If you just looked at each team’s respective record heading into Wednesday night’s affair, you would have expected a blowout for the home team. The New York Liberty may have gotten embarrassed by the Las Vegas Aces on their recent road trip, but then again, who hasn’t? A calm victory in their next contest against the Seattle Storm brought their record to 11-4, second-best in the league. Meanwhile, their opponent in the Phoenix Mercury, even with this season’s return of Brittney Griner, entered the contest at 3-12, worst in the West.
Early on, the contest followed a basic script, subverting nobody’s expectations. At the end of the first quarter, New York was doubling up Phoenix, 26-13, preparing to play thirty minutes of garbage time. Although nothing out of the ordinary, no visitor could guard Breanna Stewart, who finished the first period with 11 quick points and a couple of dimes. On the other end, the Mercury finished the first ten minutes with a four turnovers next to four assists, on par for what’s been the league’s worst offense through early July.
And yet, the Mercury closed the gap to two practically as soon as play resumed in the second quarter. Three Liberty turnovers in the first two minutes of the period sparked the visiting offense, and Head Coach Sandy Brondello called a timeout following an instant 10-0 run from Phoenix that cut the lead to 26-23. So much for an easy forty minutes.
From there, the offenses exploded over the remainder of the second quarter; the referees did not do much to dissuade this development, calling a total of 22 fouls in the first half. With physical defense largely off the table, the Liberty were already 17-19 from the line at the halfway point, a team-high for free-throw makes and attempts in a half this season. On the other side, the Mercury put up 22 points in the paint to keep pace with New York, who took a 53-46 lead into the break.
The Liberty were unsurprisingly led by their dynamic frontcourt, with Stewart and Joqnuel Jones combining for thirty early points in this one. Stewie served us the usual...
Stewie with a professional outside pivot into a clean look, jeez: pic.twitter.com/xlbYyIJFPI— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) July 5, 2023
...while Jones showed some vintage finishing around the rim, perhaps the last skill of hers to not yet make a full, pre-foot-injury recovery:
Said previously that the last step to Jonquel Jones' recovery is the rim finishing. How about this? pic.twitter.com/KLSCZquR39— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) July 5, 2023
But New York was matched up against a familiar face: Michaela Onyenwere. The ex-Lib, traded to Phoenix over the offseason, was leading her new team in scoring at the half, putting up 12 points in 11 minutes off the bench. It was Onyenwere, not Griner, killing the Liberty inside.
Add dominant paint play on both ends to a combined 11-21 mark from deep for both teams, and that’s how you get a 53-46 at half, even though New York went over seven minutes without a field goal in a stretch spanning the first and second quarters.
The third quarter, then, played as a condensed version of the first half. At first, only one of these teams, the one you’d expect, kept up their fiery scoring pace: The Liberty forced turnovers and long misses on defense, and were off to the races on offense, doubling their fastbreak-point total from six to 12 in the third quarter. It appeared they were truly done playing with their food when a Sabrina Ionescu bomb pushed their lead to an even 20:
Then, each team brought the reserves in, and we got more of the same. Bench-led units for the Libs could not keep pace with their starters, and quickly gave up a chunk of their 20-point lead. Only this time, the Mercury were led by a pair of franchise icons.
The third quarter was Diana Taurasi’s. She scored 14 points in the period, including a trio of deep triples. She also poured in six free-throws after drawing two landing space fouls on a Kayla Thornton closeouts. Fouls that, upon review, were upgraded to a flagrant ones. Yes. All of that, twice. This led to an automatic ejection for Thornton, New York’s key bench player.
Kayla Thornton was ejected after receiving her second flagrant foul. pic.twitter.com/OY94KB2Amc— espnW (@espnW) July 6, 2023
The fourth quarter, meanwhile, was Griner’s. She opened the frame with three quick buckets - Taurasi assisted on two of them. Unlike the first half, when the Liberty doubled nine-time All-Star early and often, they were a bit slow to send two to Griner down the stretch, and it cost them:
Griner, who scored just six points in the first half, would finish with 21 points, eight boards, and two blocks. Her Hall-of-Fame counterpart in Taurasi would wind up with a dazzling 23 points to go with seven assists.
But despite impressive resilience thanks to star performances and scoring punch off the bench, the Mercury would fall just short in the end. Just short. Onyenwere even had a chance to stick it to her former team, or at least to tie the score with thirty seconds remaining. Tasked with a pair of free-throws to tie the game, she split ‘em, leaving her squad down 96-95.
Breanna Stewart, as she did over and over again Wednesday night, scored on the next possession to put the Liberty up 98-95:
And following a crucial New York stop, she made a free-throw to push the lead to four with four seconds left, and that was all she wrote in this one. Liberty 99, Mercury 95, final score.
Stewie finished with 43 ridiculous points, including 16 of the the Libs’ last 18 to put the game away. Phoenix, even with Onyenwere’s missed free-throw, played pristine basketball to close this one out. They just couldn't guard Breanna Stewart, which feels like an unfair way to lose, considering nobody can. Breanna Stewart, which we knew already, is just unfair. Her 43 points came on 65/75/87.5 shooting splits, and she added 12 boards and six dimes next to just two turnovers. Oh, and two blocks for good measure. By any measure, Stewie is making a strong case for the best player to ever don a Liberty jersey, even in just her first year with franchise. She’s also making quite the MVP case. In other words, nothing new for her.
