It unfolded in slow-motion. Trailing 68-64 with 1:50 left, Sabrina Ionescu dribbled to her right, off a ball-screen from Breanna Stewart at the top of the key. The New York Liberty had cleared out a side for the two to operate, and as soon as two Las Vegas Aces defenders staggered towards Ionescu, 17,000 fans at the Barclays Center braced, rather than jumped, for what was to follow.
Stewart won her second WNBA MVP award during her first season in New York, matching the two Finals MVPs already tethered to her name. Her victorious case was anchored by four forty-point games — tying the career-record for 40-burgers in just one season of hoops — and a whole host of other scoring outbursts. Many of these happened in the first half of the season, prior to the All-Star Break, where Stewie frequently swooped in to save a Liberty offense still ironing out the kinks, taking over possessions to drop in fadeaways and floaters over aw-shucks defense.
But October is a long way from May and June. This spring, if Ionescu had taken on a trap and Stewart had popped to the 3-point line, you could add three points to the Liberty’s total before the pass was even made. But not during Game 4 of the WNBA Finals, where Stewart was a ghastly 3-of-16 from the floor. Not during these playoffs at all, really, where one of the best to ever do it was shooting 36% from the floor over ten games of play.
But you gotta go out firing. So, Stewie caught the pass on the left wing, took a beat and took the shot. The Liberty faithful fell quiet, holding their breath, but perhaps their eyes widened as they saw a perfect trajectory. No such luck. Back-rim, front-rim, out. Three-of-seventeen.
Breanna Stewart’s postseason-long struggles culminated with the worst shooting performance of her playoff career, but that is far from the only reason the New York Liberty dropped Game 4 of the WNBA Finals, and the Las Vegas Aces won their second championship in a row, by a score of 70-69.
Breanna Stewart's 38% effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) in the 2023 playoffs was lowest of *any* 10-game stretch of her WNBA career. Before this year's playoffs, Stewart had only one 10-game stretch below 40% eFG: games 2-11 of her rookie season (2016).— Kevin Pelton (@kpeltonWBB) October 19, 2023
It should be noted that Stewart, again, was everywhere on defense. Well, everywhere except guarding her assignment, Cayla George. George and Alysha Clark started in place of Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes, two Aces starters that were dealing with foot injuries. The Liberty responded by treating George — and fellow next-woman-up Kierstan Bell — like the chopped liver of the Aces’ offense:
Stewie wreaking havoc as a roamer, setting up Betnijah Laney for an easy lay on the other end: pic.twitter.com/yxzMWf6JmS— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 19, 2023
Stewart, or whoever was “guarding” Vegas’ lesser threats, just roamed the paint, doubled others, and dared them to shoot 3-pointers. George specifically obliged. The Australian forward came off the bench to shoot 4-of-14, including 3-of-10 from deep. She hadn’t made a long ball since September 8th! And while George started 1-of-7, which seemingly played right into New York’s hands, she hit back-to-back triples in the midst of a game-swinging third quarter for Vegas:
The Liberty played a decent first half, leading 39-30 at the break, but the cracks in their armor were visible. The nine-point lead was disturbingly low, given that the Liberty were shooting 43% from deep. But they weren’t making two-pointers, missing layup after layup, only some of them heavily contested, and were turning the ball over nearly as much as Vegas, with a brand-new lineup, was (8 to 7.)
Predictably, playing with their food came back to bite them in that third quarter, which the Aces dominated, taking a 53-51 lead into the final frame.
Yet, even in that fourth quarter, where they looked completely hopeless after Stewart’s missed pick-and-pop three, where New York couldn’t stop turning the ball over, the Liberty still had a chance to win it on the final possession of the game. They couldn’t convert…
Cruelly, it was one of the more sound offensive possessions of the night for the Liberty. Stewart worked in isolation, drawing a double team in the middle of the floor before making the right pass. Betnijah Laney then kicked it to Courtney Vandersloot, who missed...badly, thanks to a flying contest from Jackie Young, who both helped on Stewart’s drive and recovered all the way to the corner.
It was an outstanding effort from Young, an uncommon X-out that was tough to read for Laney and Sloot, who perhaps could’ve made slightly better decisions (a drive from Laney, a pump-fake for Sloot), but reacted reasonably. The Aces, as they were all series, really, were just a step ahead.
“I put the ball in the hands of the MVP because we trust her,” said Sandy Brondello. “And it just didn’t work out today.”
So too was it cruel that Courtney Vandersloot ended the series, and New York’s WNBA Finals hopes, with an airball. Just prior to that sequence, just after Stewart’s crowd-deflating miss, she saved the Liberty's season with a 3-pointer of her own and a steal to cut a six-point lead to one:
Huge plays from Courtney Vandersloot. pic.twitter.com/bi6dKZgpLW— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 19, 2023
After struggling immensely since midway through the Semi-Finals against the Connecticut Sun, Vandersloot wasn't perfect in the Liberty's last hurrah, turning it over five times, but she was their best player, putting up 19/7/6. The Aces dared her to fire, and she made four threes. She played the best perimeter defense of the season, ultimately guarding Kelsey Plum, who shot 2-of-12 for much of the night. It was Sloot who addressed the Liberty fans through teary eyes after the loss: “First and foremost, thank you. We’ve really felt it. I hope they know we’ve given it our all.”
