August 17, 2022
‘We’re the Underdogs?’: How the Liberty can upset the Chicago Sky
Can familiarity breed success?
On Tuesday evening, Betnijah Laney didn’t want to admit that the Liberty were underdogs in their first round playoff matchup against the Chicago Sky. She looked to her right at teammate Stephanie Dolson quizzically and said: “We’re the underdogs?”
Dolson, laughing, replied with a smile: “Mmhmmm, we’re the seventh seed.” The pair paused in a comment of collective laughter, but then with a hand on her chin, Dolson answered Laney’s initial question about being the underdogs: “I’d say so.”
After Laney collected herself, smiling and laughing with Dolson, she snapped back into that familiar, focused persona that makes the 2021 All-Star a successful leader.
“I think it’s a game, I don’t look at us as underdogs,” she said. “We’ve beaten them before, we’ve competed with them, so it’s just the seeding and they’re just the next opponent we have. So with that being said, I think we’ve been doing a great job of like preparing…. we have inside information with Stef and Olaf. So I think if anything, I think we’re just ready to play.”
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On Wednesday night, the Liberty will play in their second postseason in a row, and in their first series since 2015 against the 2021 champions the Chicago Sky. And yes, the Liberty know the Sky well. Dolson, the center who signed with New York this past offseason after five seasons spent in Chicago, views the matchup as poetic rather than exciting. While she did immediately text longtime teammates and friends Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot “Heyyyyy, se ya soon,” this feels full circle for Dolson. She left a place where she grew and became a leader to impart that same wisdom on a much younger and up-and-coming WNBA roster.
Dolson and Laney exuded quiet confidence about the matchup because not only does Dolson know the Sky’s player personnel quite well, but so does one of their assistant coaches, Olaf Lange, the husband of Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello. Also, Brondello spent an entire 2021 WNBA Finals scheming against her husband and Dolson’s former team.
In a best-of-three series, the Liberty have been given the opportunity to show their fans and the WNBA exactly how far they’ve come since beginning the season 1-7. And also how far the franchises has come since its last appearance in a postseason series.
But let’s take a trip back to the last time both Dolson and Laney addressed members of the New York media. It’s a moment that prophesied who the Liberty are now and what their goals have always been in 2022. It was a moment following the team’s May 17 92-65 loss to the Connecticut Sun; New York turned the ball over 29 times. Dolson and Laney reflected and spoke about how through their leadership, they were going to help this team alter its course. Laney explained that her team had to “alter its verdict,” a phrase that at the time was incredibly poignant and telling.
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What we didn’t know then, however, was that around two weeks later, Laney would get surgery that would keep her sidelined for over two months. So without New York’s 2021 All-Star, Dolson, Brondello and the Liberty had to continue to wade through the adversity they were dealt. When Dolson was asked about how this team got from point A (turning the ball over 29 times and only one win) to point B ( a second straight playoff appearance), she credited the transformation to staying the course, not giving up and staying together. She also explained that Brondello was still new, her system was new and she was also new to the Liberty. Also, players were either returning from injury or getting in late from overseas commitments. During the season, the Liberty had to learn to play with one another, a feat that not all playoff teams who have established continuity had to work through during the regular season. And for Dolson, once New York fully grasped what playing together looked like, the team could progress and haul itself out of a 7 game losing streak.
When Laney, who’s only played with the team in five games since her surgery, was asked what the keys to the Liberty winning were, she rattled off a list of principles that I’ve heard come from Brondello’s mouth multiple times this season. Even though Laney is still so so new to her coach, she’s bought in.
“It’s not like I had to come in and do anything crazy,” Laney said. “I just had to come in and be me, which was, you know, really good.” There isn’t “pressure to be spectacular” every game. All she has to do is be herself.
Laney’s keys for the team were simple: staying together and playing together, moving the ball and “most importantly”, defending. “If we don’t score, they don’t score,” she said.
This is the phrase that the Liberty use when they describe how they’ve improved their mental toughness and poise in difficult situations in games. Staying together has created a sense of discipline and accountability on the Liberty. Staying together is an idea that exists on the same plane as the Liberty staying even-keeled, the state that Brondello functions best in.
