July 4, 2024 

For New York Liberty, avenging losses to Minnesota Lynx was ‘personal’

The third time was the charm for New York on Tuesday

NEW YORK — “A personal vendetta.” That was how New York Liberty center Jonquel Jones described how she and her team felt entering Tuesday’s matchup against the Minnesota Lynx. It was a rematch of the Commissioner’s Cup championship game just a week prior. 

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Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who was questionable for Tuesday’s game due to illness, explained why the rematch meant more than just any regular-season game. The Liberty had lost to the Lynx not just a week ago, but also on May 25, a game when the Liberty had struggled with spacing and their will to win. 

“Obviously, they are a great team and they were 2-0 against us,” Ionescu said postgame. “And so this was personal. We’re playing at home. This was [a] bigger game than it really was in terms of it being a regular-season game, and we had to understand that we had to come out and play our best basketball. And no matter how I felt, I was gonna leave everything out on the floor.”

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In the first month of the season, New York’s starters were regaining their muscle memory of how to play together while also incorporating the bench players, a lot of whom were new to the Liberty. On May 25, the Liberty reverted to old habits. If their shots weren’t falling, less energy and determination came as a result on defense. 

Then the Commissioner’s Cup championship, a game that had a lot on the line, was defined by the Liberty’s flawed decision-making. They lost a game that came with a trophy and with prize money for themselves and for charity in part because they had 20 turnovers and forced the ball inside to Jones at inopportune times. To make matters worse, the loss came at home, though the game was played at UBS Arena rather than their usual home court, Barclays Center.

But on Tuesday, the Liberty came out on top 76-67, using lessons they learned from both of those losses. Jones willed herself back to her MVP level, Ionescu found ways to exploit the Lynx’s defense despite an inefficient shooting night, and the Liberty played harder on both ends. In particular, they were much more intentional defensively and switched less in the second half.

Jones found her rhythm with versatility

Prior to tipoff on Tuesday, Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello explained why the Liberty had struggled to exploit their size advantage over the Lynx in the frontcourt. First, she noted that Minnesota’s defense is dependent on packing the paint and staying vertical without fouling. In the Lynx’s previous game against the Chicago Sky, which the Lynx won as a result of their defense rather than their offense, Brondello was impressed with how Minnesota dealt with being outrebounded. 

That’s exactly what happened in the Commissioner’s Cup championship: The Liberty outrebounded the Lynx 43-25 and still lost. Brondello foreshadowed how the Liberty would need to overcome that. “JJ can work to get offensive rebounds, too,” she said pregame. 

She did, but that’s not all. 

Jones had 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting, 12 rebounds (including four offensive), four assists, a block and a steal. She found a way to impose her will to counter the Lynx’s three-quarter fronting and the deceivingly long arms of Minnesota center Alanna Smith. But how? 

The Liberty were much more deliberate about where they wanted to play through Jones and worked harder to make sure she wasn’t only posting up on the block with her back to the basket. New York took advantage of Jones’ versatility rather than just her size.

“She was able to just catch, rip, drive right by get into the paint, get offensive rebounds and do what she does really well,” Ionescu said. “[Forward Breanna Stewart] was able to catch the ball at the nail, again shoot and rip from there, so I think it was more playing almost out of a ball-handling position through our bigs because our bigs aren’t traditional bigs. They’re able to also dribble shoot and move really well with and without the ball.”

Jones concurred, explaining how her success was about embracing her athleticism and ability to score from almost anywhere. She was much more intentional about getting to the elbow and “extending” herself in the paint. 

“Sandy and Sabrina were talking about getting off the block,” she said. “Kind of getting into that elbow area, extending myself out in the paint. I think that was the biggest thing, the biggest difference … and not kind of just getting stuck trying to post up.” 

Jones’ struggles against the Lynx in the first two meetings were a result of Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve’s sharp defensive scheming. But on Tuesday, Jones played with a level of passion, focus and joy that was missing from the previous matchups. It was a combination of her aggressiveness, her confidence in herself and her teammates finding her in more advantageous positions. 

