October 11, 2023
Inside Sandy Brondello’s process to get New York Liberty over losses
New York hasn't lost two in a row all season. Here's how.
LAS VEGAS — When Courtney Vandersloot was reminded that the Liberty hadn’t lost two games in a row during the entire 2023 season including the playoffs, she immediately brought her fist to the ground and knocked on hardwood at Michelob Ultra Arena during practice on Tuesday afternoon.
She was knocking on wood to satisfy the ancient superstition that good luck comes following knocking on wood.
And up until now, that trend that Vandersloot so desperately hopes holds throughout the WNBA Finals following New York’s game 1 loss on Sunday, has been as a result of the way of thinking that head coach Sandy Brondello and her staff instill in the Liberty players.
“Our coaching staff is really good about like ‘hey, let’s learn from this but move on. Let’s not dwell on what happened,’” Vandersloot said. “And I think that’s a really big thing because no one likes to lose, right? It’s always: next game, let’s move on, this is a series for a reason. I think that mentality helps us a lot.”
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But just because Brondello and her staff encourage her group not to dwell on negative emotions doesn’t mean they don’t discuss what went wrong and learn from those mistakes. Her belief is that’s what helps a player and a team transition from frustration to motivation. In addition to New York having a lot of veteran experience on the roster, that’s how and why Brondello’s team has been incredibly successful at bouncing back and making a statement when they do so.
“Like a 37 point first quarter pattern where they lose?,” Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon quipped back when she was asked about how the Liberty are known to respond and in a big way.
While she was referring to New York’s third game of the semifinals when the Liberty scored 37 points in the third quarter, one that came after a game 2 win, it was a statement game for the Liberty after they lost the first and won the second narrowly.
“That’s the playoffs,” Hammon said. “I don’t expect anything less than everything they got. They’re gonna throw everything they got.”
That’s the energy that is not only expected of the Liberty, but one that the team prides itself on. Brondello herself was excited during practice on Tuesday. She wished her team was playing later that day rather than on Wednesday. And that confidence comes from a productive Liberty team film session on Monday.
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To begin, Brondello gives what she calls “her spiel.” She addresses the team with what her general observations were of the game. In this case, she didn’t believe her team played hard enough, they got pushed around by the Aces, didn’t execute the defensive game plan and didn’t screen well.
“It’s not about yelling, it’s about giving them confidence that okay, this wasn’t good,” she said. “But be confident that we know we’re a way better team and what we showed, but we still have to go out and do it against a really good team.”
Following Brondello’s address, she shows the film. She focused on the Liberty’s “flow” offense. She showed the team a comparison when she thought the offense flowed well, even though it could have been better. And then she contrasted that with when “the flow went to shit.” While the Liberty scored 49 points in the first half on Sunday, they didn’t play anywhere near at their best.
The juxtaposition of well done and not very done well at all was intentional according to assistant coach Olaf Lange. There are some times throughout the season when the staff would show more negative clips in order to elicit a wake up call. But during the finals, a much more emotionally taxing time, it was more about balance and instilling confidence and having the players “understand reality” instead of getting caught up in the illusion of extreme self loathing.
And some of it wasn’t even schematic, but rather common sense. When a player like Jackie Young has multiple opportunities to step into threes, Brondello makes sure her team knows that she won’t accept that moving forward. Again, she’s not yelling, but more stating it matter of factly. “We gave up four fucking threes in the first three minutes by not even guarding someone,” she said to reporters at practice. “…That’s unacceptable.”
Brondello doesn’t sugarcoat, but she also doesn’t lecture. She asks them following her spiel: what are your thoughts? And for Lange that engagement is what determines the success of the session. “By having [the players] speak, we see where their mind is at and where we have to address things more,” Lange told The Next.
The film session usually transforms into a group discussion. The coaches present a clip and explain what needed to be done that wasn’t. The players reply explaining what was happening on the floor in that moment and why in the heat of that moment and up against whatever the Aces were doing, the correct scheme was difficult to execute. The more interactive and the more people talking and bouncing ideas off each other during the session, the better.
“That’s an engaged discussion,” Lange said. “That’s usually very fruitful because you arrive at a conclusion that everyone has been a part of. Everybody can buy into it and there’s clarity.”
Brondello also doesn’t call out individuals in a group film setting, which is something that Sabrina Ionescu appreciates. These team film sessions are about the team. “This is about us,” Brondello said. “We.” Players don’t walk into a film session scared or anxious about being embarrassed in front of their peers.
