October 15, 2023 

Jonquel Jones leads Liberty to do-or-die Game 3 win; Aces’ Chelsea Gray injured

New York beats Las Vegas 87-73 to force a Game 4

The New York Liberty have had a flair for the dramatic all season long. With their backs against the wall, they put on a show for the home crowd in the WNBA Finals.

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New York won a do-or-die Game 3 against the Las Vegas Aces 87-73, keeping its season alive for at least one more game. The Liberty took an early eight-point lead in the first quarter and battled through the second quarter to maintain a three-point lead going into halftime. Then they dominated the second half en route to their first finals win since “The Shot” in 1999.

Jonquel Jones led New York with 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting from the field and 4-for-7 from three, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals, and three blocks. Teammate Breanna Stewart notched a double-double of 20 points on 8-for-16 shooting and 12 rebounds. Kelsey Plum led Las Vegas with a game-high 29 points on 10-for-22 shooting from the field and 5-for-10 from three.

“We can be a great defensive team, but you gotta be locked in to do it,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said postgame. “And we weren’t for the first two games … so it really just came down to effort and knowing that your teammates got your back. … They [the Liberty players] know what it looks like and how it feels. It was really all down to going out and doing it.”

“When you build that level of trust,” Jones added, “you see a team that plays at the level we played at tonight, both defensively and offensively.”

New York came out of halftime ahead, but that felt like a major loss after thoroughly outplaying Las Vegas in nearly every facet. But whatever Brondello told them clearly worked; the defensive issues in this series that continued to plague the Liberty through the first two periods could not have been fixed more thoroughly. The Aces were less comfortable during the third quarter than they’d been all season, and it seemed as if New York did not miss a defensive rotation the entire frame, finally finding an answer to the drive-and-kick game that Vegas had used to dominate the first two games in the series.

The Liberty did not go on any commanding run in that stretch (the closest they came was a 15-6 span across the mid-third quarter), but they certainly took command of the Aces. Vegas was held to just 4-for-22 shooting and took just two free throws. New York blocked five shots in the quarter, the home crowd getting as loud as it had ever been when Jones swatted a Plum midrange shot into the stands and Stewart stuffed A’ja Wilson on a stepback midrange jump shot.

The Liberty took an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter. The Aces chipped away far too slowly to threaten a comeback, and New York made sure to put them away for good. After the media timeout, it went on another 15-6 run, capped by a Sabrina Ionescu movement three. Twelve seconds later, Vegas head coach Becky Hammon emptied her bench.

The Liberty starters earned a standing ovation as Brondello subbed in her bench with 1:03 left to go, a WNBA-record crowd of 17,143 fans waving rally towels from the courtside seats to the nosebleeds.

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The crowd was engaged from the mid-first quarter onward, reaching what then seemed like a fever pitch eight minutes in. Jones dug down on a drive by Wilson against Stewart, blocking the Aces center at the rim and sparking a transition drive that ended in Ionescu hitting a 3-pointer. That gave the Liberty a nine-point lead, their largest of the series and Vegas’ largest deficit across the entire 2023 playoffs. That capped an 11-2 New York run, the first signs this game might end differently than its two predecessors.

Jones led the Liberty from start to finish, establishing that if nothing else, she was not going to be swept in these finals. She ended the first half with 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting.

“[Jones’] threes changed the game for us,” Brondello said. “We got back to our identity. We’re a way better team than we’ve shown the last few nights. … But now we gotta do it again.”

The most obvious factor in New York playing its best half of the entire series was the on-paper advantage it was always expected to wield: its passing. At one point in the mid-second quarter, the Liberty had recorded 13 assists on 14 buckets, whereas the Aces had three assists on four makes. That movement forced Vegas to defend at the level in a way it hadn’t all series. The result was chicken-wing lobs from Marine Johannès and pocket passes from Ionescu that found Jones rolling into open space for easier looks than any Liberty player had seen all series.

But for as well as the offense was churning, New York was still suffering from easily correctable defensive mistakes. Much as in games 1 and 2, no matter how well the Liberty scored and how well they defended the point of attack, their backside defense kept falling asleep and handing the Aces easy buckets. At the mid-second quarter media timeout, New York was outshooting Vegas by over 15 percentage points and was effectively shooting twice as well from three, but it led only 35-30 because it kept bailing the Aces out. If the backside defense falling asleep wasn’t directly responsible for an open 3-pointer or basket cut, it forced a helper into a full-on rotation, creating a mismatch that led to a shooting foul.

Those defensive miscues obscured what was possibly the worst offensive half that Las Vegas had played this postseason, despite going into halftime with 40 points. Its off-ball movement was night-and-day from what it had been over the past month, and the Aces got bogged down in hero ball. They were at least able to benefit from that approach at the end of the second quarter, repeatedly targeting Johannès for several buckets.

“We didn’t do a good job of moving the ball or moving our player,” said Plum, “which has given us success the first two games.”

It certainly didn’t help Vegas’ cause that Wilson was off her game. After starting 2-for-3 from the field in the first three minutes, Wilson made one of her next 11 shots. And 2022 WNBA Finals MVP Chelsea Gray had to leave the game in the mid-fourth quarter, hopping off the court in visible, severe discomfort, unable to put any weight on her left leg.

“No one person’s gonna replace her,” Hammon said of Gray. “Everyone steps up and does a little bit more.”

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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