But cruel does not mean unfair. The Liberty did not deserve to win. The Aces’ replacements, particularly Sydney Colson, who was a +17 in 15 minutes and played stifling perimeter defense on Ionescu, came in and played great, but this may have been a blowout if Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes were healthy.
Jonquel Jones had three blocks and 11 boards, but just six points on 3-of-8 shooting. Worse yet, she got one post-up opportunity in the second half. The Aces were determined to take her out of the game, and they did, far too easily. Jones also played just 33 minutes, despite no foul trouble, her second-lowest total of the postseason. Worse yet, the considerable run given to Kayla Thornton and Marine Johannès resulted in a -7 in the plus-minus for each of them. That decision-making may haunt Sandy Brondello all winter.
All in all, Betnijah Laney was likely the second-best Lib in Game 4, scoring 15 points and four assists on 13 shots, but even then, she bit on far too many Jackie Young pump-fakes, allowing the Aces guard to get to the rim in the second half.
It was almost a relief when the buzzer sounded and the Aces celebrated in the middle of the Barclays Center. They showed every intangible you could want for a back-to-back champion, staring down the loss of two injured starters and storming back in the second half on the road. But the Liberty had every opportunity to send the series back to Las Vegas for a deciding Game 5, but threw it away. Losses don’t come much more painfully than this.
Here’s the A’ja Wilson paragraph:
A'ja Wilson is the WNBA Finals MVP— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 19, 2023
-1x Olympic gold medalist
A’ja is etching herself as one of the greatest ever pic.twitter.com/5dFcLa6vjT
Wilson played 39 minutes in this one, putting up a monster 24-point, 16-rebound line, becoming the first player ever to go for 20/15 in a close-out game. The résumé spoke for itself 24 hours ago, when Wilson had just one Finals MVP to her name, and it spoke loudly, but she earned every last bit of her second ring. Here’s the 23rd and 24th points of her historic evening, the ones which ultimately put the Aces too far out of reach:
A'Ja Wilson, what else can you say? pic.twitter.com/Ql9i18nnZY— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 19, 2023
The Liberty slunk away into the night, canceling press availability after their podium session for the first time all year. Sabrina Ionescu fully cemented her stardom this season — the All-Star appearance, the 3-Point Contest explosion, the Nike signature shoe and ad campaign — but was unavailable for comment after averaging 9.5 points on 31.5% shooting in a four-game Finals loss. Neither was Jonquel Jones, who went out with a whimper after overcoming a slow start to the season to entrench herself as New York’s best player this fall. Nothing from Laney either, whose first All-Star appearance six seasons into her career, as a Lib in 2021, kickstarted this whole thing.
That sour end to a sad night just ensured that the history of the 2023 WNBA Finals would really be written by the winners. And loudly:
“I got two words to say: Night-Night,” says Sydney Colson, drawing some boos from Barclays Center: pic.twitter.com/3Q3MpUdgF9— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 19, 2023
The Aces engaged in the typical celebratory banter, as they should. Wilson, after a whole season of refuting the “superteam” label applied to the Aces, spoke about how “everybody doubted us.” Does that make sense? Of course not! Is Plum saying, “you can’t build a superteam in a couple months,” at the podium shade to the Liberty? Sounds like it!
But the New York Liberty had every chance — and the injury luck on their side — to prevent the Aces from, deservedly, talking alllll their sh*t right inside the Barclays Center after going back-to-back for the first time since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2002. They just couldn’t capitalize.
It is a nearly impossible feat for a team to win a title, in any professional sports league, in their first season together. Particularly when one of the league’s greatest ever squads, like the Las Vegas Aces, is roaming the landscape. The Liberty almost got there. It was no guarantee, even with their tremendous individual talent, that they’d go 32-8, or that they'd only lose one playoff game before the Finals. To list all their accomplishments this season would extend this obituary past 2,000 words.
The New York Liberty had an outstanding season in 2023. They just saved their worst performances for the end.
- Box Score: Las Vegas Aces 70, New York Liberty 69 - WNBA
- Game Highlights: Las Vegas Aces 70, New York Liberty 69 (Video) - WNBA
- Las Vegas Aces become first repeat WNBA champs in 21 years, beating New York Liberty 70-69 in Game 4 - Doug Feinberg - AP
- Courtney Vandersloot misses at buzzer as Aces eliminate Liberty in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals - Fiifi Frimpong - New York Daily News
- WNBA Finals: Liberty can’t hold off Aces, ending championship dream with Game 4 loss - Brian Heyman - Newsday
- Liberty stumble short in promising run at crown - Barbara Barker - Newsday
- Liberty lose Game 4 crusher as Aces win back-to-back WNBA titles - Bridget Reilly - New York Post
- ‘This one’s sweeter’: Las Vegas Aces capture second straight WNBA championship - Sabreena Merchant - The Athletic
- Is WNBA headed for super-team era after success of Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty? - Sabreena Merchant - The Athletic
- Becky Hammon was built for the championship moment, just like her players - Jim Trotter - The Athletic
- Built to take down Las Vegas Aces, New York Liberty squander WNBA championship dreams - Ben Pickman - The Athletic
- How A’ja Wilson’s drive to be the best led Aces to WNBA repeat - Michael Voepel - ESPN
- Aces edge Liberty to secure 2nd straight WNBA championship - Alexa Phillippou - ESPN