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Liberty clinch playoff spot after beating Atlanta Dream in season finale

Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Through the ups and downs, having support goes a long way. Your friends, your family, and your peers are there for you when you’re down and out. The journey is hard and sometimes, the thought of reaching your goal is too far out of reach. However, if you stick with it, keep trying your best, and handle business, the good will shine through.

On Sunday afternoon, the New York Liberty hosted the Atlanta Dream in the regular season finale. The job was real simple: win and you’re in. A loss wouldn’t have knocked them out, but a whole lot would’ve had to gone right across the WNBA for them to sneak in. The playoffs are here, and they started at Barclays Center. It was an intense, hard fought, well played game, but the Liberty prevailed and punched their ticket to the playoffs!

Slow starts have been a bugaboo for the Liberty this season, and it almost got them at the worst possible time. Atlanta jumped out to a quick 12-4 lead and Sandy Brondello had to burn a timeout to get the squad back on the good foot. After that timeout, Sandy made some substitutions and the team went on an 11-2 run to regain the lead. They wound up building a ten point lead, and that’s when the fight truly began.

The Liberty are mostly a jump shooting team. They can get to the rim, but they’ve been most comfortable firing from deep this season. In the first half, they put on a shooting display for the ages as they went 11-18 from downtown.

The Dream put a lot of pressure on the Liberty throughout the night, and that pressure allowed them to force NY into ten first half turnovers. That and a 12-13 start from the free throw line kept them in the game despite New York having the advantage from deep.

As the playoff intensity went up a few notches, so did the Liberty’s care with the basketball. They only had six turnovers after intermission and even though they didn’t have the success from deep like they did in the first 20 minutes, did enough to hang on. Stefanie Dolson spoke about adjusting to the pressure and said it was:

“Extremely important. We knew, in general, that Atlanta was gonna try and blow a lot of stuff up and just pressure us. The only, and main, thing that Sandy said to us before the game started was composure and poise. And I think it was extremely important for us to take every possession for what it was and get stops, and we got a lot of stops at the end. And [Natasha Howard] was incredible in the fourth quarter, so we were just able to outlast it.”

There were moments where it looked like the Dream were one clutch shot away from taking the lead for good:

However, the Liberty have gotten better at finishing games down the stretch and found a way to stay in the fight even when they were staggering:

The fact that New York was able to win when Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu didn’t have great games speaks to the resolve of the team, their grit, and their ability to adapt. On Friday night, they hammered Atlanta in the paint and drove relentlessly to the rim. On Sunday, they were able to heat up from three point range to keep them at bay. And in both, their defense stepped up to bring the W home. Sandy Brondello has mentioned repeatedly that everyone has to step up if they want to reach their goals. Every player on the roster has had huge moments that helped the Liberty win and this playoff berth speaks to their determination, fight, and character.

In her postgame, Stef Dolson mentioned that she’s had an up and down season, but she saved her best for last night. She made some history as she scored her 2,500th career point. On the evening, she scored 15 points, grabbed a season high 12 rebounds, handed out five assists, and set a few crushing screens to free up her teammates.

Dolson signing with the Liberty back in January helped set the course of this season as they got the front court help they needed along with an excellent screener and passer, not to mention the good vibes she brings. Her experience, ability to step up at key moments, and flexibility will be crucial for this next phase of Liberty basketball.

Flash saves the day

Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Leaders set the tone. They’re the ones who make things happen, pick up their teammates, and carry the squad home for the win. Natasha Howard has stepped up all season long and received a well deserved All Star nomination back in July. Last Saturday, Howard sprained her ankle and the Liberty went into a two game tailspin in her absence. She’s been back and helped get the Liberty to where they are right now. In the fourth quarter, Howard scored ten points, grabbed four rebounds, and made the biggest shot of the Liberty season so far:

“I was a bit worried there for a while, to be quite honest. She was struggling for a fair bit, and I had to take her at the start of the fourth. But she found a way, and that shows toughness. That shows pride in what she’s doing and her role on this team. That’s important. [Monique] Billings was a handful for us, just trying to keep her off the offensive boards and getting paint touches. But Tash regained her focus and was one of the reasons why we won.”

In her postgame, Howard mentioned that Sandy told her she was proud of her and glad she was able to play well in the fourth quarter. Tash spoke about her success on defense late and said:

Your stars set the course, and Howard is a sure bet to always give you maximum effort on both sides of the ball every time out.

Marine magic

Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Every team needs someone that can heat up in an instant. When the offense is down, you need someone you can turn to off the bench and trust them to go on a quick flurry to heat you up. Marine Johannes is just the right person for the job.

She made a career-high six 3-pointers, four of which came as soon as she got on the court in the first quarter.

She last three came on one of the most spectacular shots I’ve had the pleasure of seeing live:

In the post-game, Johannes joked that she thought she was gonna pulled from the game and have everyone mad at her if she missed that shot. However, that shot was cool and we’re all about cool, kickass plays around these parts.

With Johannes moving back to the bench, she has less responsibilities on her shoulders, which frees her up to be more aggressive when hunting her shot. Now that the team is finally healthy, we get to really see their players optimized and put in the best position possible to excel.

Another award for Sabrina

Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Sunday’s game wasn’t one of Sabrina Ionescu’s greatest as the Dream pressure gave her some trouble. However, her efforts over the past few games helped get the Liberty to this point. On Monday, the WNBA announced she and Las Vegas Aces center, A’ja Wilson, were the Players of the Week! It was the fourth time Sab has achieved that this season.

The wonderful thing about Ionescu is that even when her offense isn’t dialed in on a particular night, she’ll work to contribute in other areas so she’s having a positive impact. With the stakes getting even higher, she’ll need to maintain that good energy as the Liberty try to go on a miracle run.

The long road here

Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been a hard year for Sandy Brondello’s club. Between implementing a new system, not having a proper training camp, the injuries, the seven and five game losing streaks, and a whole bunch of other stuff, she and the Liberty have been tested a great deal. Before the game, Sandy Brondello spoke about how gratifying it was to make it to this point:

“I think it’s about growth. We’ve faced a ton of adversity, probably the most I’ve faced as a WNBA coach, and I’ve had a lot of adversity. I suppose when you lose one of your best players early, that takes an adjustment period. Betnijah is an All Star and was really big for us and getting some good rhythm here. But, I just see growth. I feel like even when we were losing, we were seeing growth and an understanding of how we want to play and that will hold us in good status as we move forward as well.”

Ace journalist, Pepper Persley, got the scoop and spoke with Betnijah Laney about her journey back:

Brondello spoke to the club in the locker room following their celebration, and told them:

Today’s win was a validation of all the hard work the Liberty have put in, the sisterhood they’ve developed, and the culture they’ve created in Brooklyn. Everyone is accountable, everyone wants to see their peers succeed, and everyone is united for one common cause. Today didn’t seem possible during the team’s stormiest moments. However, they never gave up, kept building the right way, and have earned the right to compete for the WNBA Championship. This franchise has unfinished business, and the road ahead promises to be an exciting one.

Next up

2021 WNBA Finals - Phoenix Mercury v Chicago Sky Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

The playoffs are here, and awaiting the Liberty are the defending WNBA Champions. The three-game series against the Chicago Sky begins Wednesday night in Chicago. Tip after 8 p.m.