August 20, 2022 

‘Why not us?’: How the New York Liberty shocked the world in Game 1

One phrase has kept the Liberty hungry and humming this season

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu had a particular phrase on her mind following her team’s 98-91 win over the defending champion Chicago Sky in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. It was a phrase that she employed to respond to the doubt that media members and other talking heads in the women’s basketball community had for her team.

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She used it to respond to Holly Rowe. When the ESPN sideline reporter assumed that New York winning the first game of the best-of-three series meant the series would go to three games, giving the Liberty their first hosted playoff game in five years, Ionescu smiled but took the comment personally. “We’re going to try to win one here,” she said, “… but why not us?”

Moments later when Ionescu, Natasha Howard and Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello were in front of a bright orange backdrop postgame, Ionescu didn’t shy away from using that messaging again. She was asked it takes to win a game like this. The two ingredients she named were heart and grit. She explained that winning isn’t always meant to be pretty; it’s usually a chaotic process that contains ebbs and flows. “You have to stick together and chip away and believe,” she said.

And the phrase popped up again: “I’ve been saying to this whole team: ‘Why not us?'”

When Brondello addressed the Liberty in the locker room following the win, the wipe board behind her contained the phrase written in red: “Why not us?” This phrase is currently moving the Liberty through their first playoff series in seven seasons, but it also isn’t all that new to them.

Ahead of this season, I asked Ionescu what she believed that 2022 represented for the franchise. Her belief was that this was going to be the season that the Liberty finally established who they are after two years of rebuilding. While the concept behind what New York Liberty basketball is had been experimented with in 2020 and 2021, Ionescu exuded an aura of gravity about 2022. And although a new coaching staff with a very different system and principles leads to more transition and less continuity from 2021, she placed a different weight on this season. She didn’t want to wait another two seasons before going on a fruitful playoff run. The time for Ionescu was now.

“I think for us there’s a sense of urgency, like we don’t want to wait a couple of years to get to a playoffs,” she said. “We know we have the talent to do that now, and so there’s a sense of urgency of like, ‘Why not us?’

“Why can’t we get a new coaching staff and a new change and do that this year or do that the following year? So I think the identity of this team is going to come out really soon and last a long time.”

“We know we have the talent to [get to the playoffs] now, and so there’s a sense of urgency of like, ‘Why not us?’ Why can’t we get a new coaching staff and  a new change and do that this year or do that the following year?”

Sabrina Ionescu on April 28

How did this one phrase allow the Liberty to collect not only the franchise’s most important win in close to seven years, but also potentially one of the most important wins in its history?

Ionescu explained that the commitment that coaching staff had in the roster leading up to this point was what allowed New York to emerge from this victory with only eight turnovers, adapt to the Sky’s defensive scheme, and exude a higher level of poise in high-pressure situations. “It’s important that we won a game for this organization and what they’ve done for us, for New York basketball,” she said.

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Taking care of the ball and adapting to hard hedging

One of the most striking statistics from Game 1 was the low number of turnovers on the New York side. That represents a major growth point for a team that averaged 15.5 turnovers per game during the regular season, tied for fourth-most in the WNBA. A majority of those turnovers were a result of teams throwing different defensive schemes on the primary ball-handler, Ionescu. Often, the Liberty succumbed to ball pressure, but on Wednesday night, they succumbed to it a lot less.

Following the game, Brondello explained that taking care of the ball was something the coaching staff stressed, and it was one of the Liberty’s keys to getting a win in Game 1 on the road.

“I kept encouraging them: Just play with poise and play just ‘next pass’ mentality,” Brondello said postgame. “Okay, it’s second and third side [actions] because you know that’s when you can loosen up a defense when you’re hard-hedging and being aggressive.”

Brondello was referring to the way in which the Sky guarded the Liberty in pick-and-roll sets. Chicago is known to hedge on corner pick-and-rolls, and when the Liberty set them on the lower right side of the court outside the 3-point line, that allowed Sky defenders to hedge out right into Ionescu’s field of view.

How did the Liberty counter this? As Nekias Duncan of Basketball News explains below, Brondello instructed her players to screen for Ionescu closer to half court.

Duncan broke down a play with 5:48 remaining in the first quarter when Howard set a high pick for Ionescu and only one Sky player in Courtney Vandersloot was positioned at the level of the screen rather than two. Emma Meesseman stayed put right above the 3-point line in a drop coverage so that Howard wouldn’t have ample room to roll. Ionescu fired a 26-foot pull-up 3-pointer right in the face of Candace Parker‘s contest.

Dolson stepping up when it matters

It wasn’t just Ionescu and Howard who adapted well to Chicago’s hard hedging. Stefanie Dolson, the former Sky player, did as well. ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo also broke down the way in which the Liberty adapted to the Sky’s pick-and-roll coverages. Two of the examples she zeroed in on included Dolson, who not only helped her teammates understand the right pass to make out of the hedge, but also made some sharp passes as well. Dolson finished the game with three assists.

Though it took the month of May for Dolson to settle into her new team, she’s become a steady and dependable force for the Liberty. Many of the reasons that Brondello and general manager Jonathan Kolb targeted her in the offseason have come to fruition. Not only were Dolson’s size and position desperately needed, but her experience playing and winning at multiple levels (international, professional and college) and in different environments (WNBA, the Olympics and EuroLeague) was incredibly attractive to the Liberty’s new coaching staff and the front office.

