July 2, 2023 

Against the WNBA’s best, the Liberty are still a work in progress

New York flashed its sky-high potential and saw its worst flaws exposed

In just five days, the New York Liberty played all of the teams within the top tier of the WNBA in a row. And the Liberty knew it was a chance to see who they are in the current moment —both in what they do well and what they still need to work on.

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Heading into the three-game gauntlet, Jonquel Jones felt the team needed to start well and she and her teammates needed to treat rest and recovery seriously if they were going to be able to play at their best against the best. Kayla Thornton chalked it up to staying ready and not taking a foot off the gas.

“We just have to be ready, all 10 of us,” Thornton said. (Yes, 10. Currently the Liberty are without injured backup center Stefanie Dolson and Han Xu, who is still competing in the Asia Cup in Sydney, Australia. Dolson turned her ankle in a nasty sprain in the final moments of the Liberty’s 110-80 win over the Dream in Atlanta. Since New York had under 10 players available, the Liberty brought back reserve guard Epiphanny Prince to round out the group.)

The three-game stretch took them from at home against Washington on Sunday, a bus ride up to Connecticut for Tuesday and a 12-hour travel trip across the country (from Hartford to Atlanta to Las Vegas) to face the defending champions on Thursday.

After an overtime classic, a return to Jones’ former home and the first “superteam” showdown of 2023, the Liberty ended up with two gritty wins and one blowout loss. And it’s clear that the Liberty can play at their best in crunch time, are adjusting and buying into their roles and are going to have to communicate better and pay closer attention on the defensive side of the ball.

Who the Liberty can be in clutch situations

From June 25-29, the Liberty played the most clutch minutes in the WNBA with 13. Clutch statistics are tallied when the scoring margin is within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining in a game, and includes overtime periods which are five minutes each.

Of course, most of those minutes came during their Sunday matinee matchup on ABC against the Mystics. In nine clutch minutes on Sunday, New York posted an offensive rating of 125, a defensive rating of 105.6, a 19.4 net rating and a true shooting percentage of 60.5.

Overall, in the 13 clutch minutes, the Liberty had 27 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, almost a clutch time triple-double. The head of that near clutch time triple-double snake was Sabrina Ionescu who shot 3-for-5 from three, highlighted by a right wing triple with a minute left in regulation against Washington.

“A lot of the time in the past this team has just crumbled and I think we understand what we’re playing for: we’re playing for one another,” Ionescu said after Sunday’s matchup against the Mystics. “And when you do that through times of adversity, when things are clicking, that just comes naturally. And so late in the game we were able to figure out our spots, who we want to get the ball to and just reading [the defense]. We had a lot of options.”

And they did. It wasn’t just Ionescu who was able to make clutch plays. While both Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot shot a combined 9-for-29 from the field against Washington, they made the clutch plays they often have over their storied careers.

In the final seconds of regulation, Vandersloot slashed through the lane twice, getting fouled the first time and shooting 1-for-2 at from the line. And then with around nine seconds left, she zipped across the court, got a screen from Thornton following a handoff and tied the game driving right into an open lane.

Stewart then took over in the extra frame, with a mindset of: “All right, fresh start. Five minute game. Nothing in the first quarter matters.” With 23.4 seconds left in overtime and the Liberty down just two points, 88-86, Stewart received the sideline inbound pass from Ionescu, took three dribbles and a leap to burst past Elena Delle Donne and score. While Tianna Hawkins made an effort to help Delle Donne and attempt to take the charge, Hawkins was too late and in the restricted area. Contact, basket, and-one. The ensuing made free throw was the Liberty’s game-winning point.

But clutch plays aren’t just made on offense, and following Stewart’s and-one, the Liberty still had to get stops. New York turned to Thornton to do so, and she was able to make both Delle Donne and Myisha Hines-Allen uncomfortable in two straight plays that won New York the game.

First Thornton was able to force Delle Donne into a difficult angle while hoisting her fadeaway. Thornton had let Delle Donne score on two other possessions in this game and according to Thornton there was no way she was going to score on her again. “I told myself, she ain’t gonna get another one,” she said postgame. And while Hines-Allen was able to cut toward the basket and receive Natasha Cloud’s pass without anyone in front of her, Thornton didn’t give up on the play and got on her opponent’s hip enough to make Hines-Allen’s layup only touch the backboard.

