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Liberty’s collapse continues with 80-64 loss to Mercury

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Phoenix Mercury v New York Liberty Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

After their fourth straight loss — all at home — to the Phoenix Mercury Friday night, the New York Liberty’s playoff chances are hanging on by a thread. With five games left, the Libs are now 11-16, in the eighth and final playoff spot but on seven percentage points ahead of the ninth place Los Angeles Sparks and a half game ahead of the Washington Mystics.

After the 80-64 loss to Phoenix, their second in three nights, New York is now 1-5 since the WNBA’s Olympic break.

As has happened too often this season, the Liberty fought hard for much of the game but collapsed in the fourth quarter. Worse, New York lost yet another player. Jazmine Jones went down with a foot injury. She had just returned from missing four games with the same injury. She encapsulated the Liberty’s recent woes with a post-game tweet...

“I don’t know yet,” said head coach Walt Hopkins of the re-injury. “It looked like it hurt her pretty bad. She’s tough, so if she’s wincing like that, she’s hurting. The presence of mind to stay in the play — she’s tough and that’s proof of it.”

The Liberty are already down Sami Whitcomb and Jocelyn Willoughby.

Phoenix, winners of six straight, went into half time with a 42-32 lead, led by Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi’s combined 23 points, but the Liberty came out strong in the third. They forced turnovers and made it a five-point game. Natasha Howard then hit two big 3-pointers, giving the Libs a one-point lead late in the third quarter. But that was it as Diggins-Smith took over. The 5’9” Diggins-Smith scored 12 points in the last two and half minutes of the third quarter and that was that.

“We were just rolling with the punches,” The Mercury’s Brianna Turner said. “We know we have a very capable bench and everyone is ready to step up when we need it.”

Diggins-Smith ended the night with 27 while Taurasi had 19. Brittney Griner, a strong candidate for MVP, didn’t play for the Mercs, having suffered a left leg injury in the first game of the Liberty-Mercury two-game mini-series Wednesday.

There was some positive news for the Liberty. Howard took advantage of Griner’s absence and ended the game with 18 points of 8-of-14 shooting to along with seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks.

“She was more poised in the post,” said Hopkins post-game. “She still had a few where she got sped up and got happy feet, but I thought she looked like she let the game come to her more. She wasn’t forcing as much.”

Sabrina Ionescu came within an assist of her second triple-double. She finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, but shot 5-of-16 overall, including 2-of-10 from deep. Betnijah Laney had 14 points and six assists but also had a tough shooting night, going 5-of-13 and 2-of-7. The two had it going in the third.

Howard was encouraged but noted that there’s a lot of room for improvement.

“We did really well pushing the ball and screening. We did inside and out well, too, and we’ll need to build on that when we play Minnesota,” she said.

“The little things we can control are rebounding, turnovers, and communication. (Betnijah) Laney is always helping us on the court, and it helps us as a team. I need to be more of a leader on the floor and not get frustrated.”

But for Hopkins, it was another frustrating loss.

“They get to points in games now, where, when you lose a few games, it’s ‘uh oh, here we go again.’ But you have an option. We haven’t made the game to take the game. We’re playing scared. We’re running out of time to make the adjustments.”

The game attracted 2,315 fans to Barclays Center, including tennis mega-star Naomi Osaka who was attending her first WNBA game.

The Liberty play the Minnesota Lynx Tuesday in Minneapolis, first game of a four-game road trip. New York returns home for the season finale vs. the Washington Mystics on September 17.