Every game counts the same, but you know how it is this time of the year. When the standings are close late, everything takes on greater importance. The margin for error is at zero, everything gets amplified, and one false move can spell doom. If you do things right, you’ve got something to build on.
On Tuesday night, the New York Liberty played host to the Los Angeles Sparks. This is a pretty funky set up as it’s the first leg of a back-to-back here at Barclays Center for the two teams. It was close early on, but the Liberty gradually built their lead and never looked back as they cruised to a 102-73 victory.
It’s been a consistent theme in recent games, but when the Liberty are able to attack the paint, great things happen. 16 of their first 18 points all came in the paint as Natasha Howard wreaked havoc at the rim.
The Liberty sleepwalked through the first matchup against the Sparks, and paid the price as Los Angeles took full advantage of their lackadaisical turnovers and punished them on the glass. LA tried to out physical the Liberty tonight, but the home team wasn’t having it. They outrebounded the Sparks by 13 and withstood every hard foul and shove LA threw at them. In postgame, Sandy Brondello spoke about her team adjusting to that and said:
“To be quite honest, I see growth with this team because when someone’s been physical with us, we’ve gone downhill. We let it rattle us. We had a tough July, played a lot of good teams, almost won some and some others we should’ve won. Games like this, you kinda see where you’re at... I was happy with how we handled the physicality. We started off a bit slow. I wasn’t happy with the way we executed some of the things. Too many easy baskets in the paint early. But I think we’re becoming more resilient and that’s what you want at this time of the year.”
With the stakes getting higher by the day, being able to adjust to playoff physicality and intensity will be essential for the Liberty. It’s a sign of growth that they’ve been able to take these punches from teams and have counters to keep them off balance.
On Sunday, all five Liberty starters scored in double figures as they beat the Phoenix Mercury. Tonight, two bench players crossed the double digit mark. The play of Han Xu and Marine Johannes will be critical to the Liberty’s chances of making the playoffs, and tonight, they were both magnificent. MJ had 12 points, three rebounds, and four steals as she helped run the offense and got the offense moving in transition. Han missed a few bunnies at the rim, but that didn’t deter her at all. She scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds, but most impressively handed out a career high eight assists in her 26 minutes. We know Han’s ability to get buckets, but her passing had the Sparks out of sorts. Natasha Howard was asked about Han’s passing, and she said
Natasha Howard Han Xu's 8 assists "I see it growing big time. Her reading the floor more, and reading her defender to find the open player. She did a good job with that tonight." (Q: @busyxb) #OwnTheCrown #WNBA— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) August 3, 2022
For as good as Han is already, she has even more room to improve.
In the pregame, Sandy Brondello mentioned that Betnijah Laney has continued to practice and make progress as she recovers from knee surgery. She’ll be with them on the road trip and if all goes well, she could be back very, very soon. Having Laney back would give the team another jolt of positivity as they race to the finish line.
Rebecca Allen was involved in a collision with Chiney Ogwumike in the second quarter and didn't play the rest of the night. Due to the blowout nature of the game, Bec wasn't needed and in postgame, Sandy Brondello mentioned that Allen seemed OK and the team will see how she’s doing on Wednesday. Hopefully Allen is healthy and feeling good.
Setting the tone
Sabrina Ionescu set a franchise record for assists last time out, but it felt as if she left some food on the table. She only shot 3-14 from the field and was looking to get back on the good foot on Tuesday. Great players always turn it up down the stretch, but one play in particular took Ionescu from good to sensational.
In the second quarter, Chennedy Carter fouled Ionescu, and she got a technical foul after taking exception to Hollywood's physical play. After the tech, Ionescu set the stage for a dominant evening
When you poke the bear, the bear will bite you. Ionescu put on a show in front of the hometown faithful as her 31 points tied a season high and was three away from setting a career high. She had a .688/.556/1.000 shooting split as she had Sparks defenders off kilter all game long. There were two plays tonight that were perfect encapsulations of the kind of team the Liberty want to be with Ionescu leading the way. Late in the second, the Liberty were up eight and looking to get another possession to end the half.
Ionescu immediately followed that up with
Sabrina Ionescu with the 3️⃣ before the buzzer pic.twitter.com/5Z3nJqR2xG— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 3, 2022
Franchise players always set the tone of an organization. When they’re fighting and scrapping it out, everyone will follow suit and the team will take on their identity. Ionescu isn’t a player that will back down from a challenge, and fans LOVE that from their superstar. Ionescu was asked about the crowd tonight, especially in the first half, and said:
“The crowd had our back. That game was getting out of hand a little bit, and the refs let it get out of hand a little bit, and the crowd just rallied with us and kept us energized through that entire thing. It’s always fun. We know when we get into those games, when we get into those fights that the crowd’s gonna have our back. That fires me up, that fires the team up and so we’re super thankful for that and they’ve brought that all year. We kind of expect that night in and night out to have that crowd have our back.”
New York basketball has its superstar to lead them into the future.
Game within the game
Do not adjust the settings on your TV! The Liberty partnered with Xbox for a gaming inspired court that we’ll see over the next two games. We in the media got to do pregame with Sandy Brondello on the new look court, and it looks real nice in person. Xbox and the Liberty have a long standing relationship and will continue building on that. Events like this help make the game more inclusive as kids who are gamers, kids who play sports, young women, etc. can get into the game at a new level and enjoy themselves. I had the immense pleasure of chatting with journalist extraordinaire, Pepper Persley, who spoke about technology and having various groups come together to make the game experience better:
“I think it’s incredibly important that kids are able to see the WNBA and see them making changes and advancements because I believe that every single NBA team has some sort of secondary court so I think it’s super cool that there’s this. And like I said before, there is an option for kids to be able to connect to this court through Roblox.”
It’ll be great to see more things like this in the future.
Meeting some old friends
We had some familiar faces in the house tonight. Team co-governor, Clara Wu Tsai, was here to present awards to local advocates and community leaders in Brooklyn as part of the Social Justice Fund. Joining Tsai on CeLibrety Row were Robin Roberts of ABC, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, and some guys we’ll be seeing in the fall! Ben Simmons, Kessler Edwards, and Day’ron Sharpe of the Brooklyn Nets were in the house to support the Liberty and as they start gearing up for their adventures this fall, they’ll have the Liberty supporting them.
On a more intriguing note, Kevin Durant’s agent/manager, Rich Kleiman, sat courtside with Nets assistant Ryan Forehan-Kelly and was seen hugging Clara Tsai.
Natasha Howard has had the turnover bug this year. She leads the WNBA in turnovers this season and is coming off of six and seven turnover games respectively. Following those games, Howard mentioned it was something she would work to improve. Tash was true to her word and only had one turnover in her 23 minutes on the court. She was asked about it in post and said:
Natasha Howard on just one turnover tonight: "It feels really good, me speaking out about my turnovers and doing the work not to get 6-7 turnovers. I think I did a good job tonight not turning it over tonight." (Q: @GeoffJMags) #OwnTheCrown #WNBA— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) August 3, 2022
If Howard is keeping the turnovers down, it makes the Liberty offense more potent. She punished the Sparks on the inside as eight of her nine made baskets came within the paint. Howard does so many wonderful things for the Liberty and she sets the tone on defense as well. The job won’t get easier from here, but having Tash on your side goes a long way.
These teams dance one more time Wednesday night at Barclays Center at 7_00 p.m. ET