October 9, 2023
Marine Johannès had a moment in first WNBA Finals appearance
The rest of the New York Liberty guards struggled Game 1 of the WNBA Finals
LAS VEGAS — After the Liberty beat the Connecticut Sun in dramatic back-and-forth fashion 87-84 on Oct. 1, head coach Sandy Brondello had a chat with Marine Johannès. The French guard didn’t play a single minute in Game 4 of the semifinals after playing a measured but impactful role in the Liberty’s Game 3 victory over the Sun.
While the decision might have been schematic and as a result of how physically Connecticut plays—especially with their backs against the wall— it was a move on Brondello’s part that led to questions of how the Liberty can beat the Aces in the finals if they don’t utilize their talent on the bench.
But prior to tipoff on Sunday morning, Brondello set the record straight on Johannès and the role of the bench during this series against the Aces. The Aces, of course, are a team that New York’s first two players off the bench, Johannès and Kayla Thornton, have had success against during the two teams’ five regular-season meetings.
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“I think this is a game that we can go to the bench,” she said pregame. “We’re trying to win a very physical series. So we went with what obviously worked best. I think Marine could have got probably more minutes if anyone. But Marine’s good to go.”
When Brondello and Johannès chatted about the finals, they agreed that it would require Johannès’ highest level of focus. They preached the basketball cliché of “just staying ready” in that conversation. Brondello needed her French guard to know that her time would come. “She was saying that I have to stay ready and I always have a positive impact against Vegas,” Johannès said to a group of reporters following the Liberty’s Game 1 loss.
With the Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu struggling defensively, especially on closeouts of Aces guards Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young, Brondello subbed in Johannès with under five minutes left in the first quarter. The Liberty got five straight stops following the two Aces threes from Gray and Young. At first, Johannès entered the game playing honest defense. She used her long arms to guard Kelsey Plum’s lane to the rim and then fought over an A’ja Wilson screen to meet Young on the other side of it.
But then, with 3:46 left on the clock in the first, it was her time to impact the game in other ways. After the Young miss, Johannès was flying around the full 92 feet. Once she ran to the quarter court, that movement continued horizontally and then she found a seam running off a Jonquel Jones screen. Courtney Vandersloot rewarded the cutter and Johannès was on the board.
After another Johannès stop, while guarding Kelsey Plum, the French guard was off to the races, running down the floor with gazelle-like strides. Breanna Stewart pushed the ball to Johannès in rhythm once she was right behind the arc. Wilson, the two-time defensive player of the year, stepped out to guard her, but Johannès’ leaning three was too much for Wilson. All of a sudden, a 5-0 Johannès run gave the Liberty their first lead, and Aces head coach Becky Hammon immediately called a timeout. Johannès entered the game like it was a new season with a clean slate. This was her first WNBA finals, but it didn’t look like it. She was running everywhere and Las Vegas had difficulty trying to stop her.
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Around two minutes later, it was heat check time for Johannès. Even with Young guarding her, Breanna Stewart’s screen allowed the French guard to get enough separation and hit another off-balance shot. It was her second three of the quarter. “Marine came out and was Marine,” Brondello said.
And as the first half continued, the more “Marine” Johannès got. The first half of the 2023 WNBA Finals was punch-for-punch, back-and-forth and back-and-forth. The Liberty extended their lead to 33-25 at the beginning of the second quarter. But then, when the Aces tied it up at 35, Johannès was back and ready to continue what she had started.
It began with an ATO drawn up by Brondello with Johannès inbounding the ball. She set a flare screen for Stewart to try and get Alysha Clark off the 2023 MVP, but that didn’t work. Clark stayed glued to Stewart. She then ran around the physicality of Young with some help from the Jonquel Jones screen. After another Jones screen but with Johannès on the ball this time after receiving the ball from Vandersloot, Wilson switched with Young so she could be on Johannès. It didn’t matter. Once again, the reigning DPOY couldn’t stop MJ as she faded away on another wing three to give the Liberty a three-point lead.
A minute later, the show reached its peak when Johannès got the ball right away from Ionescu and Jones set a high screen right in the middle of the floor. Plum was met with too much resistance on the Jones screen, and by the time Johannès was into her shooting motion, Plum was still feet behind. Again, Johannès shot and made it over Wilson. But this time, it was on one leg, something so emblematic of the flare she brings to the game.
“Apparently, Johannès really likes to play against us,” Hammon said postgame. “She hit tough ones. I mean, I don’t know if you guys know like Jose Alvarado, like La Bomba from Spain, shooting a one-legged three. I’m just… a huge fan other than when she’s playing us.”
Johannès put up 14 points in the first half. She was having a moment on one of the largest stages in the world, and she did it her way.
