August 9, 2020 

The Liberty flash their identity in first win

Young Vets' shine in the New York's victory against the defending champs

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Amanda Zahui B. and Layshia Clarendon celebrate against the Washington Mystics. Photo via the New York Liberty’s twitter account.

The celebration was delayed, but worth it for the New York Liberty.

When Kelly Raimon, Shelly Patterson and Dustin Gray walked slowly into the locker room, they found Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins drenched from head to toe in water.

“Well, now I can’t read the boxscore,” he laughed with a soggy sheet of paper in hand.

After a grueling start to the season, the Liberty beat the defending champion Washington Mystics in a game that was predicted to end like the four others before it: with a loss.

When the final seven seconds ticked down to zero in the fourth quarter, Hopkins’ face showed a calm indifference to the 74-66 final score. His reserved expressions and body language changed when rookie Jazmine Jones first nudged him. He smiled. She shoved him again, and it finally had sunk in, Hopkins had his first win as a head coach.

But after a brief huddle up which included the infamous “We are New York” chant led now by Amanda Zahui B., the New York Liberty didn’t celebrate on the court, and they didn’t want to.

“We didn’t want to celebrate on the court you know,” Hopkins told reporters after the win. “They wanted to act like they’ve been there and Washington played a good game (although not according to Mike Thibault) and, we wanted to take that to the locker room.”  

Since the start of the season, it’s always been a question as to what it would take for New York to execute and play to its identity. When would the open looks fall? And when would a very specific approach to defense begin to net positive? Without Sabrina Ionescu, that timeline ballooned. And after two straight losses of over 25 points, playing to the system appeared beyond the Liberty’s grasp.

Reflecting on the victory, however, Hopkins will remember how his team responded to adversity. On Thursday, New York had a long and emotional team meeting where the Liberty got their anxieties and frustrations out on the table, discussing specifically what they needed to do to perform better collectively.

A Hopkins philosophy has been defining and growing from “controllables.” A focus of the Thursday meeting was for each player to define and talk through how they were going to hold themselves accountable, explaining what they wanted to be responsible for moving forward in practice and during games. These controllables place limitations on how much weight each player carries and allows for the Liberty’s focus to narrow rather than broaden. Controllables attempt to limit unnecessary negative thinking, which when a team is on a losing streak is difficult to reel in.

“And it’s a credit to their focus, and again their resilience,” Hopkins said of his team. “I mean that’s the thing I’m gonna remember, the response to a really emotional meeting. It’s pretty special.”

Against the Mystics, the Liberty displayed what can happen when the “New Era” systems functions as it should, contrasting substandard shooting performances and dodgy defense in blow out losses against the Mercury and the Lynx.

According to veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon, the result of the intense meeting dovetailed into their most cohesive 40 minutes of basketball. “We played a lot more together, our offense flowed a lot better, we didn’t get hit on screens as much,” they said. “Our defense was a lot better, our posts were up in their drop coverages.”

Shot chart via WNBA.com.

New York shot and made more threes than D.C.

Before the opening tipoff, play-by-play commentator Ryan Ruocco reviewed the Washington starting lineup and remarked: “what a complement of threats from the outside.” Irony is what followed. On the opening drive after winning the tip, the Liberty passed the ball three times and set two screens before finding Amanda Zahui B. open on the wing.

Amanda. Zahui. Three.

And that would be the first of four for the center. Liberty shot and made more threes than the defending champs, shooting 12-32 from long as opposed to Washington’s 4-16. I’m not kidding.

Mystics head coach Mike Thibault noted pregame that what concerned him about the Liberty was their potential to be aggressive. “Part of it is the youth and just trying to just go as hard as they can,” he said. “Part of it is, you know, they have a couple of veteran post players, a veteran point guard. And Kia Nurse, that you know they have four veterans that know how to play.”

