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Liberty take cue from Marine Johannes spectacular assist to forge late 13-0 run and stun Sky

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New York Liberty v Chicago Sky - Game One Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There are moments where everything stops. Something happens that is so jaw dropping and audacious that it just freezes you in your tracks. You sit with it, run it back in your mind over and over again, and everything that follows is a direct result of it. In tonight’s contest, that magic moment late in the fourth quarter...

As Ryan Ruocco, it’s a play you will see for years.

Business damn sure picked up from there. Powered by the pass of the year from Marine Johannes, the New York Liberty went on a 13-0 run to complete the comeback and stun the defending WNBA Champions, the Chicago Sky, to go up 1-0 in this best of three series. It was the team’s first playoff victory since September 23, 2015 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Fever. That’s just short of seven years! It was of course the first playoff win for Joe and Clara Wu Tsai since they bought the team from James Dolan in early 2019.

In media availability on Tuesday, Stef Dolson stressed the importance of getting off to a strong start as the Liberty couldn’t afford to dig themselves an early hole. And sure enough, the Liberty were ready to ball as soon as the game started. Although they wound up trailing 24-20 after the first quarter, the flow of the game was beautiful as they took their time running the offense and found the advantages when they presented themselves.

One thing we’ve talked about all season long with the Liberty is the turnovers. They finished the regular season with the third highest turnover rate in the league, but if you dig into it more, there was something good in that. The team gradually cut down on the turnovers as the season progressed, more reinforcements came in, and as they built more chemistry with one another. Tonight, the team only coughed it up eight times, a season low and tied for the third fewest in team playoff history. They were able to consistently adapt to Chicago’s pressure and go from good to great shots. We asked Sandy Brondello about that, and she told us:

“That was the key to us winning. We said one of our keys was to limit the turnovers and we did a really good job. I kept encouraging them to play with poise, play [with a] next pass mentality, [pass to the] second and third side. That’s when you can loosen up a defense when you’re hard hedging and being aggressive. These players have really bought in what we’re trying to accomplish here. They’re great people and building that culture and that’s been important for me from day one. We’ve got another battle coming up, but we have to be ready.”

Against a defense like Chicago, you need a release valve to get the ball to when the traps are more intense. Luckily for the Liberty, they have Stef Dolson. Big Mama Stef is well versed with the Sky as she helped them win a championship in 2021. Now on the Liberty, her experience can help guide her young teammates in an intense matchup like that. She had an excellent all around game as her 13 points, seven rebounds, and three assists took pressure off of the Liberty’s All Star trio. Dolson scored ten of her points in the third quarter as she made the Sky pay repeatedly for their focus on the Liberty stars

Dolson’s front court running mate, Natasha Howard, was even bigger tonight. Howard put together a gritty 22 point, seven rebounds, three assists, and one block effort in 34 minutes as she played center when the Liberty downsized and battled with Emma Meesseman all game long. Howard’s ability to take on every assignment given to her allows the Liberty to play Rebecca Allen and Betnijah Laney at power forward, four guard lineups, etc. We asked Howard about the work the bigs did in matching the Sky on the glass

“It was very important. We knew that Chicago is a really good rebounding team, especially [Kahleah] Copper, Meesseman, [Rebekah] Gardner. We know that they rebound the ball really well and we had to make sure we box them out early and make sure that they don’t get the rebound. When we box out, our other guards gotta come in and get the 50-50 balls, and that’s what we did tonight.”

Howard also mentioned Johannes’ pass reminded her of a Sue Bird pass, and thanks to the awesomeness of Across the Timeline, we found it!

Even with the win, the Liberty have things to clean up. They committed a few silly fouls as Chicago out shot NY from the free throw line, 22-14. The Sky outscored them by ten points in the paint as they had a few lapsesThat’s been an issue for them all season and one I’m sure Brondello will hone in on over the next couple of days.

The Liberty have talked a lot about getting three stops in a row. When they’re able to do that, they demoralize the opponent and have some opportunities to cash in on the break. After that Johannes pass, the Liberty defense put the clamps on the champs. They held the Sky scoreless down the stretch as Chicago started to run out of gas. Sure open shots are open shots, but when you’re utilizing an eight player rotation and playing a fast paced game, you’re not gonna be as sharp as you were at the start of the night

You keep the pressure on and even the greatest players will struggle.

‘Why not us?’

New York Liberty v Chicago Sky - Game One Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Sabrina Ionescu has had an All WNBA caliber season, so it’s natural to expect that the Sky’s defensive attention will be centered on her. The Sky made it a point to force the ball out of her hands, but Ionescu rolled with the punches and shined brightly.

On the night, Ionescu had 22 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two steals, and only one turnover on the night. After Azure Stevens missed a wide open layup, the Liberty took the ball up court and got it in Ionescu’s hands...

That cut the Sky lead down to one point and the flow of the game was completely in New York’s favor from then. In the first game against the Sky this season, she and her teammates struggled with the hard hedges James Wade and company threw at them. Tonight was a lot better and Ionescu explained why:

“I think we’ve, collectively, made really good adjustments of being able to read and react in real time to what defenses are throwing [at us]. And also being able to use that to our advantage, whether it’s a trap, hard hedge, going over [a screen]. I think we’re all able to understand what we need to counteract all of those actions and use that to the best of our ability to get open shots for [Natasha Howard], Stefanie [Dolson], whoever’s on the floor. I think that’s something we’ve continued to grow in that category, but we’re getting better every game.”

The more times you do something, the better you get at it. The Liberty have seen the Sky five times this year and each game has gotten progressively better. Chicago will be playing with an extra sense of desperation in Game two and the Liberty will have to ensure that all of their growth carries over into that contest.

Magic Marine

WNBA: AUG 17 Playoffs First Round New York Liberty at Chicago Sky Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Crystal Dangerfield didn’t have the greatest of nights this evening as the Sky’s size posed some trouble for her. Luckily for New York, they have Marine Johannes ready to wreak havoc coming off the bench. Johannes can score in a bunches as she did down the stretch of the regular season. She had one of those games that exceed even what the box score tells us.

In her first W playoff game, MJ had eight points and seven assists to only one turnover in 26 minutes. Sandy Brondello trusted her to be the first player off the bench and to play the entire fourth quarter, and her ability to get downhill and move without the basketball had the Sky off balance

Sandy Brondello has talked a lot about the the importance of paint touches and cutting at the right time. With opponents (and her teammates!!) never knowing what Johannes is gonna do next, the opportunities are limitless.

Y’all wanna watch that pass to Natasha Howard from different angles? I know you do!

Playoff basketball is the best.

Big money Bee

New York Liberty v Chicago Sky - Game One Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

One of the best bits of coaching advice I’ve ever seen came from Doug Collins. In the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons, he was asked what his strategy was in a close game and said...

Still true!

There are times when the best strategy is no strategy. You’ve got a star and all you have to do is give them the ball and trust that they can get a good shot for you. Where ever you go, you need someone you trust to get their own shot and make it happen. The Liberty have that someone in Betnijah Laney. With the Liberty clinging to a three point lead late, the Queen Bee got the rock and went to work

Sometimes, that’s all you need. It’s been a long journey back for Laney as she’s undergone two surgeries within the past year. Now that she’s back, she gives the Liberty a player that is an elite scorer, playmaker, and defender. This team has been resilient all year long, and Laney is the embodiment of the heart, fight, and hustle of this Liberty group.

Next up

New York Liberty v Chicago Sky - Game One Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Liberty have a chance to pull off the upset on Saturday afternoon in game two in Chicago. Tip off is at high noon.