August 29, 2020 

Walt Hopkins is ‘so damn proud’

What propelled the New York Liberty to win number two, and how can this momentum continue?

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Amanda Zahui B #17 of the New York Liberty drives to the basket during the game against the Chicago Sky on August 25, 2020, at FeldEntertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

The word proud was used six times in New York Liberty postgame on Tuesday evening. Head Coach Walt Hopkins uttered the word four times, while Amanda Zahui B. said it twice.

It was more than just a 101-99 win over the Chicago Sky that Hopkins and Zahui B. were proud of. Hopkins was moved by Jocelyn Willoughby’s perseverance. Dwindling minutes and self-inflicted frustration didn’t stop the rookie on Tuesday from having a career night against the Sky. Hopkins was encouraged by how New York took care of the ball, turning it over 12 times, 8 turnovers less than their per game average.

Zahui B. was proud of Kylee Shook, who didn’t let a frustrating quarter on defense bog her down. She turned that angst into two quarter ending buzzer-beating jumpers along with limiting Stefanie Dolson’s impact on the block.

The Liberty had 26 assists, which is around 10 assists over their team average per game. New York played for each other by moving the ball and finding the open player, which has been a goal for Hopkins ever since he addressed the media seven months ago at Barclays Center in January.

Zahui B., who usually discusses her performance with humility, flexed. She announced postgame that her pass to Kiah Stokes with 31 seconds left in regulation “was a great ass assist.”

“Any other team would have probably folded a long time ago,” she told reporters following the victory. “And that’s just so how tough we really are. And I’m so proud of them. Every single one of them, you know, our bench, they were hella loud. I heard them every single second of the game.”

What did New York do to beat Chicago?

So how exactly did the Liberty beat the team with the highest true shooting percentage in the league? Chicago Sky head coach James Wade explained postgame that his team’s offense didn’t play to its identity and were hesitant to drive and kick the basketball. (That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) He contended that Chicago’s defense gave New York confidence early. While that’s true, that’s not the entire story.

“We knew they were going to play hard for 40 minutes no matter the score,” Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot said of the Liberty postgame. “So I think we relaxed a little bit and they kept fighting. They took the momentum out of the game and we never got it back.”

According to Hopkins, the Liberty also played hard in their first contest against Chicago last week. He was pleased with their constant motor amid the final score and Chicago shooting over 52 percent from the field. But what changed in round two was the healthy combination of effort, energy, and execution, which was missing from New York’s 101-85 loss in round one.

It was the Liberty’s identity that emerged once again, appearing for the first time since Sunday, August 9th in a game against the Las Vegas Aces that wasn’t even a win. So, what does that identity look like on paper and how should the box read in years to come?

Shooting over 45 percent from the field and three

When asked about shooting 14-30 from three, before any sort of response, Layshia Clarendon raised their fists above their head in celebration and smiled.

“It’s a big confidence booster like it feels like oh my god we won a playoff game or a championship game or something big because that’s how hard it is to win this league,” Clarendon said. “And we obviously have been in a losing streak so just the confidence that we’re building for.”

In the win, four Liberty players shot at least 40 percent from three including a 4-7 performance from Amanda Zahui B., 2-4 from Paris Kea who’s only been on this team for a week, and a perfect 3-3 performance from Jocelyn Willoughby from deep. Kiah Stokes and Clarendon added too more threes and Nurse drained one from the “parking lot” (a Walt Hopkins-ism) in the middle of the third quarter to get the Liberty within three points.

“It’s huge for individual confidence and it’s huge as a team because we want to shoot a lot of threes that’s a part of our identity, and we don’t want to get away from that because we’re missing them,” Clarendon said. “But we finally saw them go down so it just felt good, it felt really good.”

Before the game, head coach Hopkins told the team that against the Sky on August 20, the Liberty took around 19 threes which he believed wasn’t enough. He needs this team shooting the three not only for 2020 but to build for the future. “What I told them is that we’re focused on growth for the coming years,” Hopkins said. “And we have to make this system work the way that it’s gonna work in the future. And so, I don’t want them to stop shooting the three.” 

Controlling the paint for 3 of 4 quarters

Existence in the paint for the Liberty has been a point of contention in 2020. Pundits and broadcasters have been miffed by how little the Liberty have used the paint in the majority of this Wubble season. But after a first-quarter that appeared very similar to the rest with New York getting out-scored in the paint 18-2, the Liberty found a way to not only infiltrate the lane on offense, but they weathered the Sky’s initial storm on defense.

