October 16, 2023 

How Jonquel Jones’ leadership and play pushed New York Liberty to Game 3 win

Sabrina Ionescu and her Liberty teammates wanted to win for Jones

BROOKLYN — The New York Liberty had missed a couple of opportunities in the third quarter of Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. They had gotten stops and tried to find forward Jonquel Jones near the basket in transition. But the passes from guard Courtney Vandersloot and forward Breanna Stewart were either a little too high or a little bit left.

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At that point, the game was still well within reach for the Las Vegas Aces. They were only down nine, 52-43 with over five and a half minutes to go. Aces guard Chelsea Gray drove on Stewart and passed to a cutting Kelsey Plum. Plum dribbled around Vandersloot and got a shot off near the restricted area, only for Jones to spike the ball out of bounds.

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who was positioned on the opposite block, shuffled immediately to the restricted area once she saw her teammate’s clean and emphatic block. Ionescu pumped both of her arms, flexed and shouted to dab up her teammate. She slapped Jones’ hand and chest bumped her right after. Jones then waved her pointer finger in the air with some “not in my house” energy.

Liberty forward Jonquel Jones has her finger up as teammate Sabrina Ionescu approaches her.
New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones waves her finger after blocking Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum, and Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu approaches her, during Game 3 of the 2023 WNBA Finals at at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 15, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

And Barclays Center has become Jones’ home, a place on Sunday afternoon where over 17,000 people gathered to watch her and the Liberty save their season with an 87-73 win in Game 3.

After going down 2-0 in the series to the Aces, the hope that surrounded the Liberty’s quest for their first WNBA title was in danger entering Sunday. Heartache was creeping in.

Liberty fans were feeling it, and Jones felt it, too, in her bones. When she was first introduced as a member of the Liberty in January, she acknowledged how she and her new team shared a collective heartache over being denied a championship so many times. For the Liberty, that number is four. For Jones, it’s two.

That desire to win a championship after denial also rang true with Ionescu. Though this is her first WNBA Finals, she reflected last week on her final year of college, when the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of her wants to win this championship for Oregon, a place that shaped her and helped her become a pro.

“It’s all about obviously us as a team, but [it’s also about] our individual stories and our experiences and where we’ve come from and what it takes to get here,” she said.

After the Liberty got “punked,” according to Jones, following Game 2, desire became desperation and heartache became angst. Brondello and Jones were in lockstep emotionally, even at that postgame press conference.

At that point, their emotions were measured, but it was clear that something much angrier and more angsty was beneath the surface. They politely but frankly answered the media’s questions. Jones was asked about a similar situation from a year ago, when she and the Connecticut Sun trailed a very similar Aces squad.

“[There are] a lot of similarities of [the Aces] just being able to get the ball in easy situations, back doors and different stuff like that,” she said. “And I think we just mucked the game up and played with a different level of physicality, and that’s what it’s going to take. This team is too good to be able to get easy buckets. They make contested buckets already. We gotta sit down; we gotta play defense and make it hard.”

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On both practice days prior to Game 3, there was a noticeably different vibe in the building. On Friday, “What U Gon’ Do” by Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz featuring Lil Scrappy bellowed through the Barclays Center practice courts, followed by “Get Loose” by T.I. featuring Nelly the day after.

Brondello had a lot to say about what she hadn’t seen in Las Vegas and what she was taking note of back in New York. In a rant that consisted of at least seven expletives, she wanted it to be known how mad she was.

“We’re at this moment here. Don’t be wondering why,” she said. “Just be fucking aggressive. It’s not that hard. Have some pride. … We go [down] 19-2 and most of it is transition or fucking offensive rebounds. Fucking take care of that shit.”

New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones shoots a right-handed midrange jump shot over Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes.
New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones (35) shoots over Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes (41) during Game 3 of the 2023 WNBA Finals at at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 15, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Brondello explained how she and her team needed to move forward. The time had passed for feelings. It was now about collective action. But to create that collective action, the group had to air out those feelings. Before practicing on Friday, the players met just themselves and then with the coaching staff.

