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New York Liberty roar back into WNBA Finals, defeat Las Vegas Aces 87-73

The entire complexion of the WNBA Finals changed on Sunday afternoon, thanks to a Liberty victory and one major injury.

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Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

“I feel like a lot of the things that we did, we beat ourselves with a lot of the things that happened, and when you’re playing against a great team, when you do that, that’s the result that will happen.”

That was Betnijah Laney discussing the 0-2 hole that her New York Liberty entered Sunday’s Game 3 in. Laney and the Liberty consistently threw praise the way of the Las Vegas Aces all week long, but merely as a formality. Their real message was clear: We beat ourselves. Just take it from Sandy Brondello, who said her team had no “toughness,” “resistance,” or “grit” after their 104-76 shellacking in Game 2: “Everything was too easy.”

Case in point:

Yet, in front of an announced Barclays Center crowd of 17,143 (a WNBA record for gate receipts, AKA ticket revenue), the Liberty found themselves. It didn’t take long to see this was indeed the team fans had become accustomed to seeing during their 32-8 regular season and 5-1 start to the playoffs. New York pulled off active defensive possessions featuring multiple rotations and smooth transition offense, occasionally in the same breath:

Finally, we were going to get a game between these two superpowers. Whether the Liberty would prevail was another question entirely.

The first half was filled with “buts” for New York. Sure, the league’s best 3-point shooting team remembered how to make threes, starting off 5-of-9, but they couldn’t nail twos, with Sabrina Ionescu missing a couple wide open looks in the paint. Sure, the Aces were shooting only 38.7% from the floor by halftime, but they were already 13-14 from the line. Yes, the Liberty had woken up, playing like the damn Liberty for the first time this series...but they were only up 43-40 at halftime.

The third quarter was even more of a grind than what had been a physical beginning to the game, but New York was up for the challenge, winning the period 18-10. Here, the backline rotations that had been too little, too late, forcing the Libs to foul Aces drivers tightened up to near perfection. Locking down the rim, the prized possession for every offense at every level of hoop, is easier said than done. It’s also easier if you have Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart on your team.

Key to the Game

Aside from the Liberty eliminating their correctable, cringe-worthy mistakes from Games 1 and 2, the key to their Game 3 performance was the defense of Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart in the second half. Both were their superstar selves all over the court, with Stewie posting 20/12/4 (and five turnovers), aided by a freer-flowing Liberty...

Jones was the true star of the game, pouring in a fat 27/8/3/3/2 line on 10-15 shooting, including a playoff-career-high four triples. Simply put, she did everything, particularly on defense, per Brondello: “I thought she did a fantastic job shot blocking, changing shots, switching and staying in front of the guards. It’s not easy for this player that size,”

Most importantly, Jones collaborated with Stewart to shut off the rim on defense — the two enveloped every Ace that ventured inside the arc after halftime, including A’ja Wilson...

Las Vegas shot 7-of-27 from two after the half, 25.9%. There are a whole host of numbers to further explain New York’s domination around the basket, like their eight blocks to Vegas’ zero — JJ and Stewie combined for five — or that A’ja Wilson shot just 4-of-16. Of course, New York’s whole defense turned it up after halftime, not just the bigs, but it was those two that locked the door on possession after possession.

“We didn’t do a great job of moving the ball, moving our players and playing off of close-outs, which is what has given us success our first two games,” said Kelsey Plum in post-game.

New York’s offense couldn’t quite put the game away in the third quarter, but even the eleven-point lead that the sea foam carried into the fourth may as well have been 30 with the way they were defending. The fourth quarter featured a mini-comeback from the Aces, concerning but never really threatening, although that was put to rest with a Betnijah Laney 3-pointer to put New York up 74-64 with just over three minutes remaining.

A little window dressing later, and the Liberty had officially gotten them back in the series, without a moment to spare.

Final score: New York 87, Las Vegas 73.