But before Friday, New York’s Young Vets hadn’t played cohesively together. While Layshia Clarendon’s scoring production on offense had increased to a little over 13 points per game, the most ever in their career, Amanda Zahui B. and Kia Nurse were struggling to produce. Shots weren’t falling, which could have been due to a lingering ankle injury for Nurse and bouts of intrapersonal frustration from both Clarendon and Zahui B.

In the first half, the Liberty shot 7-for-16 from beyond the arc, including a 4-6 performance from their Swedish Center. The second half featured 5 long balls combined falling from both Clarendon and Nurse.

Approaching the final two minutes, Clarendon’s rainbow three over a lunging Aerial power sealed the deal for New York. His four three-pointers were a career-high.

But this offensive system doesn’t only thrive on the three-ball, and the Mystics adjusted coming out of the half, trapping primary ball-handler Clarendon and Zahui B. on the perimeter. So what was the fix? For the Liberty, which is similar to the Mystics, the goal is to find the open player and move the ball to the opposite end or inside the paint for an easy two.

If it was locating the open player in the corner pocket or finding a teammate cutting through the lane, Zahui B. did it all. At one point in the middle of the fourth quarter, New York didn’t have a ball-handler (Clarendon or Jazmine Jones) on the floor. Hopkins had confidence in Zahui to facilitate.

“She passed the heck out of the ball,” Hopkins said of his most veteran post player. “I thought she was the one who handled the pressure as they started trapping and [the Mystics] did some really good things defensively to take us out of what was working. I thought Amanda was a big piece of what kept us steady.” 

Nurse was incredibly proud of her roomie, explaining to reporters after the victory how much of a statement her performance made against Washington, acknowledging how Zahui B.’s been a tad bit antsy leading up to Friday, and wanted to execute effectively.

“Zahui is a great basketball player and when she’s calm and she’s having fun out there and she’s loud and she’s talking, she does great things,” Nurse said. “And I think we saw that on both ends of the floor today. We saw that not only with her ability to score and knock down threes, but her passing ability, her rebounds were crazy today.”

The Liberty forced low-yield shots, outrebounding Mystics

When Walt Hopkins was introduced in January—which seems like years ago at this point—he expressed exactly what he wanted the defense to do. It was unclear how exactly it was going to execute, but the end goal was simple: the Liberty defense would become the inverse of its offense. Or in other words: “We’re going to force as many long-contested twos that we don’t want to take offensively.”

When approaching the Mystics, the Liberty were intentional. Clarendon remembers watching Washington’s style of play closely last year while on the bench with Connecticut recovering from ankle surgery during the finals.

“So we did a good job just forcing the ball handler to have to pass back and try and keep everybody to stay home,” she said. “I mean I know from playing against them last year in the finals with Connecticut, that when they make like 10 or more threes a game, they typically win. So we just really took them out of it.”

Washington’s shooting chart reveals that the Mystics shot 18 total long twos from inside the arc. And while Emma Meesseman and Aerial Powers were responsible for making 5 of the 7 mid-range shots that dropped in, both starters combined to take only five three-point attempts.

Shot chart via WNBA.com.

But in addition to running the Mystics successfully off the three-point line, New York outrebounded Washington 38-26, including crashing the offensive glass to pick up six o-boards to the Mystics’ one. Hopkins mentioned that when Kiah Stokes addressed what she was going to aim to control against Washington, she was set on keeping Myshia Hines-Allen from collecting offensive rebounds, limiting second-chance opportunities.

The only Washington offensive rebound came from guard Kiara Leslie.

Now with Stokes boxing out and keeping an eye on Hines-Allen, Zahui B. was all over the boards, racking up 14 defensive rebounds to accompany her 14 points.

With a little over nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, Zahui B. got fouled by Hines-Allen while collecting her tenth rebound of the evening. Zahui found herself on the floor following the charge. She threw her fists at the floor multiple times before getting up, clearly feeling it.

On Friday, in addition to four Amanda Zahui threes, New York’s center registered two Amanda Zahui blocks, including her 100th overall while one-on-one with Meesseman. The New York posts allowed Hines-Allen and Meesseman to take seven free throws total, a number Hopkins was proud of.