Jones described those discussions as moments where players and coaches could put their “cards out there” and talk about situations that made players feel “uncomfortable” or “disheartened” on the floor. “This isn’t a time to hold your tongue,” she said. “This is a time to just express those feelings and be able to make sure we’re on the same page.”

Jones, who had carried a heavy load throughout the first two games, needed her teammates to know what was in her head and understand where she was coming from. She had the fire, but did anyone else? She needed her teammates to ride the wave alongside her rather than a little in front or a little behind. She needed them to understand her pain, though they couldn’t all feel it.

“I get mad, like, fuck, how many times I’m gonna come to the finals and not win, you know?” she said on Saturday. “So I try to just put it all out there on the line because at the end of the day, that’s all you can do. You try to bring your teammates with you and get that same level of energy.”

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It was clear that Jones’ message resonated with Ionescu especially. While only four of Ionescu’s 11 assists were to Jones, Ionescu aggressively pursued a middle pick-and-roll with Jones. She was facilitating to her to exploit Las Vegas in places where the Liberty had struggled in the previous two games.

Ionescu had much better awareness of what to do when the Aces put two defenders on the ball. Jones can be lethal on the move with space, and Ionescu made sure to hit her when she was open in the lane or on the perimeter.

“We were able to figure out ways to continue to use one another’s leverage, create a lot of spacing, which I believe helped us as well,” Ionescu said. “Just get her in the paint and obviously they are coming to double, and I think that opened up the floor for shooters as well.”

Those shooters included Jones herself. She finished with an efficient 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting, including 4-for-7 from beyond the arc.

Jones also held two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, her main defensive assignment, to 4-for-16 shooting.

That versatility in Jones’ game and the opportunity to show it was part of what had drawn her to New York last winter. Her partnership with Ionescu and Vandersloot as pass-first guards was going to open up the floor for Jones, who had spent years in a much more archaic and congested system in Connecticut. 

New York Liberty teammates Sabrina Ionescu and Jonquel Jones stand on the court together. Ionescu points her hands down and out.
New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) and Jonquel Jones (35) stand on the court together during Game 3 of the 2023 WNBA Finals at at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 15, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Jones noted that the key to establishing herself and Ionescu in the pick-and-roll on Sunday was better screening, which Brondello had harped on following each of the Liberty’s losses in Las Vegas. The Aces needed to feel the Liberty screening them, and during Game 3, that was the case. Early in the third quarter, Plum even shoved Stewart as she set a screen for Vandersloot.

Another part of Jones’ verbal dogma was how the Liberty needed to defend hard. And they needed to play with heart — the team’s theme word for the season. Jones said postgame that the Game 3 victory was fun because the Liberty were doing their job and playing hard. 

Ionescu said postgame that playing hard “trumps mistakes” and that that was the mindset the entire team had in its pursuit of staying alive in the WNBA Finals. “No matter what happens with what the final score is,” she said, “you got to be able to go to sleep at night knowing that you did your job.”

The Liberty did that — but would they have been able to without Jones’ leadership? Brondello noticed how vocal she had been leading up to Game 3 and saw that as a sign of maturity. In her first year on the team, she communicated clearly what she wanted and needed from her peers. Brondello even brought up a quote by former NBA player Joe Dumars: “On good teams, coaches hold players accountable. On great teams, players hold players accountable.” What Jones said to her teammates got them on the same page and in a headspace of who and what they were playing for.

They were playing for a franchise and a fan base that have been starved of meaningful winning. They were playing for their MVP forward who came to New York specifically to win a championship and end its 27-year drought.

“We want to win for her,” Ionescu said. “She came here to win a championship. She’s been so close so many times, and she’s fully committed herself to being the best she can in her role. And seeing her grow from the beginning of the season to where it’s at now, we’re not at this point without her, and so she fuels us and motivates us to continue to be better for her.”

In Game 4, the Liberty will continue their quest to be better for their fans, who on Sunday included celebrities Joan Jett, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Sudeikis and Robin Roberts. They also included four Liberty legends who played in the last finals game the Liberty won.

When Teresa Weatherspoon hit “The Shot” in that game in 1999, Ionescu wasn’t even two years old. Jones was five.

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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