October 18, 2023
The Liberty have battled complacency all year long. Can they do so on the largest stage?
Stewart: 'We have an opportunity, and we can’t let it pass us by'
BROOKLYN —The 2023 WNBA Finals are Betnijah Laney’s first. But doesn’t mean she hasn’t experienced a moment when her back is against the wall. She’s overcome multiple injuries with the New York Liberty and at previous stops, she’s been cut from the league and she’s had to prove doubters wrong.
“There’s nothing anyone can do or say to me that’s gonna break me,” Laney said at practice on Tuesday afternoon, a bit over 24 hours prior to game 4 of the WNBA Finals.
“I’ve been through it. I’ve dealt with it. I overcame it. And so it’s nothing…It’s nothing that nobody can say to me that’s gonna break anything that I got going on.”
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Laney stomped her foot down as she uttered that statement defiantly. She won’t be broken by what challenges come her way, and that’s something she hopes to continue to impart onto her team as well, a group that trails 2-1 going into their second elimination game after defeating the Las Vegas Aces 87-73 in game 3 of the WNBA Finals.
While the Liberty on paper are positioned with an advantage for Wednesday night’s game 4, New York does face a challenge going up against a depleted Aces roster. Not only is point guard Chelsea Gray out, but so is center Kiah Stokes, who came out onto the Barclays Center floor on Tuesday afternoon moving herself around on forearm crutches to accompany the boot on her right foot.
The main advantage that the Liberty always had over the Aces this season was going to be not just bench depth but proven bench depth. The Liberty have three players coming off the bench in Kayla Thornton, Marine Johannès and Stefanie Dolson that could all start on other WNBA rosters. For most of the season, the Aces have had one, reigning Sixth Player of the Year Alysha Clark.
How exactly does that pose problems for the mostly healthy New York Liberty? (Han Xu left the United States following yet another Chinese National team commitment.) Beginning with the new personnel, the Liberty will have to prepare for the less defensively sound Cayla George in Kiah Stokes’ place. If Jonquel Jones is defended in single coverage by George, which I doubt, Jones could be primed for another productive and MVP-caliber performance. Jones has to be ready to make the right passes especially in moments when the Aces send a double.
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But what George has that Stokes doesn’t have is an ability to reliably stretch the floor. While her three point percentage during the regular season was 23.4 percent, she had a few breakout games this season where she hit multiple treys. And unlike Stokes, George is confident in that shot, can take it and make it.
To replace Gray, Aces head coach Becky Hammon said it will require a committee. It is presumed that in the starting lineup combo guard Kelsey Plum will take over lead guard duties with Clark playing the small forward and Jackie Young playing the two guard. Sophomore Kierstan Bell will get run at the small forward, and while she’s got a similar physique to Gray, Bell’s shot making and basketball intuition aren’t at the level of 5X All-Star and 2X champion Gray.
But, Hammon also alluded to Sydney Colson, the more defensive minded and speedy reserve point guard, getting some run on Wednesday night. When the Aces fell to the Liberty at Barclays Center on August 28 94-85, it was Colson who played a productive 8 minutes by drilling two threes and posing a plus 3 +/-. She was the only player on her team to pose a number above zero.
The Liberty can’t treat Colson like someone with her load of minutes during the past two seasons. And Liberty point guard Courtney Vandersloot should know that. Colson’s contest of Vandersloot’s pass in the 2019 WNBA playoffs led the Aces to the WNBA semifinals. Vandersloot turned the ball over to Dearica Hamby which led to the miraculous Hamby heave.
But at the center of all these personnel adjustments which provide mostly advantages to New York, less talent on the floor for Las Vegas can lead to the Liberty’s season long monkey’s paw: complacency. “We know that we can’t be complacent with just winning that game and that we have to be even better than we were last game,” center Stefanie Dolson said following Liberty practice on Tuesday.
Throughout the regular season, there were moments when the Liberty would rest on their laurels. They didn’t play as hard because they relied upon their superior talent. Their regular season complacency and loss of leads created many of their 11 losses cumulative throughout the regular and postseason.
Will the Liberty have the focus and wherewithal to adjust on the spot if Clark makes all of her open threes, if George somehow gets Jones into foul trouble and if Colson and Bell make winning plays?
When Liberty players were asked about how a very different Aces team affects them, the response was consistent. New York has to focus on themselves. New York has to prepare for all potential situations. Sabrina Ionescu put it simply. “Our preparation stays the same. We got to go out there and win.”
So how do they do that? The Liberty need to have the same sense of urgency they had coming into Sunday afternoon. Their backs are still against the wall. One loss and it’s all over. Head coach Sandy Brondello compared the Liberty’s current situation like the Hunger Games, explaining that her team needs to do “whatever it takes to stay alive.” Breanna Stewart spoke of seizing the moment that lies ahead. With the adjustments, advantages or disadvantages that have been created because of the Aces’ injuries, the Liberty can do what no team has done in WNBA history. “We have an opportunity, and we can’t let it pass us by,” Stewart said.
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But also, the Liberty need to be even better than they were on Sunday to guarantee that this series goes five games. They need to remember that all they accomplished was staying alive. According to Ionescu the Liberty need to limit turnovers, make sure their shots are “good to great” and continue to make Las Vegas’ shots contested and uncomfortable.
“Kelsey still was able to live in the paint and for us it’s going to continue to find ways to limit what they want to do and that’s what we’re going to have to do for 40 minutes,” Ionescu said.
When Laney answered the question of what were those little details that she thought her team could improve upon in game 4, she used a clichè. But she was forceful in using that clichè.
“You might think she’s just saying the same thing over and over but like that’s what it is,” she said. “It was our aggressiveness. It was this being in attack on both ends of the floor. When we do that, that’s when we’re at our best. There’s no recipe or like all these little things. No, it comes down to who’s more aggressive.”
Shorthanded, the Aces will be motivated and hungry. With their goal on the line the Liberty should be, too.
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.