,” Laney said after Sunday’s win.“Everybody had to step up a little bit more and I’m just really glad that you know we weathered that storm.”

Laney showed more poise as a creator rather than just a scorer. She found Reshanda Gray on two straight pick and roll post-ups on the left block. Gray out muscled Brianna Turner both times and found a way to lay it in the hole. This wasn’t an adjustment that the coaching staff made, but rather one Laney figured out in real time.

“At a time when our offense is struggling a little bit, you know that switching really was bothering us and the players sniffed that out,” Hopkins said postgame. “That wasn’t the coaching staff, the players sniffed that out and found Reshanda down low a couple of times and got us a couple of quick ones so that was huge.”

Something the Liberty struggled with immensely during their three game losing skid was finding and hitting the roller. Against the Sun, Laney was so engaged in the incoming pressure that she missed Shook a couple times rolling to the basket. On Sunday night, both she and Whitcomb made sure that wasn’t the case. With under 30 seconds left in the third quarter, Laney read the incoming double team of Turner and Kia Vaughn and saw Shook slip behind both defenders into a wide open paint. 31 percent of the pair’s 16 assists came on pick and rolls to both Shook and Gray.

Checkmating opponents is owning the crown

The Liberty bring it in during a team huddle against the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday night. Photo credit: The New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty.

During the not-so-off week before Sunday’s game, the Liberty had a players-only meeting. The agenda: understanding how the group could come together in pivotal moments during games. They met to learn how they could win together, rather than relying on hero ball from Laney or Ionescu.

Allen saw the team meeting as something that laid the foundation for how New York was able to take that punch and still grind out the win.

While the tempo of the game shifted from half to half, Laney thought her team didn’t get too high or too low. They believed in the game plan and stuck to it even when New York got rattled in the third.

“We knew that they would go on a run, but just, you know, staying focused and staying grounded in what we were doing and believing in what we were doing, not trying to change too much,” she said postgame. “Just focus on what got us there, you know once they did punch, try and turn it back up a notch.”

Hopkins sees these tight victories not only as wins, but as growth points as well, experiences that will only help the Liberty get to where they want to be.

While getting the win on Sunday was important especially on the road, a challenge remains ahead. Two straight back-to-backs against the Aces will be an uphill battle. To compete with Vegas, the Liberty must start awake on defense and continue to get out in transition as much as they can. That was a key Hopkins laid out pregame on Sunday, but it also applies to how New York plays Vegas. “The more we throw it ahead early, the more effective we are going to be,” he said.

But although New York found a way to handle and apply consistent and effective pressure to a post like Griner, Vegas is expected to be ready to counter New York’s counter. It will all be about who plays the Queen’s Gambit first.

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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