It’s tough to knock out the defending champions. They have the battle scars and experience of playoff battles, and when things get tight, they can turn to that. They’ve seen it all, have the game experience with one another to figure things out, and can withstand barrages from their opponents. When you’re young, you have the energy, will to fight, and a never say never attitude that gets you far. However, the level of experience from the other side shows up when things are tightest and that can ultimately be what decides things.
On Tuesday night, the New York Liberty played their first home playoff game in five years. It’s been a long road to get back here and everyone, from the players to the coaches to the fans, understood the importance of making it back here. James Wade and the Chicago Sky have done this dance plenty of times as they’ve made the playoffs four straight seasons and are the reigning 2021 WNBA Champions. They’ll continue their title defense after they survived a Liberty haymaker and pulled away late to win 90-72 and advance to the next round.
There are moments when you think everything is gonna break right for the home team. There’s a moment so badass and awe inducing, you just know you’ve got your opponent down for the ten count. Early in the fourth quarter, it looked like this was that moment, courtesy of Sabrina Ionescu
The sellout crowd tore the roof off the Barclays Center as the Liberty had fought back to get it down to a one possession game. It looked like the Sky were reeling, but that’s when the experience kicked in.
Allie Quigley and the Sky were fully aware of the sellout crowd, and sought to keep them from making an even bigger impact:
Allie Quigley credited the Liberty crowd for their presence in Game 3, noting one point when fans began waving towels as a galvanizing moment: "I was like, 'Alright, we gotta pick it up. We can't let this crowd get into it.'"— Julia Poe (@byjuliapoe) August 24, 2022
They were able to do so with a backbreaking 16-0 run that stretched across most of the fourth quarter. It started with an Emma Meesseman layup that pushed the lead up to six points, and it was then the Liberty started pressing. They started to rush shots on offense and that played right into the Sky’s hands on defense. We saw the Liberty commit ill timed turnovers and rushed into the offense as they tried to deliver a knockout blow to the Sky. Their relative inexperience compared to Chicago shined through at that point, and it’s something that will change over time for this young ballclub.
When things started to heat up, the Sky stuck to their principles and the gameplan. The Liberty gradually got better at closing throughout the season, but this series showed that there’s a higher level that they need to reach if they want to deliver a championship to Brooklyn.
The Liberty made some adjustments to make up for the loss in game two. One immediate move that paid off was Marine Johannes being inserted into the starting five over Crystal Dangerfield. The Liberty had issues with the Sky traps, and Johannes’ ability to keep the ball moving and handle pressure was critical to their chances tonight. She can also heat up at a moment’s notice, and she set the tempo in the first quarter
In elimination games, rotations are razor thin, and the Liberty went with an eight player rotation (seven after halftime) for much of the night before things were decided in the final seconds.
In postgame, Sandy Brondello spoke about her team’s effort against the champs and said:
“We pushed them. We tried. Things didn’t go our way tonight. But we’ll be back better and stronger next year, so I’m excited about that.”
Bee steps up
It's been a tough year for Betnijah Laney. After a breakout 2021 campaign that saw her named to her first All Star team, she was hoping to build on it in 2022. Knee surgery in June cost her two months of playing time, and she came back for the stretch run in August. Her return helped push the Liberty to the finish line and Laney was essential to their game one win.
Tonight, Laney had a game high 15 points to go along with five rebounds in 29 minutes. She did a ton of damage
Betnijah Laney has not cared who is guarding her tonight. pic.twitter.com/VB3bfeJmUM— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) August 24, 2022
In the second half, the Liberty downsized and went with a one big and four wings lineup. In that lineup, Laney slid up to the power forward position and she battled with Meesseman and Candace Parker on the inside. We asked Sandy about what made the small lineup work, and she said:
“I think Bee, her versatility, her ability to score from so many ways. We tried to post her up early, then isolate her as much as we can. She’s a great one on one player and she was creating open looks for us while moving the ball. We’re just trying to find a way to stay in the game, to be quite honest. And Bee, we’ve looked at that lineup before, and it was effective for us. I just wish we had a healthier Bee all season long because she’s such an integral part of what we want to do. Just getting a healthy player is gonna be really exciting.”
Laney’s availability was the biggest what if for the Liberty this season. Brondello has said before that they wouldn’t have gone 16-20 if Laney was there all season long, and I agree with her. Laney gives the team another elite scorer and shot creator. She also is the heart of the team as her leadership and presence helps keep the team steady. As Ionescu can tell you, not having to rehab an injury over the offseason will do wonders for you as you get to properly train and heal up for the next season.
The stars showed out tonight in Brooklyn. Tennis legend, Billie Jean King, was honored as part of the 50th anniversary of Title IX. In the crowd were Liberty and Brooklyn Nets co-owners, Clara Wu and Joe Tsai.
Along with them were various members of the Brooklyn Nets family, such as: Steve Nash, Sean Marks, assistant coaches Igor Kokoskov, Trevor Hendry and Ryan Forehan-Kelly. Nic Claxton, David Duke Jr., Kessler Edwards, Day’Ron Sharpe and Alondes Williams sat next to Marks and Nash who like the Tsais had just flown in from Los Angeles where they and Kevin Durant declared a truce.
The Liberty and Nets have worked alongside each other a great deal in recent years, and that partnership should continue to blossom in the coming months and years. New York basketball has three fun, exciting teams and it’s a blessing for the fans all year round.
Bright days ahead
Despite the tough ending, it was a year of growth for the Liberty. They withstood a disastrous 1-7 start, dealt with the loss of their leader and All Star, dealt with a five game losing streak that almost knocked them out of the playoffs, and injuries to key rotation players. They have a lot to learn, as Ionescu explained to Maria Marino of SNY:
Sabrina Ionescu talks with @mariacmarino about how tonight's loss was a learning experience, how the team battled throughout the year, how the fans played such a huge role throughout the season, and what words Kobe Bryant would have for the team if he were still here today: pic.twitter.com/IfEAk1sOlW— SNY (@SNYtv) August 24, 2022
In postgame, Laney added:
“We grew a lot individually as well as a team, and that’s what it’s gonna take. It’s gonna take a team to come out and win, and get to the goal that we want, and that’s a championship. So I think that as we continue to grow, we continue to gel and everything, we’ll be on our way.”
The future is bright for Laney, Ionescu, Natasha Howard, and the rest of the Liberty franchise.
The New York Liberty will return in 2023.
- Box Score: Chicago Sky 90, New York Liberty 72 - WNBA
- Game Highlights: Chicago Sky 90, New York Liberty 72 (Video) - WNBA
- Chicago Sky v. New York Liberty Game 3 Post-Game Presser (Video) - WNBA
- Sky Silence Hostile Liberty Crowd With Game 3 Win - Kris Rhim - New York Times
- Parker, Chicago advance to WNBA semis, beat New York 90-72 - Doug Feinberg - AP