July 11, 2021
Liberty return to old habits after wild week
Can New York team finish above .500 before the Olympic break?
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When Kylee Shook, Sami Whitcomb and Betnijah Laney faced the press on a Zoom call on Friday night, Shook was still wearing her white heroine uniform from the Liberty’s 82-69 loss to the Fever, Whitcomb had her head down and Laney began the presser confused by the question that was just asked.
Moments later, Shook received a question about the Liberty’s dodgy offensive performance against the league’s worst record in the Indiana Fever.
Q: When it comes to the offense, why do you think tonight you guys weren’t able to move the ball as well as maybe you did against the Mystics and the Wings?
Shook: Um, that’s a good question. I mean if we would have know the answer we probably would have fixed it, but it was just… it’s been a long, long few days but that’s not excuse, so I think we just need to look at the film and what we did wrong and improve it.
Shook didn’t want to make an excuse, but she also wasn’t wrong. The Liberty had been put through the wringer in these past few days. Liberty second-year player Jocelyn Willoughby broke it all down in one tweet.
Monday night, 9:30 p.m.
The Liberty had just come off their tenth victory of the season. When they defeated the Wings 99-96, New York made 15 three-pointers out of their 31 attempts. Setting a franchise record, the Liberty shot over 48% from beyond the arc. Sami Whitcomb scored 26 of New York’s 99 points, shooting 10-of-16 from the field including 6-of-11 from three. Four other players reached double figures including 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney, second-year guard Jazmine Jones, Sabrina Ionescu, and now permanent member of the 2021 roster Reshanda Gray.
Liberty coach Walt Hopkins opened the postgame presser explaining that the ball movement and multiple double-digit scorers are indicative of when the team is at their best. The Liberty had been struggling with consistently putting better quarters together, winning one game decisively against the Dream on June 26 but then falling to the same team three days later. Momentum had built up from New York’s 20-point comeback win against the Tina Charles-led Mystics on July 3.
Hopkins explained that making the defense work early in the shot clock allows New York to find even better shots and that was the key to success against the Wings. “Oftentimes we get those early looks in the shot clock, someone’s a little off on us and we know we can shoot that three, but the thing that we’re getting better at is recognizing that we can get that shot later in the shot clock too,” he said on Monday night. “And maybe by staying in dominoes and attacking, keeping the ball moving, and finding one another, we can get a better shot.”
Whitcomb reflected on how the Liberty were able to stage return to form against both Washington and Dallas, playing a brand of basketball they began the season with. After New York’s 5-1 start, the Liberty began to rely upon their All-Star and three-way scoring machine Betnijah Laney. Also, Sabrina Ionescu was recovering from ankle tendonitis which invited even more defensive pressure on Laney.
“I think it really just became the case of Betnijah was good and attracting so much attention and does so much for us,” she said postgame on Monday. “You know we probably got lazy and we just got a little bit like we expected for B to do those things and we know she can and yeah I think it was a case of we weren’t focused. We weren’t executing. We were letting people’s pressure affect us.”
Thursday afternoon, 10:30 a.m.
While the consensus was that the Liberty executed close to their potential on offense against the Wings, Hopkins noted on Monday night that defensive principles against Dallas were lacking. New York allowed Wings veteran big Izzy Harrison to score 23 points inside the paint, shooting 75% from the field.
The Liberty practiced twice since Monday night, including on Thursday morning, and the team specifically worked on addressing their pick-and-roll coverages. Hopkins noticed some “really odd lapses” in the victory on Monday, and the mistakes New York made looked reminiscent of what he might have seen back in late April at the start of training camp.
The Liberty have incorporated more icing and switching into their pick-and-roll defense, but Hopkins noticed that when those changes were made, slippage in their original principles occurred as a result. When the Liberty execute their drop coverages correctly, it gives them a better chance at winning a game, especially when shots aren’t falling early. Hopkins agreed. New York has to be able to contest every shot, but it’s dependent on who contests.
“When our big is stepping up and contesting mid-range jumpers, we didn’t execute the coverage right,” Hopkins said. “And what happens is when the big steps up their player dives to the rim and they get either an offensive rebound and a putback or they just get a flat out layup.”
Kylee Shook noted after practice on Thursday morning that a goal against the Fever was going to be returning to how they know how to play defense. For Shook, she needed to trust that the Liberty’s guards were going to keep up with the opposing team’s frontcourt, allowing her to stay back and protect the paint.
Thursday evening, 9:30 p.m.
New York arrived at the Laguardia Airport following their morning practice ready to board their plane for a 2 PM flight to Indianapolis International Airport. The goal was to get to Indiana by late afternoon early evening and then the team would be able to have a shootaround the next morning to review their drop coverage and loosen up for their game against the then 2-16 Fever.
But Hurricane Elsa had other plans. The Liberty boarded and waited and boarded and waited twice before their 2 p.m. flight was delayed and then canceled and rescheduled to Friday morning, game day.
Liberty guard Jazmine Jones kept the internet updated, noting her Twitter followers how long the team had been waiting at the gate and then the runway. Jones didn’t shy away from explaining how hangry she was getting while waiting for takeoff.
After hopping off the plane to eat and then hopping back on, the team then got the news that nope, the plane wasn’t leaving on Thursday night. Well, what was next?
The Liberty got off the plane and then back to baggage claim and that’s where the real fun began. Jones and DiDi Richards decided to continue documenting what had been a nine-hour waiting game. Jones posted Instagram stories of her joking with head coach Walt Hopkins that they’d have a shootaround at 3 AM before their early morning takeoff. Jones said to Laney: “B, B whatchu say about that All-Star B?” And Laney shifted her mask below her mouth and replied: “I’m taking a mental health day.”
