July 23, 2022
Can the New York Liberty move on from their Camp Day blues?
The Liberty have lost five games in a row, including three straight Camp Day games
On an early Thursday afternoon, the New York Liberty were down six points with 45.4 seconds remaining on the road in Washington. Point guard Sabrina Ionescu brought the ball up and passed to the team’s secondary ball handler in Marine Johannès. While the French import surveyed the Mystics’ defensive unit, Ionescu shuffled to the other side of the floor, with Ariel Atkins of the Mystics trailing her closely.
Reacting quickly or thinking a bit too much, Johannès passed the ball in Ionescu’s direction without fully recognizing how Ionescu was covered. Atkins was encroaching on Ionescu’s space and put both arms up to interrupt the pass. The ball fell in front of the two players, but Mystics wing Alysha Clark rushed to the ball and took it down the floor for an easy layup. The deficit ballooned to eight, and Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello called a timeout on yet another ill-advised pass that became points scored in transition.
Johannès was furious at herself. That layup from Clark seemingly sealed the Mystics’ 78-69 victory.
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This all happened before 3 p.m. on a weekday during a Camp Day, which are designated games that aim to bring children attending local camps to WNBA games. The intent is to encourage young people to become mainstays of all the W has to offer. In the past week, the Liberty played in three straight Camp Day games, which all began at 11 or 11:30 a.m. ET.
In the middle of this stretch, The Next asked Liberty center Stefanie Dolson whether there were any silver linings to the wrinkle in the schedule. She did not hesitate.
“No. Zero. Zero silver linings,” she said. “I think it’s actually ridiculous that we have three in a row.”
It’s especially challenging when more than half of the Liberty players who were available to play in Washington had never experienced this type of game in their professional careers. Camp Day games weren’t played in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Johannès is a player with ample professional playing experience, but these early wake-up calls were unlike anything she’s experienced. Though she played in the W in 2019, she arrived following the Liberty’s Camp Day game against the Sparks. And in 2019, she didn’t have to play in three in a row.
“We don’t have this overseas. We don’t play so early,” she said postgame on Thursday. “But I think it’s different here. And it’s not like I don’t like it, but it’s different and we have to adjust, wake up earlier and everything. We prepare early, but I think the next game is later during the day, so I think it can be maybe better for us.”
That is the hope for the Liberty, that they will play better with an adjusted circadian rhythm. But how did a team that beat the Las Vegas Aces on the road on July 6 and then lost two games in single digits to the Mercury and again Las Vegas get into a hole where they’d lose three more?
There was the All-Star break between the Phoenix loss on July 7 and the Vegas loss on July 12. But two days after that was Camp Day No. 1 at home against a team — the Aces yet again — that wasn’t even in its home time zone. How did the Liberty completely fall apart and lose 108-74? They gave up 71 points in the first half to a team that has the best starting five in the league but not enough of a sustainable bench.
Brondello wasn’t necessarily disappointed that the Liberty lost, but rather in the way in which they lost. She was even-keeled postgame, keeping her angst at bay while explaining that she felt like the Liberty had “no resistance” to whatever the Las Vegas Aces were doing offensively. She didn’t believe that New York was working hard enough defensively, something she and her staff had been preaching since day one of training camp.
“ZERO. MINUS,” she said with a nervous smile. The press corps responded with a laugh. She continued:
“That was an absolute shit game and I had to sit through it, unfortunately. Sometimes you know how you feel helpless … can we stop at halftime?”
The Liberty looked helpless against Vegas, and their statistical marks over the past three Camp Day games have illustrated a team that has taken its foot off the gas and is wandering back into old habits from its 1-7 start to the season.
Across the past three games, the Liberty have registered:
- The worst net rating league wide (-26.1)
- The second-worst assist-to-turnover ratio, only above Indiana (1.13)
- The second-worst true shooting percentage (48.8%)
- The worst field goal percentage (37.7%)
- Ninth in turnover percentage (19.4)
- I expected this number to be much higher, but the kicker is the amount of points opponents are scoring off said turnovers (20.3)
The Liberty have let their cold shooting dictate their play. It hasn’t helped that Johannès has officially hit the “playing year-round” wall and that teams are better prepared to guard 22-year-old Han Xu at this point in the season. The Liberty’s offense bled into their defense, which is much more controllable than making shots.
“I think these are the moments that we have to hold ourselves accountable more than each other,” Sami Whitcomb explained following the first Camp Day game against the Aces. “I think we’re trying to hold each other accountable, but right now, it’s all of us with a few exceptions at different moments. It’s all of us not being tough enough and bringing what we need to bring, I think.”
