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Opening Night! Liberty ring in 2022 season at home vs. the Connecticut Sun

New York Liberty Media Day Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome back, welcome back! The WNBA is embarking on its 26th season, and the New York Liberty are hoping to break into the upper echelon of the league. Flanked by the acquisitions of Stef Dolson in free agency and Sandy Brondello in the head coaching ranks, the team plans to make some noise. They didn’t play any preseason games, but did sneak in one scrimmage. That said, they’re feeling good and exciting to take on all comers.

Joining the Liberty on the WNBA’s fantastic voyage will be the Connecticut Sun. The Sun were the best regular season team in the W in 2021 as they ran off a 14 game winning streak to end the regular season. They fell short in the playoffs in a tough four-game series to the eventual Champions, the Chicago Sky. Curt Miller and friends have a lot of motivation this year and want to finally get over the hump.

Where to follow the game

ESPN is the place to be. Tip after 6:00 p.m. ET

Injuries

Nyara Sabally is out for the season recovering from a knee injury. Sika Kone is overseas and will not be playing in the W this season. Rebecca Allen has overseas obligations and won’t be back for a while. Betnijah Laney is out with right knee soreness and Didi Richards is out with a right hamstring injury. Both are expected back when the Liberty return to action in Chicago next week.

DeWanna Bonner is currently hooping in the Turkish League playoffs and is expected to miss around three to seven games. Courtney Williams is suspended for the first two games of the season after video surfaced of her and her then Atlanta Dream teammates, Crystal Bradford and Kalani Brown, scrapping it out at Tenders & Bites.

The game

WNBA Finals - Game Two Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This season, the WNBA will be honoring Phoenix Mercury and Team USA center, Brittney Griner. BG has been held in Russian custody since February 17 on alleged possession of vape oil charges. On May 3, the United States government officially classified her as wrongfully detained by Russian authorities. With that change in classification comes renewed public support for BG in the WNBA and other communities. The W will be publicly supporting with a floor decal that has her initials and jersey number. BG’s former coach in Phoenix and now Liberty head coach, Sandy Brondello, spoke about the change in BG’s classification and said:

“There’s not a day I don’t think about BG. I was trying to message with her family yesterday. She’s in everyone’s mind. She can’t be forgotten. She means so much to so many people. I coached her for a long time and she’s like family. I think it’s a great step.”

Hopefully we get to see BG home as soon as possible.

We see you

New York basketball is in great hands.

With all the talent on the Sun, it feels like it would be a giant disappointment if Connecticut didn’t make it to the Finals.

Without Laney and Richards, we’ll see how Sandy Brondello deploys her rotation. The team signed Kaila Charles for tonight’s game on a hardship contract and we’ll see the minutes distribution for this one.

For Sabrina Ionescu, this matchup promises to be a daunting one. In the three games against the Sun in 2021, she only averaged 5.7 points and 4.7 assists (to 4.3 turnovers) a night on a .300/.333/1.000 split. Of her 20 total field goal attempts against the Sun in 2021, only five came within the restricted area. Throughout camp, the team has stressed getting into the paint and free throw line more than they did in 2021. For Ionescu, if she can get to the cup, it’ll open things up for the Liberty. That will be a lot easier said than done as she’ll have Jasmine Thomas on her case tonight. Thomas has made the All Defensive team five times in the past six years and will draw this assignment tonight.

Pace will be essential tonight. The Sun were dead last in pace in 2021, while the Liberty were second. NY wants to play faster, but also more in control. They had the second highest turnover rate in 2021 with the Sun ahead of them in that dubious category. If the Liberty can play the way they want to, they’ll have some good opportunities to make things happen. Getting easy transition buckets becomes even more important when you remember that the Sun were the stingiest defense in 2021, allowing only 91.7 points per 100 possessions.

New York Liberty Media Day Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s a long road back, and for AD, tonight represents a major step in their comeback. AD was diagnosed with COVID-19 in June 2020 and has missed the past two seasons due to long COVID. AD was cleared to return to basketball in November 2021 and has been working their way back to full strength. Earlier this week, Ben Pickman of Sports Illustrated published a wonderful cover story on AD and their comeback. AD’s sister, Genesis Durr, had this to say in the story:

The journey doesn’t stop here, but making it back to this point is a humongous victory for AD and we’re happy to see them back on the court. They’re taking it day-by-day as their teammates have been major sources of support and will help them as they get reacclimated to the intensity of the game. The Liberty fans at Barclays Center will be another source of support and the crowd will look to cheer them and the Liberty on.

This is AD’s first game since 2019 all the way up in Westchester, and the same can be said for their pal, Han Xu! Xu has been away from the W for the past two years due to COVID-19 restrictions in China and her return will give the Liberty another capable back up option to new starting center, Stef Dolson. Dolson, Xu, and rookie Lorela Cubaj will have to own the boards as the Sun were the best rebounding team in the league last year.

The trio will have to do battle with Briona Jones on the boards. B. Jones was the second best offensive rebounder in the league in 2021 and while she doesn’t stretch the floor, she can still make life hell on opposing bigs. The Sun hope to play a bit faster, but they can still slow it down and hammer opponents on the inside.

Not to be outdone, we’ve got one more comeback tonight! Jocelyn Willoughby will be back on the court after suffering an Achilles tear at the end of training camp in 2021. Willoughby has earned rave reviews in training camp and will give the Liberty some size on the perimeter and a little more three point shooting. On the other side, Alyssa Thomas is back for a full season after suffering her own Achilles injury in January 2021. Amazingly, she returned after nine months and played in the Sun’s playoff series against the Chicago Sky. Her return was the subject of a documentary as well.

Player to watch: Jonquel Jones

Say hello to the reigning MVP. After sitting out the 2020 wubble, JJ returned to the W with a vengeance as she led a fantastic Sun team to the best record in the league. She continued to expand her range on the court, which led her to average a career high 19.4 points a game on a .515/.362/.804 shooting split. Over at Swish Appeal, Zack Ward crowned Jones the best player in the league, writing:

At 6-foot-6, Jones can shoot the three, even participating in last year’s 3-point contest. Her career 3-point shooting percentage is 37.9 and she recorded a career-high 1.6 makes per game last year. She averaged an impressive 19.4 points and 11.2 rebounds and was solid across the board with 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks.

Having a big that can do it all is a godsend, and for Connecticut, JJ will look to lead a championship contender to the promised land. Jones can create off the dribble, post you up, create for others, and score from all over the place. It’s everything you want in your franchise player.

Natasha Howard will look to make life difficult for the reigning MVP. Howard took on center duties for the Liberty last season, and an MCL injury slowed her debut season in Brooklyn down. With Dolson here, Howard can slide down to the power forward role. The Liberty’s defense wasn’t great in 2021, and a lot of that was due to Howard’s absence. Now that she’s here, the Liberty can plug a lot of holes. AD spoke about Howard’s defense on Thursday and said:

“She can play both sides. She can play D and she can score. She can bring the ball up. She can go coast to coast. She’s really like a guard and a forward. She can play both, and not only that, her team defense is great. If I get beat, I know that she’s gonna have my back and she does that well. It’s gonna help our team tremendously.”

Without Laney tonight, we’ll see if Howard is counted on to score a little more. She’s more than up to the task and with a marquee matchup like this, a great showing will set the tone for the early part of the season.

From the Vault

The goal is getting to Beyonce for a Liberty game, and damn it, we gotta make it happen!

More reading: Swish Appeal