Richards decided to capture the madness when the team had arrived back to the baggage claim. She documented the group on Instagram live playing a game of pass the phone. When they passed the phone to assistant coach Jacki Gemelos, Sabrina Ionescu had to explain to Gemelos how the game is played.
“Like I said Walt [Hopkins] cracked a TV,” she said. “He’s out and he got Sami [Whitcomb] for a fake Australian accent.”
Richards then grabbed her phone and said: “I’m passing the phone to someone who don’t know how to get rid of their masks.” Rookie Michaela Onyenwere has a pouch of masks on her backpack and according to Jones, she apparently “is always gonna wear that mask.”
Friday evening, 5:45 p.m.
At pregame availability, Hopkins was asked immediately what the past 24 hours had been like. Amid the madness, he made it clear that issues at the airport are hard to avoid during a more typical WNBA season. He made it very clear that he preferred although the team waited for around for almost 10 hours the day before, he wouldn’t trade plane delays for playing another season inside of a bubble. He mentioned that he felt like the team and the staff dealt with the circumstances well, maintaining positive energy and a more cheerful disposition than not.
The fun that the team was able to have together on Instagram live showed that in his eyes, the group he and general manager Jonathan Kolb assembled really enjoys each other. “I think that they, they found ways to make that really fun,” he said about being stuck in the airport on Thursday night. “There were very few times where they weren’t laughing or joking with one another.. the whole thing was like a slumber party.”
But then after the recap of the trials and tribulations at Laguardia, Hopkins was asked about the game on the agenda against last-place Indiana. He explained to the media that he and sophomore returners from last year remember what it was like to be a team with only two wins. They remember the hunger that a team with few wins has. The WNBA is a league where anyone can beat anyone.
“If you execute if our team executes our principles, plays with passion and plays together, we can beat anybody in the league,” Hopkins said pregame. “If we don’t, we can lose to anybody in the league.”
Friday evening, 9:15 p.m.
And that was exactly the end result.
New York lost to Indiana after turning the ball over 20 times, shooting under 40% from the field and allowing 46 points in the paint. Offensively, New York returned to old habits, relying too much on Laney after she was able to score 13 of the Liberty’s 28 first-quarter points.
“That’s usually our choice as coaches to try to get the ball to in Betnijah because that was what was working really in the game,” Hopkins said postgame on returning to old habits. “Along with getting stops and getting out and pick and roll. Unfortunately, not a lot was working after that first quarter so there wasn’t really a lot of options.”
The Liberty’s 17 misses from three were also a result of returning to old habits. Hopkins referred to it as the result of not moving the ball quick enough and players just trying “to hit home runs over and over again” with the three-point shot rather than penetrating the defense and working through the shot clock.
Once Hopkins left the postgame presser frustrated, Shook, Whitcomb, and Laney faced the media with that similar exasperation and resentment. When Whitcomb was asked about defensive slippages against the Fever, she didn’t hold back.
Q: This question is for Sami, what did you see is the reason as for why D Rob and Kelsey Mitchell really had space in the lane to go downhill, what was your defense not doing?
Whitcomb: Defending, probably. I don’t think we were staying with them and weren’t staying in front of them we weren’t talking on. Oh, maybe we were talking on screens but we weren’t doing the job of navigating screens as the guards. And I think we just gave him a little bit too much space and comfort early and they hit a few or got downhill a few times and then they felt comfortable so I think we just weren’t physical enough.
When asked about how the team recovers from the travel and the frustration that came with the delays and the most recent loss to the team with the worst record in the league, Whitcomb reassured to the media and herself that this team is going to “stay together” and will continue “talking to each other.” She explained that everyone ought to re-focus and getting back in the gym before the game on Sunday will only help and provide confidence.
“We have a really big game going to the break but yeah we absolutely have each other’s backs and we know this wasn’t our best effort and our best game but confident moving forward that if we can all just come together and figure it out and execute what we want to execute comes Sunday, it will be alright,” she said.
“BRO THROW THE WHOLE TRIP AWAY”
On Saturday following the loss, the plan was to hop on an 11:30 AM flight and be able to rest and then get back in the gym before tipoff. But once again, Delta Airlines had other plans.
Jones reclaimed her role as lead stenographer of the entire airport saga, taking her followers through the highs and lows of Saturday afternoon. The lows: dealing with the stress of the plane leaving on Sunday morning. The highs: learning the plane would actually take off on Saturday and then the subsequent reaction from team owner Joe Tsai to all of the madness.
While we don’t know yet what Joe Tsai’s plans are for the future, the Liberty boarded their plane and were in their seats ready to take off at around 4:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. Natasha Howard posted a photo to her Instagram story at 6:15 of the plane getting ready to land. “Home sweet home,” she wrote.
Well after two issues with travel, a devastating loss, and appearances at the ESPYS from Ionescu, Richards, and Laney, the Liberty go into Sunday’s game against the Sun with some challenges, especially against a team that whooped them by over 20 points on June 5.
Regarding the exhaustion, Whitcomb didn’t make any excuses. She explained that all teams in this league have dealt with a myriad of different challenges. She didn’t believe that her team was locked in mentally against the Fever and that by far was a larger issue than the team lacking physical energy due to long flight delays. “We weren’t as locked in and that’s something we can all control we know that,” she said. “So I don’t think that’s a fair excuse.”
Against the Sun in their final game before the Olympic break, the Liberty will have to reclaim their pride at home, something that New York lost on Friday against the Fever.
“This team has a lot of heart, top to bottom, and we have a lot of heart and a lot of pride,” Jones said after the Liberty defeated the Mystics on July 3. “So we just knew if we just go out and do what we are supposed to do, what we know how to do, do all we talked about before every single game we knew was gonna be okay.”
Jones understands what that pride looks like and what it feels like. Now does it help New York take another step forward? We’ll see.
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.