In life, the thinking goes that when you take care of the easy stuff first, the harder things are less difficult. With the easy ones clear, you have more energy and time to handle the tough stuff. However, if you struggle with the easy things, you run out of time before you can solve the hard problems.
The New York Liberty came back from the All Star break and back into the Eastern time zone against the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday night. The All Star Game was on Sunday so nobody in the WNBA had a “break” per se, but that’s the way it is. The Aces dominated the Liberty in the first half and led by as much as 24 points, but this Liberty team has a lot of fight in them so they made a valiant comeback effort. Despite their heroics, they weren’t able to scale Vegas mountain and lost a tough one, 107-101.
Last week, Sabrina Ionescu demolished the Aces as as her 31/13/10 set the WNBA ablaze. Tonight, the Aces defense was a LOT better as they held the Liberty to a .262/.231/.429 shooting split in the first half. Something Vegas did that was different from the first matchup was that they threw a lot of hard hedges at Ionescu whenever the Liberty ran pick and rolls. The Liberty couldn’t get stops in the first half (52 points on a .486/.364/1.000 shooting split), which allowed Vegas to set their defense and wreak havoc on the Liberty. More on Ionescu in a few.
Han Xu also went to work against the Aces last week, but Becky Hammon’s squad adjusted to take her out of the game as well. The Aces target Han on defense and hit midrange jumper after midrange jumper in the first half, and as a result, Han only played 8:42, her lowest amount of the season. In the postgame, Sandy Brondello explained that the smallball lineups helped get the team back in it and serve as a counter to Vegas.
The first half was the worst we’ve seen the team in some time, and Brondello was direct when she said the said the team was “terrible” and “didn’t come ready to play” at the beginning of the game. She was effusive in her praise of the team’s effort after the break, saying:
“We started playing really good, and that’s how we were in June and July. We’ve had some hiccups here, but I’ve talked about being healthy and consistent. We’re finally getting healthy. We need more consistency from game to game. For me, I was proud of that team and how we finished, but we have another opportunity to come and can we bring it for 40 minutes? So it’s more of a challenge to us. We scored 73 points in the second half, it’s like a full time score. So we have that ability, but it’s just really really hard work, and we just gotta keep competing and that’s what I said. We’re right there, but we can’t be down by 20.”
Nothing was working well for the Liberty in the first half, and what really did them in early was their lack of success inside the restricted area. The team missed a lot of bunnies and if you look at the shot chart, you see that they missed 11 shots inside the restricted area in the first area. In the second half, that number dropped to just two. They also missed four free throws in the first half (3-7), but went a perfect 15-15 after intermission. Against any team in general and specifically against the Aces, you’ve gotta cash in on the easy opportunities.
Last week, the Liberty set a bunch of records against Vegas, and tonight they set one more. Their 73 second half points were a WNBA record, surpassing the 72 the Detroit Shock had in 2007 against the Phoenix Mercury.
Leading the charge
In postgame, Brondello shouted out Natasha Howard’s efforts in bringing the team back. When you can downsize and turn to your power forward and trust them to play center against the best offense in basketball, you’ve got a star. An All Star in fact! After halftime, Howard scored 17 points, grabbed five rebounds, and went a perfect 9-9 from the free throw line. Howard set the tone for the team and Brondello spoke about Howard and her efforts, saying:
“We put a lot of pressure on our great players. They’re our stars, but they have to bring it every single night because that’s why they’re the stars.”
Howard has a lot on her shoulders, but she’s up to the challenge. We asked Howard in the postgame what the message was in the locker room during the halftime intermission, and she said:
“Defense. That was the main thing we focused on in the locker room. The only way we were gonna win this game is playing defense. Our offense goes off of our defense, so that’s how we came out there in the second half with more focus on defense. Next thing you know, everybody’s shots started falling in the third quarter.”
It’s always a pleasure to see a player locked in, and tonight, Sami Whitcomb was on fire. Whitcomb got the Liberty back in the game with a barrage of threes that had the Barclays Center crowd on its feet
SAMI WHITCOMB! FIVE THREES IN THE THIRD QUARTER!— WNBA (@WNBA) July 13, 2022
Four of those were back-to-back! Liberty are now within 8 after being down 24 at the half. pic.twitter.com/emh9jt7wV1
Whitcomb has seen her three point percentage increase each month this season and now that she’s dialed in from deep, the Liberty offense has the potential to climb higher heights.
Fourth quarter Sabrina
The thing about great players is even when you slow them down, they can take over at a moment’s notice. Sabrina Ionescu had a rough first three quarters as she couldn’t get her shots going We mentioned all of the hedges the Aces threw at her in the first half, and we asked Sabrina what worked to open up her offense in the second half as compared to the first:
“We got stops. It’s hard to trap in transition so the fact that we were not taking the ball out of the basket and able to set drags and pistol actions and just stuff while their defense wasn’t set is why we were able to get open looks. Sami was able to get us back in that ballgame with open looks. When you gotta get the ball out of the net and run a play every time to try and get a shot, it’s not as easy so our defense dictated our offense in the second half.”
More specifically, her offense opened up in the fourth quarter. It was there Ionescu scored a WNBA record 21 points in the quarter as she hit shots that would break the difficulty scale.
Ionescu shouted out her teammates who got them back into the game and got the Aces to stop trapping on defense. The bench’s comeback efforts also led Ionescu to play only 29 minutes tonight, which was her lowest since June 7 against the Minnesota Lynx. Ionescu mentioned that getting out in transition helped the offense avoid getting trapped by Vegas, and for a team that is always looking to get easy buckets in transition, completing possessions on defense and getting your opponents out of
In pregame, Sandy Brondello provided an update on Jocelyn Willoughby. Willoughby has been out for a while due to a tear of her left quadriceps tendon. Brondello reported that she had a practice session with the team and the team is building her up so she can possibly make her return on the road trip next week.
Rebecca Allen has been hampered by a concussion she suffered in June for over a month and returned to action tonight. Allen came off the bench to play 19 minutes and was part of the closing five for the Liberty. There were a few plays that reminded us she’s not all the way back yet, but she played hard and is a welcome addition to a Liberty team fighting for a playoff berth. Ionescu spoke about Bec’s return and said:
“It was really nice to see her out there. She’s worked hard to get back. We need her, and she knows that. She has a great role on this team on both sides of the floor. So seeing her getting integrated back... We’re gonna continue to put her in positions to help us offensively and defensively because she’s able to guard 1-5 defensively. Super happy for her as she continues to build and we continue to integrate her into our offense.”
With more reps, Allen will look like the player Liberty fans are accustomed to seeing. Tonight was a great first step in seeing it through.
These teams will dance one more time on Thursday morning. Tip after 11:00 a.m. ET.