September 25, 2023
How will the Liberty respond to playing their ‘worst game of the season’?
What contributed to the New York Liberty’s stunning game one semifinal loss to the Connecticut Sun
BROOKLYN — There was no sense of relief in the Liberty’s postgame huddle at center court on Sunday afternoon. Breanna Stewart gave a short emphatic speech, using her hands in addition to her words to do the talking. There wasn’t a word from anyone else. Stewart spoke and the team broke from the center and dispersed.
As Stewart walked away from the group, Kayla Thornton made sure to catch her hand. It was an act of reassurance and encouragement and thanks for doing what was most difficult. The home team walked off the court silently. They all walked in a single-file line like schoolchildren who had disappointed their teacher. Sure, head coach Sandy Brondello was disappointed, but the New York Liberty knew they disappointed more than just Brondello. They disappointed the 9,442 people inside the Barclays Center taking refuge from the side effects of tropical storm Ophelia.
The high-flying, high-energy team that fans come to expect in Brooklyn wasn’t there and fully present on a stormy and dark afternoon in New York. The Liberty fell to the Sun 78-63 on their home floor in Game 1 of the 2023 WNBA semifinals. There was a noticeable lack of energy that the team radiated in both the first and third quarters where New York gave up 25 and 28 points, respectively.
“We came out really slow in the first quarter and then the third quarter and it’s been happening in the last few games,” Brondello said postgame. “I think it’s mindset and I think when a bit of frustration sets in, we don’t execute.”
Sometimes frustration and angst lead to success, but not this Sunday afternoon. The Liberty played passive and “into the hands” of the Sun, according to Courtney Vandersloot. After the Liberty established Jonquel Jones early, they responded passively to the Sun’s doubles on their former MVP. That dovetailed into frustration for Jones in particular who expressed her displeasure with how she was being officiated on the ESPN broadcast. “If they want the players to be better, the refs gotta be better at the end of the day,” she said. “If on some plays I’m literally walking out of the play and they’re calling fouls.”
That was in reference to Jones picking up her fourth foul with 2:34 left in the third quarter. The Liberty had just cut the Sun lead to five points following a three on the left wing from Jones. DeWanna Bonner slashed through the lane during the following Sun possession and lightly made contact with Jones. It was a momentum shift that led to a 9-4 Sun run to end the third quarter.
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The third ended with New York down 65-55, a manageable 10-point hole to get out of. But offense continued to be so arduous to come by in the final frame especially. The Liberty took 22 shots to the Sun’s 12, and more than half of those shots were taken by Stewart. She only made two of them. Stewart couldn’t penetrate and create offense in the paint, an approach she took in the previous series against the Mystics when her shots just weren’t falling. But she too was stuck in a well-positioned Connecticut crowd that the Liberty didn’t play well out of. She fired shots off to try to be the hero. These were moments reminiscent of when the Liberty lost leads and games due to becoming “trigger happy” during the first half of the regular season.
“Stewie, she just had too many people around her,” Brondello said about why the Liberty’s bigs just couldn’t generate offense at the rim. “So we’ve got to do better with our spacing, our cutting. You know, and that’s what we’ll work on.”
The Liberty will have a laundry list of items to work on before their quick turnaround matchup back at home on Tuesday night to even the series. But how exactly did they get here and what’s the expectation as to how they will respond?
Why they played at their ‘worst’
Let’s first begin with understanding how the Liberty typically play at their best. Brondello created the Liberty’s scheming on both sides of the ball based on the highly instinctual players that are on their roster. The Liberty’s offense assisted on 74.08 percent of its total field goals made during the regular season, the most in WNBA history.
On Sunday afternoon, not only were the Liberty out-assisted by the sun, but they were held to the lowest field goal percentage (33.8) in 43 games played this season including the playoffs. The last time the Liberty’s field goal percentage was that low was against the Washington Mystics during the first game of the regular season on May 19. That day, New York made 23 field goals, the same exact number of field goals that the team made on Sunday.
Creating ball movement comes from getting into the paint, something the Liberty struggled to do against the Sun. “We talked about just getting to the rim, getting into the paint,” Brondello said postgame. “It’s like we came off it was semi-open but then it closed and then we didn’t know what else to do.”
The Sun intentionally took away driving lanes and mixed in different defensive coverages, making it difficult for the Liberty to make the 0.5 second decisions they usually make. Jones told a group of reporters postgame that she felt like she and her team kept “the ball a little bit longer” than usual and forced actions instead of just keeping the ball moving.