Graph made by Jackie Powell on google sheets.

New York finished the game 17-30 from the field on attempts in the paint to Chicago’s 15-31. While Kylee Shook was roughed up by both Ruthy Hebard and Cheyenne Parker in the first quarter who were responsible for 4 of 9 makes in the paint, Shook gained her confidence and prevented Stefanie Dolson from even taking a shot in the restricted area for the final three quarters.

Taking care of the ball and turning the ball over less than 20 times

Back in July, the acrobatic pass that Jazmine Jones made to Kylee Shook with 11 seconds left on the shot clock against the Sky on Tuesday night probably wouldn’t have resulted in a wide-open make from three from Paris Kea. Well, Paris Kea wasn’t even on the team then, but the point is, the Liberty could get a shot off, something they’ve struggled with.

Against Chicago, the Liberty turned it over 12 times. While that isn’t their lowest aggregation of turnovers this season, (seven against the Fever on August 13), the guards and the usual suspects involved improved.

Zahui B. who has struggled taking care of the ball finished the game on Tuesday with zero turnovers, the first time since August 9 against Vegas that she finished with a goose egg.

While Kiah Stokes was the problem child with four turnovers, Layshia Clarendon brought her turnovers total down to three after going six total games giving up four or more. Rookie Jazmine Jones finished with only one give away after turning it over 13 times in her past three games.

26 assists measures improvement in ball-movement

Except for Megan Walker, every player who touched the floor for the Liberty had an assist. Layshia Clarendon dished out five and Kia Nurse finished in second place with four dimes of her own. For Walt Hopkins, Nurse’s ball distribution was significant.

“She was one of seven from the field but she had four assists and, and they were all huge,” he said.

Stokes, Willoughby, Zahui B., and Jones all had three apiece. Two of Jones’ dimes were to Kylee Shook (surprise, surprise). In the last three games, the Liberty sit at fifth in the league in assist percentage and assist ratio. In the entire 2020 season, however, New York only trails the Dallas Wings for the highest percent of 2 Point Field Goals Made Assisted with 50.6. The more ball movement, the better New York can be.

Looking beyond the boxscore: How were the Liberty able to execute?

Kia Nurse #5 of the New York Liberty handles the ball during the game against the Chicago Sky on August 25, 2020, at Feld EntertainmentCenter in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via GettyImages.

The Liberty’s “New Era” system– (I’ll stop saying this when it’s 2021, I promise)–has been based on shooters getting good looks from deep that aren’t contested in addition to getting easy twos close to the basket.

What has halted the Liberty from achieving both prerequisites has been open looks just not falling and over penetrating. According to Hopkins, Tuesday was the first obvious occasion that the open looks that the Liberty had been getting all season long finally fell.

To get those open looks, however, the Liberty had to penetrate, but not over-penetrate. New York has been learning how to multi-task: How do they survey the floor as they drive? How do they know where their teammates are without really having to turn a head? It’s not easy.

In addition to open looks on the perimeter or open jumpers off the pick-and-roll, the Liberty found a way to drive and finish on easy twos. Amanda Zahui B.’s performance personifies this. When Azurá Stevens scored 25 on New York in the first contest, she executed exactly how Zahui B. needed to be. Before Tuesday she had been stagnant on the outside and not taking advantage of her size on backdoor cuts or even post-ups.

“Well, I feel like the whole league knows that I can shoot the ball so I’ve just been trying to work on being more aggressive off the ball, cutting, you know backdoors,” Zahui B. told Carolyn Peck after the game. “And then just taking the bigger posts off the dribble. That’s kind of what I meditated yesterday.”

Hopkins assessed postgame that the Liberty found a way to break down the Sky’s defense not only on pick-and-roll but also on one-on-one off the dribble sets. “Our team did that and again we’ve done that a lot during the year, but what we’ve missed is the open player once we draw the defense,” he said.

But to get those shots to fall and have even the opportunity to find the open player, New York *had to* take care of the ball. So how did they do it better against the Sky?

Before the game, Hopkins mentioned how an adjustment they’ve made is really trying to figure out which offensive sets are most comfortable for specific players. Kia Nurse for instance is still adjusting to more pick-and-roll style play and Hopkins has recognized that. A goal with Nurse and with the rest of the roster has been to get them involved in “a larger percentage of actions where they feel comfortable and confident.”

