June 26, 2024 

The Liberty tried to ‘reinvent the wheel’ in Commissioner’s Cup championship loss to the Lynx 

Sabrina Ionescu: 'I think we were our worst enemy'

ELMONT, N.Y. — Breanna Stewart sat with her eyebrows furrowed as she looked at the boxscore. She compared a few numbers on that singular sheet that she, her head coach Sandy Brondello and New York Liberty teammate Sabrina Ionescu all received while sitting beside her on Tuesday night. 

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After the Liberty fell to the Lynx, 94-89, in the 2024 Commissioner’s Cup Championship, Stewart tapped Brondello’s pair of glasses sitting on the table during the postgame press conference to get her attention. Stewart pointed to a few figures on the sheet of paper. “WHAT,” Stewart exclaimed in whispered tone to Brondello while Ionescu was answering a question about the Liberty’s 21 total turnovers against the Lynx. 

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Brondello at first kept her smile closed, reacting to Stewart’s shock and frustration. But then a moment later, the Liberty head coach flashed a toothier and more ironic smile and whispered back, “I know.” Brondello had clearly been thinking about whatever discrepancy Stewart was pointing out on the boxscore. 

While it isn’t completely clear which numbers in particular stood out to Stewart, process of elimination should help. Presumably Stewart was particularly peeved that the Liberty out rebounded the Lynx 43-25, including 15-4 on the offensive glass, and lost. She might have been frustrated that the Lynx scored a total of 27 points on New York’s 21 turnovers. Or she couldn’t believe that New York only scored 13 points on 12 second chance attempts to the Lynx’s 9 points on 5 second chance attempts. The exasperation probably stemmed from all of the above. 

“I think we were our worst enemy,” Ionescu said postgame. “And just trying to reinvent the wheel and not go to what was working.”

What worked last year clearly couldn’t this year. Less than a year removed from New York’s triumphant 82-63 road victory over the Aces in last August’s Commissioner’s Cup Championship, the Liberty were dealt a different hand jumping it up against the Lynx. 

For starters, the Liberty weren’t technically on the road, although playing 16 miles away from Barclays Center at UBS arena didn’t yield the magnitude of a home court advantage that has powered New York’s 15-3 start to the season. A crowd of over 7,000 would have been impressive last year on a Tuesday night, but in 2024, that number puts them more than 5,000 fans below their season average

Then came the differences on the court: Last year’s Cup MVP Jonquel Jones was a non-factor, only scoring her first points with moments remaining in the fourth quarter. And the Liberty’s talented group of role and bench players couldn’t make Minnesota’s head coach Cheryl Reeve pay enough for the gamble she took. In 2024, the Liberty didn’t have Marine Johannès light it up from the bench. On Tuesday it was Kayla Thornton’s job to hit key treys, and that still wasn’t enough. She wasn’t even coming off the bench. 

On Tuesday night, the Liberty experienced what happens when playing 5 games in 8 days concludes against the league’s best defense. On Tuesday night, some of New York’s most important players returned, but rusty. On Tuesday night, the Liberty didn’t accept what the defense was giving them, and that began with how Jones was schemed against. 

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Jonquel Jones drives on <a rel=
Jonquel Jones (35) drives on Alanna Smith (8) at the 2024 Commissioner’s Cup Championship at UBS Arena in Long Island, NY on June 25, 2024. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd |New York Liberty)

Jonquel Jones was nullified 

Jones made zero field goals on only three attempts, one from three, though she did contribute 12 rebounds and 3 assists. In Liberty wins during the regular season, Jones has averaged 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds, nearly a double-double. And she’d been averaging 21.9 points per game in her past seven contests. That wasn’t the only time this season the Lynx have have held Jones to single digits.

Many of the Liberty’s 21 turnovers came from misfired attempts to either get the ball to Jones or play through her on the second or third side actions. Brondello explained that the Lynx were three-quarter fronting Jones, a defensive technique where defenders “straddle” their feet, stand sideways toward the player they are guarding and put a hand up in the passing lane directed toward the offensive player. 

This wasn’t the first time the Lynx made success close to impossible for Jones. Reeve realized even as early as in May that Jones’ play and comfort within herself makes New York incredibly difficult to beat. When the Liberty were still getting used to each other and trying to figure out their spacing in the first month of the season, Reeve and the Lynx held Jones to 4 points on 1-for-5 shooting. Sound familiar?

“We knew exactly what they were going to do,” Brondello said postgame.  “…And we just didn’t execute it very well. You know they were three-quarter fronting. We didn’t have good angles but their activity — there was always a crowd if she did catch it…  JJ has been playing great. They really took her out of the game, making it hard for her to catch the ball and even rotate into her. There’s no open for threes. No open gaps.”

While the Liberty found a way to score 50 points on 20 field goals and 17 assists in the first half, New York forced it into Jones. This was especially apparent in the second half, when New York turned the ball over 12 times while scoring 39 points on 11 field goals and 7 assists. But Jones observed something about the Liberty’s offensive flow when she spoke to reporters following the loss. She and her teammates missed an action that she believed was open at critical moments throughout the game. 

“I think the thing that they kind of left open was the high-low and we didn’t really get to that action as much as possible,” she said.  “So I think that was the biggest thing, the high-low action just wasn’t there. And that was basically the only thing that was open to really get the ball into the paint.” 

While the Liberty are a team that takes over 29 threes per game, the way that they generate those looks is via paint penetration and rim pressure. But also what was missing from Jones’ game on Tuesday evening was her ability to get downhill and serve as a pick-and-roll partner for Ionescu. 

“I mean that’s when she is at her best,” Brondello said about Jones. “Being a great screener and rolling out of that and then us continuing to move that ball.” 