Individual Performances

While Stewart and Jones led the way for New York, Courtney Vandersloot and Betnijah Laney each chipped in 12 points on five made field goals apiece. While Vandersloot still suffered from the occasional moments of hesitation that rendered her nearly unplayable in Vegas, the Liberty’s quicker pace benefitted her immensely. New York got stops and Sloot pushed off of them, preventing the Aces from setting up a defense that flagrantly ignored her in Games 1 and 2. She penetrated the paint and dished six assists, and remained just aggressive enough to allow her teammates to shine.

Vandersloot may have had more assists if not for Sabrina Ionescu, who embraced more of an on-ball role in this one, perhaps due to Vandersloot’s struggles earlier in the series. And while Ionescu ended with just nine points, the only Liberty starter to fall short of double figures, her lack of scoring was fitting.

Ionescu made play after play, finishing with 11 assists to just one turnover, and the Basketball Gods rewarded her unselfishness with a signature moment after hitting a late 3-pointer:

“I’m not just a scorer, and I think that’s the beauty of what I’ve always been able to tell myself,” said Ionescu. “I’m just committed to winning and whatever that takes, just riding that rollercoaster of learning as I’m going.”

Meanwhile, New York’s bench did enough to survive, if not thrive. Kayla Thornton played just nine minutes but hit two triples, and, in the surprise of the afternoon, Marine Johannès played 14 uneventful minutes with Tony Parker (owner of her French league team) in attendance:

The Las Vegas were led by an ultra-aggressive Kelsey Plum, who scored 29 points on 10-of=22 shooting. However, that’s were the positives ended. No other Ace shot 50% from the floor: Jackie Young was shockingly quiet, scoring just eight points in 38 minutes, Alysha Clark came off the bench to relieve a completely disregarded Kiah Stokes — who obliged by taking zero shots and watching her minutes drop to just 19 — only to shoot 1-5 on largely uncontested threes.

Chelsea Gray joined Plum and Wilson (16 points) in double-digits with 11, but shot just 4-12 on an incredibly tough shot diet, frequently having to bail her squad out of stagnant offensive possessions with hero-ball. Worse yet, Gray became the story as we approach Game 4 after leaving Sunday’s action with an injury.

A Brutal Blow

The game was inching toward, but not yet in garbage time when Chelsea Gray hobbled to the locker room with an apparent foot injury. It didn’t look good:

After the game, Hammon said she “believed” it was a foot injury for her starting point guard, but wasn’t 100% sure since she hadn't spoken with the Aces’ training staff: “I can’t give you an update. I’ll let you know when we know.”

Gray’s status for the rest of the series appears to be in real jeopardy, and is now the main story moving forward. There is no replacing Gray, an all-time playoff performer and point guard of the most devastating offense in WNBA history.

Said Wilson, “She’s our point guard. She’s our leader.”

Crowd Watch

The record-setting Barclays Center crowd was thrown into doubt by at least one prominent media member prior to Game 3:

For a crowd whose virtues have been extolled by both Liberty players and the Brooklyn Nets that share the building (and often show up to support the Libs), Wilbon’s attitude came as an unwelcome surprise. Mikal Bridges, a noted Liberty superfan, couldn’t help but chime in:

Following New York’s victory, Bridges and Joe Tsai, who owns both Barclays Center franchises, couldn’t help but have some fun at Wilbon’s expense:

Whether due to the Liberty’s improved performance in Game 3 or the excellent crowd, or more likely, some combination of the New York Liberty and their fans feeding off each other. Barclays Center was the place to be on Sunday afternoon:

A bit of history

Sunday’s win was the first by the Liberty in 24 years, since 1999 when the Libs ultimately lost the Finals to the Houston Comets in a best-of-3 series.

Next Up

The Liberty and Aces will be back at it Wednesday night 8:00 p.m. ET at Barclays Center for Game 4. It’s another do-or-die for the Liberty. A win and they will head back to Las Vegas for Game 5 at 9:00 p.m. ET while a loss would end what would be successful but ultimately disappointing season.