After the game, Hopkins expanded upon Nurse’s progress and he acknowledged that her ability to secure the ball going into the lane is something she’s been working on in practices, in workouts, and film sessions.

“Each individual is getting hung up on different things and tonight, Kia Nurse kept her dribble alive in the paint and she had ball security when she got in there, looked around and she surveyed the court,” he said.

The Liberty’s patience on offense contributed not only to their ability to take a bit more care of the ball, but the ball movement also came with patience. Against Chicago, the Liberty didn’t bail or settle. The team collectively surveyed the defense, read it, and reacted to everyone on the floor.

Clarendon, who Hopkins has noted tends to over-penetrate, made sure on multiple offensive sets that the ball touched at least three different hands before a shot. In addition to Clarendon, rookies Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook played with poise and patience as well. Shook made the Sky pay twice at the end of the odd quarters.

“She hit a couple of late shot clock shot fake pull up jumpers that were,” Hopkins said of Shook. “I mean, you know the difference in the game. She doesn’t make those shots, who knows what happens. So obviously Shook’s 4-7 from the fields is big time.”

What was super impressive about Shook in both highlights was how she was able to take what the defense was giving her and was able to adjust on the fly in milliseconds. In the first clip, she had a mismatch, but she was being guarded by Sydney Colson, one of the most underrated defenders in the league.

On Shook’s second buzzer-beater, she was outsized by Dolson, but Shook had been beating Dolson on the defensive end and well she proved she could defeat her on offense as well. I guess this is what reading and reacting looks like?

While most of what New York improved upon and executed was offensive, they did move in the right direction on defense. The Liberty are not only moving under screens but now are sliding over them.

With .18 seconds left in the first quarter, Jaz Jones went over Ruthy Hebard’s screen, executed quickly enough to chase Allie Quigley, who had to pass to Sydney Colson after bumping into Kylee Shook. Kia Nurse tried to swat Colson’s handle and then Paris Kea jumped over Colson to interrupt the accuracy of the pass to Hebard. Jocelyn Willoughby even found a way to hop over the Dolson screen in the fourth quarter, which as the Las Vegas Aces know, that’s very hard to do.

After the game, Clarendon discussed the team’s controllables on defense, and how in the first half, New York aimed to do whatever it could to give up fewer points before halftime in this second go-round against Chicago. They gave up 49 rather than 57, mission accomplished.

Jazmine Jones #4 of the New York Liberty looks to pass the ball against the Connecticut Sun on August 22, 2020 at Feld EntertainmentCenter in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Is this only the beginning? How do the Liberty build on this?

The Sky’s style of defense represents how the Liberty might be able to continue to build on this win. New York will play more than half of their remaining games against teams that aren’t well ranked defensively, including the Atlanta Dream, the Indiana Fever, the Dallas Wings, the Washington Mystics, and a Brittney Griner-less Phoenix Mercury.

The Liberty’s two wins have come against two teams not known for defense. A detached defense can give New York confidence and that’s partially what happened on Tuesday night.

Also, Hopkins must continue to give minutes to the first years. Look at what happened when Jocelyn Willoughby got 17 minutes in a game?

“Joc is so tough,” Zahui B. told reporters following the win. “And she wants it so bad and she’s been locked in. You know she got a couple of games when she had more minutes and then she started, she was being taken off the starting lineup, and her minutes dropped, and she has never stopped working.”

Zahui B. had a twinkle in her eyes when she talked about Willoughby and her journey. She explained that Willoughby’s work ethic and her behavior in practice is way beyond her years. “[Willoughby] is probably with me, one of the loudest people in practice,” she said. “To see her just blossom tonight, it’s beautiful.”

Speaking of communication, that’s another non-negotiable for the Liberty if they want to continue this momentum. Clarendon explained how although Zahui B.’s box score represented her performance, there are other indicators that determine her success.

“And then something that doesn’t show up in the box score with Zahui is how much she talks defensively,” they said. “She literally like tells you where to go. She’s like: ‘I’m with you Lay, I got you, switch out.’ Her chatter gives us so much confidence as guards and as a team on defense and that I think that is one of her biggest assets that doesn’t even show up.”

I counted the word proud six times total in my transcript, and there was a whole lot to be proud of. But Hopkins noted that this performance against Chicago was “a better look, but it’s gonna get better.”

Written by Jackie Powell

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