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Courtney Vandersloot (left) and Kayla Thornton (right) celebrate after New York Liberty defeat the Washington Mystics 89-88 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on June 25, 2023. (Photo Credit: Brandon Todd/New York Liberty)

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How players are figuring out their roles

The only four clutch minutes came two days later, up I-95 in Uncasville against the Sun. But while New York’s win over Connecticut also revealed a veteran poise and an ability to create and execute game-winning plays, the central takeaway was how players not named Ionescu, Vandersloot and Stewart stepped up.

While Jones had 10 boards in the Liberty’s overtime win over the Mystics, she didn’t play her best, with head coach Sandy Brondello saying she looked “a little out of sorts” defensively. She was subbed out by Thornton with 3:36 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Stewart moved to the five spot and Thornton moved over to the four, which gave the Liberty more versatility and more toughness. “KT allows us to switch a bit better,” Brondello said.

But two days later Jones returned to Uncasville for the first time as an opponent. It felt strange, but also people in Connecticut were welcoming and happy to see her. Similarly to what Vandersloot and Stewart dealt with weeks ago, memories swelled up Jones, especially as the Sun honored their former MVP with a tribute video pregame.

Jones’ numbers may be down so far this year due to a foot injury that affected her conditioning, but she reminded the fans in Connecticut on Tuesday night why she won an MVP in this league. In 32 minutes, her largest total this season, Jones put up a 14-11 double-double on 6-for-9 shooting, including two assists and four blocks.

And the Liberty were much more aware of Jones’ mismatches in the paint, when making sure that Jones got the ball when either the 6’2 Rebecca Allen or even Tiffany Hayes, who’s even smaller at 5’10, were switched onto the 6’6 Jones. That height also came in clutch on the other end, as her rim protection sealed the game for the Liberty.

And then less than a minute after that late-game stop, Jones recorded her fourth block. She rotated into the paint to knock the ball out of Ty Harris’ hands after two screens in a row from both Alyssa Thomas and Bonner. Jones’ ability to rotate and help was critical on Tuesday night and will be critical for the Liberty throughout this 2023 campaign. We’ll come back to this.

On the perimeter, it was Betnijah Laney and Thornton who really proved that they can adapt to whatever Brondello needs from both wings.

On Tuesday night, Laney scored 16 points and shot 3-6 from three, including one dagger of a shot that came with 2:27 minutes left in regulation. On a baseline out-of-bounds play, Laney cut from the key to the left wing and Vandersloot found her for an open catch and shoot trey. DiJonai Carrington completely lost her player while bumping into Bonner on the baseline.

Laney began the season 4-14 from three, but since June 11, Laney has shot 18-37 from beyond the arc (48.6%). Overall this season, Laney has made 43.1% of her 3-point attempts, and she falls within the 93 percentile via Her Hoop Stats.

Laney wasn’t used to getting so many open looks. To begin the season, she would drive from the wing, expecting a closeout, rather than just letting it fly.

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New York Liberty guard Betnijah Laney (44) shoots during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 27, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

“I think it was just an adjustment for everybody including her,” Vandersloot said postgame on Tuesday. “We kept pumping her up telling her ‘look, you’re gonna get open threes. We want you to take them. We believe that you can take them.’ That was kind of a new thing for her. I think that she wasn’t as comfortable taking catch-and-shoot two threes as much and we were telling her we want her to shoot those.”

For Thornton, the adjustment as of late has been as a result of injury. Following Dolson’s right ankle sprain that will keep her out for weeks, Thornton has been getting more minutes at the four while Stewart has switched to the five — though the Liberty did try Nyara Sabally for a bit, but the rookie struggled in executing the Liberty’s pick and roll defensive coverages against both Washington and Connecticut. Her defensive rating for both of those games cumulatively was 123.9.

As Thornton’s role shifts to cover for Dolson’s absence, the Liberty’s defensive stopper is still doing what she does best: creating winning plays. In addition to locking down Carrington during the final minutes on Tuesday night, Thornton made a play on offense that really impressed Brondello and shocked the Connecticut Sun.

“What she always brings is consistent day in and day out,” Brondello said. “And that’s what, you can rely on her in any situation. You know I complimented her. She’s not much of a, she’s not very much in pick and rolls, but she certainly did make a big shot right near the end.”