When asked why her team seems to excel in clutch situations, Sandy Brondello simply pointed at Stewart and said “Just look at her real quick. That helps.” Indeed it does.
“Tonight was huge for [Stewart] and her ability to score and kind of do everything on the floor; it really opens it up for everyone else as well,” said teammate Ionescu.
Elsewhere, the Liberty backed up Stewie with a balanced scoring attack: Betnijah Laney put up 14 on ten shots, Jones added 13, and Ionescu put up 11, adding nine assists. Aside from the aforementioned, seven-minute bucket-less stretch, offense was not the problem for New York. Rather, some shoddy defense allowed the Mercury to stay in it, before the Liberty defense tightened it up down the stretch and sealed this one:
The Liberty did not force the ball out of Diana Taurasi's hands until the final two minutes of the game. Then, Jonquel Jones' most aggressive PnR D possession of the game (and rotations behind it) led to a steal and the game-winning bucket: pic.twitter.com/12PJmArEGj— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) July 6, 2023
“We made plays when we needed to, but there’s, there’s not one moment in the game where we shouldn’t have a sense of urgency,” said Stewart post-game.
Brondello was frustrated with the various shooting fouls her team committed in particular, the kind that ended Thornton’s night early: “We just fouled shooters, I don’t know how many you know. And that’s a lack of discipline, a little lack of focus. We’re going to be better.”
Ultimately, the Liberty did just enough to seal a victory, but as Brondello said, “We’re happy with the win. But we’re not satisfied with the way we won.”
Breanna Stewart’s Historic Performance
It’s hard to be anything less than satisfied with Stewart’s performance, however. Here’s some added context for Stewie’s 43-point performance, all of which were necessary for the Liberty to escape with a victory on Wednesday night:
- The first 43/12/6 game in WNBA history, although she had some breathing room. It is also the first 40/10/5 stat-line in a regulation game in league history.
- Stewart has now accounted for two of the three 40-point games in Liberty franchise history (Cappie Pondexter).
- The sixth WNBA player to have multiple 40-point games in the same season, and the first since Liz Cambage in 2018.
Matching Up with Brittney Griner
It was great to see Brittney Griner suit up in this one. BG missed the first matchup due to a hip injury, but was able to play well in her first game back in Brooklyn. She started slowly, but picked things up after halftime. In the second half, Griner went 6-10 from the field as she started to make her mark in the paint.
BG attributed the Mercury’s big comeback to the work they did on the defensive end. With a new coach and a healthy roster, the Mercury will be able to establish their new identity under interim coach, Nikki Blue.
During the game, the Liberty held a letter writing campaign with the Bring Our Families Home campaign. The Liberty held a similar event the first time the Mercury came to Brooklyn. BG spoke about the importance of those letters and said:
“It means everything to me. Getting those letters, people writing those letters, you don’t know how much it means when you’re in that situation and you get a letter like that. You don’t feel forgotten. It’s so easy to feel forgotten when you’re there, so just being able to get those letters and keep that going for other families, it just brings so much hope. [Being wrongfully detained overseas] is a dangerous thing, but [the letters] bring so much hope.”
Being at the game, we firsthand the love and support Griner received from the jam packed Barclays Center crowd. We also got to see the dedication the Liberty fans and Bring Our Families Home campaign had in uplifting the voices and stories of those who are wrongfully detained.
Michaela Onyenwere Returns in a Big Way
It was a much better homecoming this time around for former Liberty forward, Michaela Onyenwere. In her first game back, Mic had to leave the game early as she took an elbow to the face. She had a much better evening this time around. In shootaround earlier that morning, I asked Mic about playing with a dominant big like BG after playing in an offense where the guard was the focal point of the attack, and she mentioned that the doubles Griner draws simplifies things as she knows when to cut and finding the open read. We saw that dynamic play out in the early stages of the game:
Onyenwere was phenomenal as she scored 19 points off of the Mercury bench. She was instrumental in the Mercury’s 20 point comeback and almost helped them pull off a late miracle:
Onyenwere’s old teammates were happy to see her and to watch her game continue to grow. Sabrina Ionescu:
“I’m super happy for her. You know, I think that’s one of the reasons why she’s just so great in this league is that she’s just able to play multiple positions and really believe in herself. And so to be able to see the Mic that we all know, you know, sadly get traded from here but have such a good career. She’s still so young and learning and so to be able to see her out there, it’s obviously different seeing her in a Phoenix jersey but because she’s doing so well and seems so happy, I think it’s the right fit for her.”
“I think she did really well. She did well when she was here and she’s doing really well in Phoenix. I’m just happy, as a former teammate, to see her be able to continue her success. Obviously we don’t we don’t want her to always be great against us! But it’s good to see her out there and flourishing where she’s at.”
It’s great to see an old friend of ours shining and flouring in her new home.
The Liberty have their last home game before the All Star break on Saturday afternoon against the Seattle Storm. Tip off after 1:00 p.m. ET.