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu points up with her right index finger after making a play.
New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20), playing with a cold, points her finger after making a play at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 2, 2024. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd | New York Liberty)

Ionescu fought through being run-down

When Ionescu approached the dais following Tuesday’s win, she clearly wasn’t over her cold from Sunday afternoon. She had glassy eyes and a scratchy and squeaky voice. Throughout the press conference, she was spitting out and putting back in what looked like a cough drop or gum. 

While Ionescu talked about her decision to play, both Brondello and Jones were amused by how uncharacteristic Ionescu’s voice sounded. While Ionescu thought they were making fun of her voice, they were more amused by the fact that reporters were asking her questions despite her hoarse and softer voice. 

“Dedication,” Ionescu replied. “At least I can be amplified.” She was referring to the microphone that made her sound louder, rather than how she would sound if she was doing a scrum without a microphone outside the Liberty locker room.

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While Ionescu clearly wasn’t 100%, she played hard. Her shot from beyond the arc wasn’t falling, as she only hit one of 10 attempts from three. She made a couple floaters, but what really stood out were her running and driving layups that she added a little sauce to. She often drove past Lynx guard Kayla McBride, jumped and scooped the ball into the basket from midair. 

Her will and want-to stood out, particularly on the defensive end with 3:50 left in the fourth quarter. The Liberty were up 69-65, and Lynx guard Bridget Carleton passed the ball on the right wing to guard Courtney Williams. Ionescu met her there, then fought heavily over a screen set by Smith. Once she got over, she outstretched her arms and used her body to pressure Williams. Forward Napheesa Collier was trying to bail Williams out, but Ionescu altered Williams’ overhead pass and Stewart corralled it. 

Ionescu finished with 17 points on 7-for-20 shooting, five rebounds, five assists and a steal in 37 minutes.

New York Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot blocks Minnesota Lynx guard Natisha Hiedeman's layup attempt in the paint.
New York Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot (22) blocks a shot from Minnesota Lynx guard Natisha Hiedeman (2) during a game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 2, 2024. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd | New York Liberty)

Proving a point defensively in the second half

Brondello was visibly smug when discussing her team’s defensive performance against the Lynx on Tuesday. While a lot of the story surrounding the Liberty has been their league-leading offense, their overall defensive output has improved in 2024, and that was on full display on Tuesday.

The Liberty limited their switching in the second half and zeroed in on Collier, limiting her to five points in the half on 2-for-6 shooting. And they held the Lynx to eight points in the final quarter, including ending the game on a 15-2 run.

But the Liberty almost lost their main defensive stopper early in the second half. Betnijah Laney-Hamilton was matched up with Collier on yet another switch and tried to interrupt an entry pass to Collier with 6:28 left in the third quarter. The two players fell to the ground as they battled for the loose ball. Collier fell on Laney-Hamilton’s left knee, which left Laney-Hamilton on the ground for around 10 seconds.

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She got up gingerly and missed the rest of the quarter while icing her left knee — not the one that had her miss three games earlier this season. But with the fourth quarter about to begin, Laney-Hamilton was sitting in front of Brondello, paying attention to the play the Liberty’s head coach was about to draw up.

“Betnijah is one of the toughest players out there,” Brondello said, “You could see how hard she was competing in that fourth quarter.”

Laney-Hamilton played all but 50 seconds of the fourth and made a tough turnaround fadeaway with 6:10 left to tie the game at 65. Less than four minutes later, Laney-Hamilton threw a bullet pass in transition to Stewart for the score to give the Liberty a 72-65 lead. She followed that up with a steal, this time successfully intercepting the entry pass to Collier. 

According to Stewart, the key to coming out on top in the fourth quarter was the Liberty’s pursuit of loose balls, using their length in the passing lanes in addition to Jones’ relentlessness on the glass. “Those are like backbreaking plays for another team,” she told reporters. 

The Liberty’s win over the Lynx mattered, especially after they had lost the Commissioner’s Cup championship. Seven days after that disappointment, they put their bodies and minds on the line to walk away from their actual home court with a victory. 

“We weren’t happy with the way that we played,” Stewart said about the Commissioner’s Cup loss. “We weren’t happy to not be at Barclays. [There were] a lot of reasons, and [we] came in even more even motivated by that. But I also think they beat us on their home court. So now it’s our job to return the favor.”

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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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