“It’s just really optimistic and like, ‘Hey, this is what you did. But I think this is what we can do better,’” Ionescu said. “ It’s just a space where you can talk about what you saw as a player because we are the ones on the court and we do see things differently. And it’s super collaborative to that extent. And I think that helps just create a really safe environment for everyone to feel like they can fail and it’s okay because you’ve got a team around you that wants to help you succeed.”
So what did the players themselves see in that session?
For Courtney Vandersloot, Game 1 felt like all the other games the Liberty had lost to the Aces during the season. She explained that there’s a familiar feeling when the Liberty lose and also one when they win. The losing feeling was defined by Vandersloot as when the Liberty are discombobulated on offense and shy away from their defensive principles.
Ionescu saw a team that beat themselves. She saw a Liberty team that also hung around with the Aces until well into the third quarter while New York wasn’t playing at its best. “It was a lot of things that we did that were out of character and a lot of things that we can control,” she said.
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When Betnijah Laney and Kayla Thornton spoke to reporters on zoom, the motif the pair harped on was being more aggressive and disruptive. Both Laney and Thornton, two players that take defense personally, internalized how comfortable their team allowed the Aces to be. Expect that to change in Game 2.
What also will need to change in Game 2 if the Liberty want to get a different result is how New York screened and how quickly they made decisions on offense. The Liberty guards struggled immensely getting downhill and getting two feet in the paint. Brondello calls that “paint to great.” While the paint and rim protection of A’ja Wilson can be credited, that doesn’t paint the full picture as to why the Liberty couldn’t as easily drive and kick.
“We didn’t screen,” Brondello said. “Because if you don’t screen it’s just a foot race. They were just going under and under, [Vandersloot] couldn’t even go downhill. You know what I mean? So screen better, put her in position so she can go downhill and then you can get them into rotations.”
And this was a theme that Brondello continued to drill into practice on Tuesday. While her team ran through their offensive sets without defenders as a warmup, she mentioned screening multiple times. “We’ve got to set great physical screens,” she said.
Also, expect the Liberty to be hunting Kelsey Plum similarly to how the Aces targeted Sabrina Ionescu in Game 1. Brondello was pointing out where on the floor to screen the smaller Plum so that she struggles to navigate it. “If this is Plum coming out, make a screen, make the switch,” she instructed her team.
Something else that the Liberty worked on early during their practice on Tuesday was how quickly they got the ball out of their hands. Brondello thought that the Liberty were operating at a 1.5 second mentality rather than a 0.5. “Shoot when you are open, but If you hesitate, it’s a bad shot. Let’s get the movement and be quicker to the next action.”
Brondello tried to simulate the Aces’ potential pressure by asking Jocelyn Willoughby to join the practice squad and perform her best Jackie Young impression. Nyara Sabally was substituting in as the Wilson character and Brondello’s and Lange’s son Brody tried his best Chelsea Gray fade away. “Hey guys, trap Sabrina, do what they do,” Brondello instructed.
But how the Liberty also return to who they are in Game 2 is incumbent upon their two franchise building blocks in Ionescu and Laney returning to form. Both of them hadn’t been to a WNBA Finals before, and both struggled to play confidently against Las Vegas in Game 1. Brondello explained that she didn’t want to put any pressure on those two, but rather thought their more tentative outings came from “pressure they put on themselves.”
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Vandersloot acknowledged that the team as a whole had to be willing to give each other a grace period as this is the first time this collection of people is doing this together. And in order to get the best out of Ionescu and Laney, it won’t be necessarily about making sure they are comfortable in actions or in the flow of the game, but rather are confident in who they are and what they do best. According to Lange, part of the nature of playing in a WNBA finals is that cliché of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“The end result is the winning feeling but until you get there, you have to do a lot of uncomfortable things,” Lange said. “Because it’s hard work. You have to do things that you wouldn’t do on a Monday or a Tuesday…it’s hard work. You gotta go play your ass off. It gets very physical, gets emotional.”
But just because playing in the finals is everything that playing in WNBA is about to the thousandth power doesn’t mean that Ionescu and Laney can’t get there. It’s quite the contrary according to Vandersloot.
“I don’t have anything groundbreaking to tell Sabrina,” she said. “It’s just going out and being her. Don’t let anything else, any outside noise distract you from that. Don’t let this, that it’s your first time make you be any different than you are every single night.”
And that’s a principle that Brondello and her staff made sure to communicate during that Monday film session and Tuesday’s practice. “Now it’s the finals. I’m going to pour into them,” she said. Winning game 2 won’t be about reinventing the wheel. It will be about the Liberty remembering who they are and how they got here. And to get there, they’ll have to pour into each other 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.