October 12, 2023
There was no beauty in New York Liberty’s struggle on Wednesday night
Ionescu: 'We're gonna have to figure it out this week'
LAS VEGAS — During shootaround on Wednesday morning, New York Liberty star Breanna Stewart reflected upon what it takes to be successful in a WNBA finals. To call back assistant coach Olaf Lange’s cliché about how being comfortable with discomfort is prudent, Stewart provided her thoughts on his assessment.
“There’s beauty in the struggle,” Stewart said. But hours later Wednesday evening, there was no beauty in the way that the New York Liberty struggled.
New York fell to Las Vegas, 104-76 in a game where the Aces came out firing on all and even some unexpected cylinders.
It was a game where the Aces scored 38 points in the first quarter, and shot 52.9 percent. Almost every Aces player who took a three made a three, and that included Kiah Stokes and A’ja Wilson. Meanwhile, the Liberty shot 36.1 percent from the field and shot 8-for-35 from three to the Aces’ 13-for-29 from beyond the arc. While a lot had been made about the Liberty’s tendency to respond after disappointing losses, on Wednesday night, they did not respond appropriately to put themselves in position to even the series. Sandy Brondello addressed reporters in earnest after the blowout loss.
“We spoke about how bad we started off in the last game in the first quarter,” Brondello said about the Aces’ first quarter. “And the same thing happened. And I was more like ‘oh my god is this Game 1 again.’ We talked about transition defense. No one was matched up on anyone.”
In less than two months’ time, the Liberty have gone from a team that’s capable of defeating the Aces three times in one month to one that has lost to them twice in a row. Where is that team? And how can it come back at the most important time of the year?
Brondello’s not sure where the best version of her team is right now. But she did note that when the Aces are making shots from uncharacteristic places, it means they are playing their best basketball and that leads to a boat load of confidence, something the Liberty are searching for and are now desperate to find. The Aces’ “core four” have played together for three full regular seasons. And this iteration of the New York Liberty is only in year one.
“You see the chemistry that they have,” Brondello said. “And for us, you know, we haven’t taken steps forward. We haven’t shown it…we’re disappointed, very disappointed because we’re a way better team than what we showed, so I don’t know why.”
That’s what the Liberty’s disappointment sounded like. But what did it look like? During the postgame presser, Stewart had difficulty looking up from the stat sheet. She couldn’t look media members in the eye. It was difficult to tell if she was angry, devastated, exhausted, or embarrassed.
Courtney Vandersloot sat on the bench during the third quarter with her lips scrunched and her eyes wide. She shook her head with her eyes glued to the court. Stefanie Dolson was talking to her, but Vandersloot couldn’t take her eyes away from the court as she looked at it, dumbfounded by what she was seeing.
Where was her team and who was this shell of itself that has taken the floor in Las Vegas in October?
“I mean, we’re still here,” Dolson told The Next following the blowout on Wednesday night. “I think it’s just people are maybe overthinking. You know, it’s the finals. We have a lot of people who have never been here before.”
Sabrina Ionescu explained that the Aces have made adjustments and changes in response to how the Liberty played them back in August. She called the first quarter the Aces played “a clinic” and once again were able to do whatever they wanted on offense. She noted that once the Liberty land back in New York, they are going back to the drawing board and are going to work hard to figure out what they can do to prevent an Aces sweep.
“For us, it’s finding ways to continue to make adjustments and figure out what’s going to work for us because at the moment, nothing’s working,” she said. “Nothing’s working defensively. They’re just able to move the ball around and do whatever it is that they want to do, and they don’t feel any pressure from us. We’re gonna have to go back and figure out what it is, if it’s we got to play harder, get up in passing lanes. We’re gonna have to figure it out this week.”
The Liberty are going to have to get better offensive production from their guards and fast. Back in August, Ionescu and Vandersloot combined to score more than 40 points in a single game two different times against the Aces. Over these first two games of the 2023 WNBA Finals combined, they’ve scored a total of 36 points. Brondello pointed to that lack of backcourt production as something that puts more pressure on the Liberty’s bigs in Stewart and Jonquel Jones. She reiterated that the Liberty still haven’t corrected their screening problem yet, something that has prevented their guards from being able to get into the paint, then drive and kick.