On the defensive end, the Liberty play at their best when Betnijah Laney is comfortable in her matchup and her teammates on the floor are aware and helping, and communicating. Brondello often stresses a team defense rather than trying to defend one-on-one, a philosophy that plays to New York’s strengths.
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The Liberty’s team defense was hard to find on Sunday. Laney battled with effort, but struggled on both ends to not only finish at the rim but to guard her primary matchup in Bonner. That matchup and the lack of help she received didn’t set up Laney for success, especially when Bonner towers over Laney by four inches and has a 7’4 wingspan. Thornton and Stewart defended Bonner well, but by the time that was realized, it was too late. Bonner got the last laugh and scored 20 points, the most of any player on the floor that afternoon.
Brondello admitted to that oversight postgame. “We’re going to have a little bit more versatility and B’s sharp, so you know us coaches just need to put a better game plan in place and be ready to go.”
While Stefanie Dolson played limited minutes on Sunday, she still could pinpoint exactly what didn’t go well for the Liberty when it came to defending Bonner and the rest of the Sun. She saw that her teammates allowed Bonner too much space, went under screens on Bonner and lackadaisically guarded Rebecca Allen, who scored 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting. The Liberty weren’t there for Laney when she needed help. “We all have to have her back and just help her cover more on the ball and off the ball,” she told The Next postgame.
What sucked the energy out of the Liberty?
There was one stat that shocked multiple members of the Liberty on Sunday afternoon. The team had zero fast break points against Connecticut. Brondello wasn’t shocked by it, but Stewart bobbed her head down toward the box score once a reporter uttered the statistic. Once Stewart saw the goose egg, she sneered looking at that stat sheet with disgust.
Brondello took responsibility once again, explaining that the lack of energy and ability to get out and score in transition and inability to get on the glass was a result of how she prepared the team. She contemplated that maybe she overworked the team during their week of practice. She was surprised that her team didn’t regard the effort plays—”the one percenters and the 50-50 balls”— with the same urgency that they did against the Mystics.
“We didn’t have the right mindset,” she said. “And so that’s on me. I’m gonna make sure that I get them ready to play and that we play at a high level that we’re capable of.”
But going back to the case of fast break points and playing in transition. For the Liberty on Sunday it was a bit of a chicken or the egg situation. What’s the key to upping New York’s pace and getting the Sun out of their well-disciplined half-court defense?
Jones felt like she and her team couldn’t create transition opportunities out of their defense. They were just trying to stay in front rather than creating possessions on the other end from that defense. But, the Liberty only made 33.8% of their shots on Sunday. According to Brondello, the way to energize the Liberty’s defense is to fix their offense, and that’s via moving the ball and making better and quicker decisions. So which will it be? It’s both.
“Our best offense is sometimes our best defense, Brondello said pregame on Sunday. “But sometimes it’s the other way around too. Our best defense is sometimes our best offense.”
How do the Liberty respond in the ‘right way’
As the postgame presser continued on, Brondello grew more frustrated. She began smiling to try to ward off the negative emotions she felt. But then once she flashed that neutral face emoji expression, the one with just a straight horizontal line representing the mouth of the face, her frustration was palpable.
But frustration doesn’t yield to a lack of confidence. Brondello voiced a strong public vote of confidence in favor of her team. It was stern but full of belief. She’s been in this situation before and knows what needs to be done.
“We’ll be better next time. I’m 100 percent sure of that,” she said. “That was our worst game of the season. But we’ve got great players and we will have to respond in the right way. It’s a great challenge for us.”
Why is Brondello 100 percent sure of that? It’s actually in the numbers. Each time the Liberty have lost a game this season, they’ve won the following game by an average of 15.88 points. The Liberty’s 8 regular season losses were spread out and not in a row.
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Now what does “responding the right way” mean? This was a phrase that not only Brondello used but Dolson uttered as well. It means learning from mistakes, executing correctly and making mistakes— when they happen—with confidence rather than with deference. “Even if we make mistakes, we make them aggressively,” Dolson said. “I think tonight we made mistakes, but they weren’t our most aggressive.”
Jones added: “Mindset-wise it just wasn’t there today. And going into the next game we can’t allow that, we won’t allow that to happen.” That’s the type of conviction that New York expects of themselves on Tuesday evening.
Following what was a painful and embarrassing postgame press conference for Brondello and Stewart, the pair walked off back toward their locker room but stopped near the docking area to meet and debrief a little bit more in a hidden corner. Stewart hung and stretched on the yellow railing while Brondello had a word with her star. And then moments later, Stewart walked off, got out of her Liberty uniform and turned off the frustration. It was time to move on. Her 2-year-old Ruby wanted to see her.
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.