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Kayla Thornton celebrates a shot
Kayla Thornton (5) celebrates a shot at the 2024 Commissioner’s Cup Championship at UBS Arena in Long Island, NY on June 23, 2024. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd |New York Liberty)

Thornton shined but the reluctance to use the bench continues

While the Liberty offense stagnated in their 10-point third quarter, when they did move the ball especially in the first half, it was Kayla Thornton who was often on the receiving end. In her tenth start this season, Thornton scored 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting, including 5-for-9 from three.

When the Lynx defense rotated to Jones and cut off post-entry passes, it was often Thornton who was wide open in the corner. And in “typical KT fashion,” according to Jones, Thornton was ready to shoot each time there was a drive and kick opportunity. Reeve took a gamble here: she let the Liberty’s role players try to beat her. And in the first half, it looked like there was a chance that New York was going to pull it off. 

When Kennedy Burke entered the game with 3:34 left in the third quarter for Betnijah Laney-Hamilton, who was just in her first game back after missing three with some right knee swelling, she made an immediate impact. 

Burke executed a pick-and-roll action with Ionescu off the top of the key, leading to a score, and then she scored 5 points on her own. Burke’s first score came as a result of her reading the driving lanes correctly and Napheesa Collier failing to rotate. Less than 30 seconds later, Burke hit a 26-foot three ball at the top of the key, a shot that gave the Liberty a five point lead and sent Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb leaping out of his seat, shouting “Let’s go!”

Kennedy Burke drives on Napheesa Collier
Kennedy Burke (2) drives on Napheesa Collier (24) in the 2024 Commissioner’s Cup Championship at UBS Arena in Long Island, NY on June 23, 2024. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd |New York Liberty)

When Burke was inserted back into the game with 2:50 remaining in the half, she succeeded in doing more of the grunt work. She blocked Kayla McBride on a drive to the basket and then found Courtney Vandersloot — who also made her return to the floor after missing seven games due to the death of her mother — in a spot on the floor with a wide open driving lane. She registered a +4 in around 8 minutes on court, and then in the second half, Burke didn’t see the floor at all. 

Burke’s early success was what made the move from Brondello confusing. And after being asked about it, Brondello seemed to agree. 

“Yeah that’s a great question,” she said. “I said to Kennedy, when you look back, it’s like, ‘oh, maybe I should have went back to you’…. In hindsight yeah, I probably should have gave her a few more minutes and see what she could have given us, a little bit more energy.”

But it wasn’t just Burke. Leonie Fiebich also played in just 8 minutes and Ivana Dojkić, who defends aggressively and can steadily handle the ball, registered a DNP. While the Liberty returned to their own worst habits that include turning the ball over at a high rate and not moving the ball, personnel who could have altered that trajectory remained on the bench.

While the rotations were confusing on Tuesday night, it’s worth noting that Brondello had to play trial by fire with both Laney-Hamilton and Vandersloot. While more available players ought to be a net positive, both players were clearly rusty.

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Can Liberty beat the Lynx at their own game?

When the Liberty were successful against the Las Vegas Aces last season and even in one game this year without Chelsea Gray, the key was New York moved the ball better and challenged Vegas’ defense with superior spacing. For that reason, the Minnesota Lynx pose some serious challenges to the Liberty. The Lynx are a very similar team that spaces incredibly well, moves the ball and doesn’t create a lot one-on-one. 

But the Lynx’s defense is what fuels them. There were multiple times on Tuesday evening when New York praised how the Lynx defended. Not only do they fly around quickly rotating like a hummingbird buzzing from flower to flower, they also navigate screens quickly. 

Jones explained that when Liberty guards Ionescu, Laney-Hamilton and Vandersloot got downhill, a Lynx defender trailed close behind. There wasn’t enough separation to hammer home an advantage that’s created on a ball screen. There were moments when Laney-Hamilton, who played hard amid playing rusty, tried to take advantage of how much stronger she is than Lynx wing Bridget Carleton. But by the time Laney-Hamilton realized this advantage, it was too late. 

Liberty Fans who came to UBS Arena
Liberty Fans who came to UBS Arena at the 2024 Commissioner’s Cup Championship in Long Island, NY on June 25, 2024. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd |New York Liberty)

Despite the loss, the Liberty remained hopeful and held themselves accountable after the game. Ionescu took the blame for her errant passes and 7 turnovers multiple times without an ounce of defensiveness following the loss. Jones refused to lay the blame for the turnovers at the feet of the guards alone.

“It’s not just the person that had the turnovers but all of us working in sync to just get the team better shots, better possessions and a little bit more openings,” she said. 

Don’t forget about Brondello, who reviewed her own night and held herself to a high standard, not only over her rotations, but how long she kept her team working to feed the ball to Jones on a night it simply wasn’t happening.

“We want to establish a player but sometimes if it’s too hard, we need to play to the rest of them,” she said.  “Once we got the ball back in Stewie’s hands, and great things were happening out of that.”

Speaking of Stewart, she went on a 9-0 run to get the Liberty within one point with 6:56 remaining in the fourth quarter. She made two threes and scored on an and-one. While the Lynx pressure bothered her at times as well, there are benefits when Stewart is starting the action and how that manipulates the defense. 

During that 9-0 run, Stewart played in a two-person action with Ionescu and was able to pitch the ball to Ionescu and then receive it after coming off multiple screens. Had those come sooner, and more often, the Liberty might have prevailed.

The good news for the Liberty is they’ll get the opportunity to put these lessons into practice soon: New York will face the Lynx again in less than a week’s time. And this time, no conflict will keep them from playing at Barclays Center, while the lessons of Tuesday night will be fresh in all of their minds.

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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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