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New York Liberty defeat Atlanta Dream, 95-84, in first game of back-to-back

The Liberty jumped out to an early lead against the Dream and never relinquished it, pushing their winning streak to four

Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The New York Liberty entered their contest with the Atlanta Dream on Thursday night riding a three-game winning streak. The disheartening loss to the Dallas Wings immediately after the All-Star Break is now far enough in the rearview mirror to forget about, especially with four games in six nights starting with the Libs’ contest against Atlanta Saturday.

That grueling stretch started with a win at the Barclays Center, New York’s fourth in a row, as the Liberty, lead by, who else, Breanna Stewart, never trailed in a semi-comfortable win over the Dream. Here’s how they got it done:

The Liberty were clearly not going to play with their food on Thursday night, slapping the Dream as soon as both teams took the Barclays Center court. Stewart blocked a shot to start the night, then hit a corner three off a perfectly executed set play on the other end. The Liberty registered three more stops and scores on the following six possessions, and the Dream had to take a timeout at the 7:45 mark of the first quarter, already down 9-0.

Things got worse before they got better for the visiting Dream, who soon found themselves down 21-6 before managing to close the deficit to 26-16 after the opening quarter:

Prior to the game, Sandy Brondello discussed how to slow down the Dream, both literally and figuratively. The Eastern Conference’s three-seed entered Thursday night playing at the W’s fastest pace: “I mean, there they’d like to get out and run and transition,” said Brondello. “So it really starts with our execution on the offensive end.”

The Liberty Head Coach’s focus proved prophetic; her team dominated the paint early (16 first quarter paint points), the pace slowed, and so too did Atlanta’s offense. However, after scoring 18 points in the game’s first four minutes, New York’s bench unit could not keep up the pace. An 8of--9 start from the floor quickly morphed into 13-of-24, and Atlanta responded by turning up their offensive tempo, led by Allisha Gray:

The crafty lefty knocked in the above floater to make the score a reasonable 29-22 early in the second quarter. Visions of a wall-to-wall thrashing for the home team were fading. Then, the Liberty starters checked back in. Namely, Breanna Stewart.

Stewart finished the first half with 25 points on 7-of-10 from the field and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. On the rare occasions she did miss a shot, you could be sure there was a whistle to follow, whistles that prodded Dream Head Coach Tanisha Wright into a technical foul. Stewie added seven boards and five assists as well, totaling an MVP-level stat-line in just the first half, and the first WNBA player ever with 25/5/5 in a half. Her impact was all-encompassing:

If not for Gray on the opposing side, who scored 18 points in the game’s first 20 minutes, the Dream may have been completely dead entering the second half, rather than trailing by a tough-but-not-embarrassing score of 57-42.

The opening moments of the third quarter were key, then, in deciding whether the contest turn into laughter or discomfort for the Liberty after such a dominant first half. We soon got our answer, as Atlanta started the period on a 10-2 run to cut the lead to ten. That’s about where the contest stayed until the fourth quarter, as the sea foam were able to tighten up their defense, but not their offense. New York shot just 3-of-14 from the floor in the period, though a 9-of-10 performance from the line kept their scoring afloat.

Certainly, the Liberty dominating the boards for the fourth game in a row had much to do with protecting their lead against Atlanta despite offensive peaks and valleys. Prior to the game, Brondello noted rebounding as a key against a hungry, athletic team, and specifically credited Jonquel Jones as being “a beast” on the glass recently.

Jones continued that trend, although she fouled out midway through the fourth quarter, adding 13 rebounds next to her 19 points. She was the most valuable glass-eater on a night when New York allowed just six second-chance points to their opponents prior to garbage time.

While the Liberty never ran away and hid in this one, as they looked poised to do at multiple junctures of the game, they finally laid the Dream to rest early in the fourth quarter. A 73-66 lead entering the period quickly grew to a fatal 84-69 mark thanks to Betnijah Laney, who bunched together ten of her 14 points in the final frame.

“Massive. Absolutely massive,” said Brondello of her starting forward’s impact. “I thought she had really quiet first half for her, but she’s just a winner. She just competes; she always has to guard the best player on the other team, and she knows what she does well. I think we’ve found ways to make sure that we’re looking at her and putting her in positions for success.”

Allisha Gray, who finished with 25/8/6, never received enough help from her fellow ATLiens to pull the Dream even. Aari McDonald, the shifty guard who was playing in just her fourth game since suffering a torn labrum, was Atlanta’s second-best player, scoring 18 points off the bench. Teammates Cheyenne Parker and Rhyne Howard, though, had just ten apiece, and the ascendant Howard shot just 4-f-17 from the field, consistently hounded by Laney and Jocelyn Willoughby. Willoughby has carved out somewhat of a defensive specialist role since the All-Star Break, and earned a dozen second-half minutes in this one after spending the whole first half on the bench.

“She was great,” said Brondello of Willoughby, post-game. “Like, she hasn’t played many minutes and that’s what being a professional is like: making the most of your minutes. And, we went with defense...she works really hard and did a fantastic job.”

Elsewhere, New York received a total of just 11 points from their reserves, led by six from Kayla Thornton. But the starters all stepped up; Sabrina Ionescu continued to dish the rock, following up her triple-double in New York’s victory over Seattle with another nine assists against Atlanta. Ultimately, Ultimately, the Liberty scored enough to maintain a wire-to-wire victory behind their superstar front court, as well as taking care of the little things Brondello has preached. Final score: New York 95, Atlanta 84.

A Little Extra

If you were watching this game live, you probably noticed that in Stewart’s post-game, on-court interview, she mentioned that “Atlanta had this game circled on their calendar but so did we.”

Stewie was referencing the last matchup between these teams, a chippy, June 23rd scuffle (that the Liberty won 110-80) in which Ionescu quieted the Atlanta crowd...

...after Tanisha Wright unloaded on the referees for not ejecting Stefanie Dolson following her elbow to Laeticia Amihere’s face. Got it?

After that game, Rhyne Howard simply tweeted “July 27th”, the date of the Liberty-Dream matchup on Wednesday night. So, did the official Liberty Twitter account retweet Howard after defeating the Dream on Wednesday? You bet. Did they continue piling on after that? Well, of course:

Spicy. Spicy indeed:

Next Up

It is the quickest turnaround possible for the Liberty, who will play the second side of this back-to-back on Friday night against the Minnesota Lynx. This game is a rescheduled one from earlier in the season, when it was canceled due to hazardous air quality in New York City, stemming from Canadian wildfires. Not that the climate is much more inhabitable a month or so later, of course; NYC will be under an excessive heat watch during the Libs’ game against Minnesota. Nonetheless, tip-off is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET on Friday night.