“I mean, it’s the way you talk to each other,” Rebecca Allen told The Next. “It’s communication, it’s all of that… we’ve done plenty of those culture meetings throughout the season so where we’re learning, okay, what’s the best way to talk to each other and that’s important. Communication is important in so many areas of the game when you’re behind, when you are in front, when you’re just trying to keep something consistent.”
Jocelyn Willoughby explained that the Liberty’s identity is in part their talent, but also when they play with each other rather than individually. “We’re very talented,” she said. “When we are who we’re supposed to playing as, we’re great defenders, and we play together.”
Moving the Ball
The Liberty enter the playoffs having just played in a mini-series of their own. What I had coined as the survival of the grittiest, the two game battle against the Atlanta Dream, wasn’t only about who was making the hustle plays and playing with the largest chip on their shoulder, it also was about who was going to play the smartest. For Allen, that’s been the Liberty’s winning combo: “It’s about playing with smarts as well as playing with grit.”
When it comes to playing “smart,” moving the ball when in doubt will be part of the Liberty’s solution. It’s easier said than done because of the Sky’s hard hedging and trapping. But, lead ball handler Sabrina Ionescu has seen this from Chicago four times this season. When in doubt, move the ball.
“When the ball moves, it’s really good for us and I think if you look at those those games where we’ve won,” Laney said. “You see the defense and you see the ball moving, everybody just being a part of it.”
The Liberty don’t have the best defense in the league, but they also don’t have the worst either. New York finished the season tied for sixth in the league overall in defensive rating (102), a number the team probably hasn’t been close to since Bill Laimbeer was coaching the Liberty. In the Liberty’s final eight games of the season where they went 6-2, their defensive rating has been the best in the WNBA (94.7).
“So I think in the past couple games, our defense has been really intense,” Willoughby told The Next about what’s been working. “That’s one of the things that we need to be correct, to be a successful team. So I feel like we’ve been pretty high level on the defensive end in the past couple days.”
While that’s impressive, let’s take that small sample size with a grain of salt. The Liberty’s strength of schedule was a lot weaker than that of the Sky, who finished with the fourth-best defensive rating (99.7) in that same eight-game span. When it comes to defending the Sky, New York will have to zero in on how it contains Chicago’s dynamic slashers in Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot and Rebekah Gardner. One of the main benefits of having Laney back for the postseason is that her game is suited to taking on those types of one-on-one defensive challenges. “Her intensity on defense has been incredible because a lot of these teams have slashers or scores that her physicality and her quickness are a good matchup for them,” Dolson said of Laney.
But when Laney herself was asked about how she’ll approach someone like Copper, she explained her role, which will be on on-one-one defense, but also continued to stress the five-player defense and “closed fist” style defense that Brondello has been preaching since day one.
“It will start with the one-on-one defense, just doing everything we can to keep her in front but then also to have each other’s back making sure we’re in the gaps, making sure that we’re alert when when she is penetrating, being able to help if the one on one coverage isn’t there,” she said.
While an upset over one of the title favorites may appear far out of reach, the Liberty have viewed their matchup with the Sky as one that can teach them and show them the way toward greatness and one day a championship. When New York beat Chicago on July 23, the game where the Sky had endured a back-to-back without their point guard Courtney Vandersloot, Sabrina Ionescu acknowledged how solid of a team the Sky are and the example they’ve set for not only her but for her team.
“They came off of a back-to-back, got in right before the game and took us down to the wire,” she said postgame. “So it kind of just shows how good of a team and them not using any excuses against them. It shows to us the level of excellence we need to hold ourselves to if we have travel issues, anything. There’s no excuses at the end of the day, you just got to come out and play your best.”
Something else that the Liberty aim to learn from the Sky is their approach to the postseason, the way in which Chicago completely reset their body of work from the regular season and marched ahead right to the WNBA finals. Just like the 2021 postseason was a new season for the Sky, the 2022 playoffs will also be for the New York Liberty.
“The biggest thing is that postseason is a whole different season,” Dolson said on Tuesday. “And that’s something I learned quickly last year was it didn’t matter what seeds you were, anything could happen.”
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.