And the Liberty’s defense didn’t make their offensive struggles any easier. Brondello explained that the Liberty wanted to play physically. They wanted to be disruptive, but coudn’t be. While the Aces are a much more potent offensive team, Brondello was searching for answers postgame, trying to figure out where the team of two weeks ago was, one that played tougher and weathered the storm of the Connecticut Sun.
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Dolson attributes this flat-looking Liberty to a lack of confidence they have in what they are doing.
“I think we have a lot of schemes going on on defense, and maybe we’re overthinking them a little bit,” she said. “So we’re like, what should we do here, which we do there? And I think we just simplify, just play basketball. And go with our gut out there. I think they’re going under a lot of screens, they’re switching a lot of screens, and instead of countering what they’re doing, we’re just trying to fight them. And instead of playing smarter, we’re just trying to do what they’re giving us instead of seeking what we want on offense. Defensively we have to be stronger, be more physical. They’re very physical with us, so we’ve got to be physical with them.”
There was one point when the Liberty were physical and aggressive with the Aces on Wednesday night and that was in the second quarter, when the Liberty got 16 points and 8 rebounds from Jones. She carried them to being down only 52-44 going into the third quarter, after trailing by as many as 22 points in the second quarter.
Jones’ body language was hard to interpret on the podium following the game. She was demonstrative about how she agreed with everything Brondello said. She bobbed her head up and down multiple times while her coach was speaking. But Jones didn’t look as shaken as Stewart was. Was she confident that she and the Liberty could do what her 2021 Connecticut Sun could not?
Jones has been here before with this Las Vegas Aces team. She’s been down 2-0 on a team that had far less talent. Jones and the 2021 Sun didn’t win the title, but they also didn’t get swept in three games. She remembered how she was on a team that mucked things up against the Aces defensively. “You gotta dig deeper, be a little bit tougher, make things a little bit harder and come out with some more grit,” Jones said. That’s how the Aces were defeated during the postseason.
The most concerning part of this is that the Liberty knew that they needed to fight harder in Game 2, but clearly didn’t have it in them. During the Liberty’s pregame huddle, Betnijah Laney called out the word “fight” as the word that her team would have to keep in mind throughout the game. “1,2,3, fight,” she shouted.
Kayla Thornton believes that the Liberty have lost sight of who they’ve been. In the past, they haven’t rolled over like this. She agrees with Dolson that their waning confidence has made what’s been difficult to overcome much more unsurmountable.
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“I said to Sloot, ‘just do you,’” Thornton told The Next. “I think all of us are just out there trying to [do that]. We want to win so bad that we’re trying to do more… but we just have to play ball at the end of the day.”
Going forward, something that both Dolson and Thornton said the Liberty have to improve upon heading into Game 3 is figuring out how to maintain a level of energy and urgency when their shots aren’t falling. Dolson explained that the “Hail Mary” shots have to stop and everyone has to do a better job at getting each other open. The ways in which they do that include cutting harder, screening harder, back screening and re-screening. Thornton was more focused on how the Liberty can use getting stops to gain momentum and ignite the fire that they need.
What’s also on brand for the Liberty in their franchise’s history is losing in the WNBA Finals. Fans from Stewart’s native Syracuse came all the way out to cheer on Stewart and the Liberty. One of them has been a fan for the full 27 years. She’s not the only one thinking: here we go again.
The message the players had to the Liberty fans was to not give up hope until it’s really, truly over. Ionescu compared her team’s current situation to the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, who came back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. She also encouraged Liberty fans to come out and show up on Sunday. New York needs to create an advantageous atmosphere, one at the same level as the fans that were so loud it was piercing at Michelob Ultra Arena on Wednesday and Sunday.
The Liberty and Ionescu believe that they can change their own course and their franchise’s history. But in order to do that, the Liberty’s torch needs to go from dim to bright.
“Our motivation needs to change,” Thornton said. “We need to find something that’s going to lit our fire within this. You know, we can sit there and talk about Xs and Os and this and that, but we don’t have a fire within us. If we don’t have that desperation, that will and that fight, Xs and Os mean nothing.”
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.