But it wasn’t just the shot-making in that second quarter, it was also her facilitation to Stewart serving as a decoy to draw Wilson away. That included a leaning pass over Wilson to hit Stewart under the basket.
She also had a desire to play hard even when she made a mistake. With 4:15 left in the third quarter, Johannès tried to whip a pass to Jones while she was rolling to the basket. But Johannès couldn’t get it high enough and it bounced right into Young’s arms. Instead of getting down on herself, which has in the past been a pattern, Johannès recognized that Young had a handle on the ball and she was off to the races. Ionescu joined her down at the other end and the two of them put up a wall to stop Young from scoring in transition and drawing another foul.
“I made some mistakes, but I tried my best to keep going,” Johannès said postgame. “I had some tough shots going in. So sometimes it will happen. You’ve got a little bit of luck. I’m just trying to help the team. I’m trying to stay focused and play with confidence.”
And that she did, but then what happened? The 14 she scored in the first half was it. The magic fairy dust faded, or rather, was swept away by the Aces. “What they did in the second half, they trapped her,” Brondello said. “They took the ball out of her hands, which is what I would have done too. When a team is making shots like that and they made someone else and they rotated, you know, credit to them. Their defense was as good as I’ve ever seen it.”
Johannès did her job. But what about the Liberty’s other guards?
Johannès’ magic in the first half was accompanied by lackluster performances from the three other backcourt threats she’s supposed to accompany.
Ionescu, Laney and Vandersloot combined to score 10 points in the first half alongside Johannès’ 14. In the second half, that trio scored a combined 18 points. The Liberty’s guards, including wing Laney, scored 42 total points to the Aces’ 71.
Defensively, the Liberty didn’t guard the Aces’ backcourt trio of Young, Kelsey Plum and Gray well. Brondello equated it to being one step slower than the Aces and their movement on and off the ball got the Liberty out of position on their closeouts. But offensively, their performance wasn’t enough.
“Our guards, they just had a little bit of a tough night,” Brondello said. “That’s not going to happen two games in a row. We believe in them. They’ve carried us all season long. We’ll still put the ball in their hands and we want them to be confident and do what they do.”
Both Brondello and Stewart stressed ways they could help the New York guards. Ionescu needed more open looks from deep to get into a rhythm. Stewart and Jones needed to protect the paint better and provide a better second line of defense when the Aces’ guards penetrated. They will also need to set screens “a little bit differently,” according to Stewart. The Aces guards went under the Liberty’s ball screens and prevented open driving lanes for Laney and Vandersloot, specifically.
Back to Johannès for a moment. As Brondello noted, the way the Aces responded to her show-stopping shot-making was a rational approach, but the Liberty were built to have many capable threats. So what happened?
Vandersloot, as the general or the central nervous system of this team, took accountability. She agreed with Brondello about needing to get Ionescu more shots, but was also critical of how Laney wasn’t as involved in the offense.
“We all need to do our jobs and I don’t think we did that,” she said postgame. “We need to find ways to get Sabrina more shots. She’s got to find ways to be aggressive and get those shots. We have to get Betnijah involved. She’s carried us through the last half of the season. We need to continue to rely on that. I have to get more paint touches. I just wasn’t aggressive enough, settled a little bit.”
The Liberty’s performance on Sunday afternoon was incredibly reminiscent of how New York began their season and their season series against the Aces. Early on, they rode the hot shooting hand (previously Ionescu and Johannès on Sunday) along with Stewart creating a clutch offense that fueled her 2023 MVP case. When the Liberty are at their most shaky, they grow impatient with either their shots not falling or a comeback not happening. The Liberty tried shoot their way back into the game in the third quarter but could not. Trigger happiness trickled back.
“I think that in the second half, the ball stopped and got stuck a little bit and that made it easier for them to clog the paint on [Jones] or myself,” Stewart said. “And we just need to continue and keep moving and trust what got us here.”
Trust will be key for the Liberty moving forward, looking to tie the series on Wednesday before traveling to Brooklyn. Both Vandersloot and Johannès operated out of a mindset postgame that there was no need to panic. If it’s the season opener, the first against the Aces, or the first game of the semifinals, losing the first game is something that the Liberty are privy to. Brondello spouted out loudly and clearly that between the regular season and postseason, the Liberty still haven’t lost two in a row. They respond well to losses.
And that was the energy that exuded from Liberty players. While Johannès answered questions from reporters outside of the locker room, Laney didn’t seem panicked either. She even got Johannès’ attention by re-hashing an old inside joke.
“They had a really good game,” Johannès said about the Aces. “We have to admit it, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s a series, so we just have to continue to stay together. Stay connected.”
And that’s exactly what Johannès did when she didn’t earn playing time in Game 4 in Connecticut. She stayed patient and her time came. The Liberty hope that after a productive film session, and a practice or two, theirs will 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.