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Sabrina Ionescu (20) contests Kelsey Plum’s(10) shot at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas, NV on June 29, 2023. (Photo Credit: Brandon Todd/New York Liberty.)

What the Liberty can look like at their worst

Before the Liberty took on the Atlanta Dream on the road on June 23, Brondello sounded rather confident when asked about the team’s strengths and weaknesses after a quarter of the season.

“I don’t think we have any weaknesses,” she replied. “We have a lot of strengths. There are areas that we can obviously improve on. I think it’s just consistency… But when some games we’re great at that and others when we’re not as taking care of those little details, that’s when we lose games.”

While the Liberty began their quest with two wins, there were some bubbling issues even in the wins that came to a head against the Aces. From June 25-29 via WNBA Advanced Stats, the Liberty across the entire WNBA were:

  • 9th in opponent points off turnovers (18.3)
  • 11th in points in the paint (45.3)
  • 12 in steals per game (5.3)
  • 11th in opponent turnover percentage (11.6)
  • 10th in opponent effective field goal percentage (53.5)

Even though the Liberty made smart and well-executed defensive plays to beat Washington and Connecticut, their defense wasn’t up to par in either game. There were miscues on switches and a lack of communication on the help side.

Prior to the first battle of the super teams on Thursday night, Vandersloot knew that the team that defended with the most urgency was going to end up with the victory. “To win the game, you have to defend,” she said. But after a 12-hour commute to get to Las Vegas to play a late night game, all that was mediocre and not great from earlier in the week looked worse.

The New York Liberty and their coaches all huddle with their hands in the middle during a timeout.
New York Liberty huddle during a timeout against the Washington Mystics 89-88 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on June 25, 2023. (Photo Credit: Brandon Todd/New York Liberty)

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New York didn’t have its most fluid offense in the first half, with very little off-ball movement, but a 51.4% rate from the field allowed them to stay within single digits at halftime.

And on the defensive end, Vegas’ high-powered, fast-paced offense can test any opponent —but especially when a team struggles to score.

“I think there’s some players who are more motivated offensively when their defense is going well and they’re getting stops, that energizes them,” guard Jocelyn Willoughby said on June 13. “And there’s some players who you know, when they see the ball go and it gives them more energy on the defensive end.”

In the second half, the Aces’ defense collapsed in the paint, and New York’s stagnant play led to a lot more missed shots. The third quarter result: 33.3% shooting from the field, and the Aces nearly doubling New York up, 27-14.

The Aces also attacked a lot of matchups where Ionescu was guarding an Aces player one-on-one. While Brondello has seen improvement in her defense since she began coaching the young guard, Ionescu noted herself pregame that she’s “not where” she wants to be. New York was also more than a step slower to help and rotate, with New York’s post players often standing and watching the ball while Ionescu, Vandersloot and Marine Johannès continued to get beat on slashes to the basket.

Since the start of Brondello’s tenure in New York, she’s preached that it’s all about team defense rather than it falling just on one person. The same goes here. The Liberty didn’t crowd the Aces. The Liberty weren’t physical enough against the Aces. And they certainly didn’t give their full effort against the Aces.

“I didn’t think we brought the appropriate mindset to compete in all their movement off the ball and there wasn’t enough communication, Brondello said. “We weren’t on the same page. We allowed things too easy, 50 points in the paint.”

The other crucial number in the 98-81 blowout: the Liberty turned the ball over 17 times leading to 21 total points for the Aces.

“A lot of the snowballing is things that we can control and just being a little bit sharper, and understanding that you know, when you’re playing against a team like them, the margin of error is pretty small,” Jones said.

In the Liberty’s third game in five days, they were exhausted and they clearly didn’t play at their best. But they also didn’t use the travel and fatigue as an excuse for getting blown out by their budding West Coast rival.

“It’s about looking in the mirror and seeing how we each individually can be better,” Willoughby said. “And I think a big thing that showed tonight is just taking more pride in our defense, being a little bit more physical, more aggressive and being disruptive.”

In five days, the Liberty learned a lot about who they are right now and who they want to be by the next time they face off against the Aces in over a month’s time —and, if they can achieve their goals, perhaps even in the final games of the WNBA’s season.

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.

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