“They did a good job in the post,” he said in a postgame video conference. “Guarding one on one, because that’s a tough matchup if it’s Hines-Allen, or if it’s Meesseman, they are fantastic and so I just thought they really brought it and avoided fouling, especially in key moments.”

The Liberty’s head coach was also encouraged by the effort guarding the Mystics’ pick and roll. The bigs were “tremendous” and stayed vertical rather than swinging for shot blocks.

Zahui didn’t only step up from behind the arc or on the boards, she also played effective zone coverages while creating space for guards and wings to be able to slide under screens and chase the ball-handler off the three-point line. On Friday, Zahui’s feet never stopped moving. She wasn’t stagnant. And although she fouled Meesseman late in the third, Zahui’s quickness to close out the Belgian forward was unlike any New York defensive effort this season.

“The defense of ball screens and making sure my guards get the help they need,” said Zahui B. on what she felt like she contributed on the defensive end. “The women in this league set great screens, so it’s my job to protect them and, you know, help them out but also rebounding definitely. I haven’t been rebounding like I’m supposed to.”

How can New York keep the momentum going?

Right now, I’m not sure. Coach Hopkins did remind his group that reducing turnovers ought to be a goal moving forward, as 18 against Washington is too many.

But announcing that Paris Kea will join the team next week, should take some weight off of Clarendon, and will allow Jazmine Jones to return to her duties off the ball.

While Kea played in limited minutes with the Indiana Fever in 2019, she made a significant impact against the Liberty, which I’m sure wasn’t forgotten. With Indiana, she shot over 55 percent from three and over 40 percent from the field overall. While that’s a small sample size, she was relatively efficient in her years as a North Carolina Tar heel, averaging a tad under 35 percent from long and shooting over 46 percent from the field overall.

Kea is used to playing on smaller teams that are a bit quicker and much more athletic. While calling a UNC game against Duke in January 2018, Lachina Robinson said that what the Tar Heels “lacks in size, they have in speed.” What stands out about this signing is that Kea has some professional experience and she won’t be arriving to Bradenton next week blind to the size and speed of the WNBA. But she’s also young enough to be willing to buy into the ‘New Era’ system.

While Friday night was focused on the rise of the young vets, the rookies made an impression in smaller doses. Jocelyn Willoughby continued to play tough defense, slithering through screens. Kylee Shook is setting steadier screens and Neah Odom and Joyner Holmes establish themselves as active on the offensive glass.

But in addition to some changes in personnel that should help rather than hinder, an objective for the Liberty is how will they maintain high morale amid more growing pains and more frustrating losses?

Clarendon sees that in order to move forward, the entire roster needs to embrace a “reprogramming.” From the emotional team meeting on Thursday, the veteran point guard learned that a lot of self-doubts still exists on this young team. Players were timid to try something new and make a mistake.

“We realized we just need to believe in ourselves and each other and there was a lot of doubting…and so it’s kind of a reprogramming for everybody to realize like you can play competent, you can play free,” she said. This coach isn’t going to rip you out of the game if you make one mistake or you try one new move and turn the ball over because we’re going to celebrate the little growth things and that’s in sports particularly that’s not a style of play that a lot of coaches celebrate and look at.”

The Liberty were rather loud about how much they leaned on each other to garner their first win.

When Holly Rowe interviewed the trio of New York vets in Clarendon, Zahui B., and Nurse postgame, she asked Nurse in particular how she was able to rejuvenate her offense in the second half.

“My teammates fueled it,” Nurse replied. “They got me on back cuts, they got me on positions where I…”

Zahui B. looked directly at Rowe’s phone camera and pointed to herself saying “I did that.”

“was mostly successful. Yeah, mainly her…” Nurse pointed to Zahui while Clarendon whispered chuckled: “I passed it to Amanda.”

“…and that fueled it.”

Written by Jackie Powell

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