Brondello praised Dolson’s leadership prior to Wednesday’s game, explaining her “calming effect” that allows the Liberty to stay as even-keeled as Brondello.

“We need those players who can calm a team down in certain situations where we get a little anxious or we make a few mistakes,” Brondello said. “We just have to weather the storm and stay together, and Stef’s leadership certainly has shown through, particularly in the end of the season, and she’s playing well too. We need both, not just leadership.”

And on Wednesday night, the Liberty got both.

Stefanie Dolson (31) of the New York Liberty shoots the ball against the Chicago Sky during Game 1 of the first round of the WNBA playoffs at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Ill., on Aug. 17, 2022. (Photo credit: Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Ionescu also made sure that Dolson was given credit for her 13-point, 7-rebound and 3-assist stat line on Wednesday. When Rowe asked Ionescu about Howard and a remarkable performance from 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney, who is only a couple of months removed from knee surgery, Ionescu made sure that the world knew how much Dolson’s contributions fueled the Liberty’s most important win in almost a decade.

Ionescu took that same appreciation for Dolson back to the bright orange backdrop during the postgame press conference. She alluded to the fact that Dolson has grown into the role that has been her destiny since she was signed in the offseason. While Brondello has deemed Howard the anchor of the defense, Dolson has become that steadying presence on offense. Her screening, her passing and her scoring when necessary are part of the reason the Liberty made it this far.

“She’s the glue to this team,” Ionescu said. “She’s been on a championship team. She’s played at the highest level, she knows what it takes to win and she sacrifices that for us every night, whether she’s going to need to score, is going to need to pass, is going to need to guard the best [frontcourt player]. She’s really adaptable and able to bring that every single night and just overall a really unselfish player, and it helps us get our offense moving. So she was a huge piece for us winning tonight.”

Poise in clutch moments and ‘The Pass’

While New York came out victorious in Game 1, the execution wasn’t always pristine, especially on the defensive end. Brondello has spoken at length about how a goal of hers is to hold teams to under 20 points per quarter. For her, that’s a sign of a solid defensive effort. The Liberty’s game plan was to limit Chicago’s points in the paint, but that was difficult to accomplish on Wednesday. New York gave up 50 points in the paint and allowed Kahleah Copper to get to the free-throw line four times in the third quarter alone.

Liberty point guard Crystal Dangerfield explained what she believed New York’s issues defensively were on Friday, following the Game 1 victory. It begins with limiting Chicago’s paint points and fast break opportunities. “Our ball-screen defense wasn’t where it needed to be,” she said. “And they have a couple of great players that execute their ball-screen offense really well.”

But while New York gave up 91 points total and 50 paint points to Chicago, there was a breakthrough in the fourth quarter, when the Liberty gave up only 17 points. Brondello’s goal was met. Another defensive goal of Brondello’s was met in the fourth when the Liberty strung together three stops in a row.

In the fourth quarter, the Liberty had poise, which has been hard to come by for this roster all season long. According to Her Hoop Stats’ Gabe Ibrahim, the Liberty had 83 clutch minutes, the second-most in the WNBA during the regular season, and had the WNBA’s worst net rating (-16.3) in those minutes. The Sky have been applauded all season for their ability to perform in the clutch and win close games. The numbers showed it, too: Chicago had the most clutch minutes (104) and the best net rating (28.0) in those minutes. But that was all during the regular season, and Wednesday night showed that the postseason is sometimes a reset rather than a continuation.

The Liberty’s poise down six points with 3:32 left in regulation was how the team found a way. It all began with one pass. Yes, that pass by the modern-day Statue of Liberty, Marine Johannès. An over-the-back, no-look pass to Howard underneath the basket set the Liberty on a 13-0 run to close the game. It was a pass that sent shock waves not only through the Liberty, but also through the Sky and the entire crowd at Wintrust Arena. That pass took as much poise as it took swagger.

Marine Johannès (23) stands and listens in a huddle with teammates Natasha Howard (far left), Betnijah Laney (44) and Stefanie Dolson (31) during Game 1 of the first round of the WNBA playoffs at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Ill., on Aug. 17, 2022. (Photo credit: Josh Sawyer)

“She likes to shrug it off like it’s nothing, but we’re over on the bench losing our minds over it,” Dangerfield said about the pass. “But … just to play like that, it gives your team energy, and I think that really sparked our run.”

It was a pass that “was heard around the world,” and its significance shouldn’t be understated. It was a turning point that gave the Liberty a win that not many believed could happen. Johannès’ moxie in that moment serves as a callback to one of the most heralded moments in the franchise’s history: In 1999, Teresa Weatherspoon had the guts and swagger to drain “The Shot.” Twenty-three years later, Johannès took that same energy and created something that might go down in WNBA history as “The Pass.” It’s a full-circle moment for the 2022 New York Liberty, a roster that learned a lot about what it means to play for this franchise earlier this season, when they attended the premiere of the documentary “Unfinished Business.”

Johannès understood the gravity of that moment and what it means for the Liberty moving forward.

“After the game, we heard this was the first win since 2015 in the playoffs,” she said on Friday. “So I think it’s something that’s really big for the franchise and we have to continue like that. We have a really good team, and we can do something, too.”

We can do something, too.

That sounds familiar, right? It’s got that “don’t doubt us” energy. It’s got that “why not us?” energy.

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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