Whitcomb explained that she and her teammates had “gotten away” from what had worked, especially defensively. “We just [need to] re-commit to the things that we’ve talked about as our goals and what we want to do in terms of identity,” she said.
What defines a successful Liberty defense in 2022? There were stretches this season where the team was in the middle of the pack rather than the bottom. Brondello has designed the Liberty’s defensive identity around their best available defensive piece. Natasha Howard’s individual defensive identity is predicated on how great she is at helping.
Brondello has preached “the fist” metaphor all season long, and what she means is that, because her team contains players who have length, athleticism and high basketball IQ rather than pure defensive talent, New York always has to communicate and move in a timely fashion. Brondello’s defense is about how connected this group is rather than one-on-one play. This is a method the team has employed when both Betnijah Laney and Jocelyn Willoughby, respectable one-on-one perimeter defenders, have been out for the majority of the season.
“[It’s] knowing the gaps,” Brondello told The Next about the New York defense. “It’s a five-player defense, close the gaps. But you got to do your job on the ball, but knowing there’s a team behind the ball to help you.”
Keeping playoff hopes alive
On Thursday, during the third Camp Day game, the Liberty did show signs of life. The team was down as many as 13 to open the final quarter but responded with a 10-0 run to make what could have been a third straight blowout loss a competitive game.
The Liberty got back into it by altering their defense from man-to-man to a zone. A zone mitigates some of the Liberty’s uncontrollable shortcomings. Brondello has addressed that the Liberty aren’t as quick as some of their opponents. And with Crystal Dangerfield’s 5’5 frame, a zone allows her to stay on the perimeter rather than getting mismatched and posted up.
“We got some turnovers in the zone,” Brondello said postgame. “We were able to get out and run in transition. We made some shots and really, that’s it, your momentum can change. It’s just because we changed how we play.”
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And even when the Liberty showed signs of life this week — in the first three quarters against the Sun on Tuesday and every quarter excluding the third against the Mystics on Thursday — a common offensive trend is the Liberty willing the ball in rather than moving it. Another Brondello-ism all season long has been understanding good versus great shots.
When the Liberty have been under pressure dealing with a deficit, they’ve tried launching 3-pointers early in the shot clock to quickly get back into the game. This is not the type of team the Liberty want to be under Brondello, and she needs her team to move the ball even when under pressure.
The Liberty sit right now at 9-17, with a 10% chance (via FiveThirtyEight) to make the postseason. But Brondello doesn’t let that number get her rattled or even outwardly frustrated. She still believes that her team controls its own playoff destiny, a situation New York wasn’t in going into its final games last season. According to our Em Adler, the only tiebreaker the Liberty have lost is to the Minnesota Lynx, and the team will face fellow playoff hopefuls Los Angeles, Dallas and Phoenix multiple times over the next few weeks.
Howard, who has been in the postseason at both the bottom and the top of the seeding, is focused on the next game instead of the Liberty’s postseason chances. What’s of value to her is making sure her teammates stay together and don’t get too dejected by the Liberty’s five-game losing skid, especially Johannès.
“One of our things that we go back on is sisterhood, and I knew Marine was in her own head and stuff like that,” Howard said about how she handled the end of Thursday’s game. “And I told her like, move on to the next play, you got it and stuff like that. Shake it off. You’re not the only one that’s out there that’s making mistakes and stuff like that. You shake it off and you move on to the next play.”
Howard was referring to that final turnover, the one that poked a hole in the Liberty’s chances of making a comeback against one of the better teams in the league. During the ensuing timeout, DiDi Richards put her hand on Johannès’ back once the group huddled. Laney, dressed in street clothes, met the group on the floor on the court and held Johannès’ hand as she passed by.
Once Howard returned from center court after the turnover, both she and Laney went right over to Johannès. Howard put her arm around her, placing her hand on Johannès’ back. Laney joined Howard on Johannès’ right to make a sandwich, with both All-Stars embracing the French player. They quite literally had her back, holding her in place.
When Johannès was asked about this moment, she didn’t look as embarrassed as she had to start the postgame presser. She gave some insight into that moment and even the conversation that followed after the final buzzer sounded.
“I was mad at myself,” she said. “But it felt good to know that your teammates are with you and support you when you don’t make the right choice on the court. So yes, for sure. It is good for me. And we’re, I think we have to continue in this way, being here for each other.”
The modern-day Statue of Liberty is correct. The only way the Liberty make it back to the postseason in back-to-back seasons is if the entire roster is there for one another, through every loss and every turnover.
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 and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.