New York Liberty. Las Vegas Aces. A tantalizing Commissioner’s Cup matchup, simultaneously a potential preview for two teams perhaps on a much bigger collision course, but also a long-awaited showdown in and of itself. The Liberty defeated the Indiana Fever on July 12th to clinch their spot in the Cup, so we’ve known that these would be the two teams for over a month. Then, the Liberty provided the WNBA world with even more intrigue, wiping Vegas off the map in their most recent matchup, a 99-61 drubbing on August 6th.
Nobody, nary a player nor coach, pretended they had a just-another-game mindset entering Tuesday’s affair. Sure, we’re not in September yet, but cash prizes for both the winning players and in charitable donations were on the line in Vegas. Add those cash stakes to a budding rivalry between New York and Vegas, and even the league is still contextualizing what exactly the Cup means — Breanna Stewart admitted pregame she doesn’t know where her 2021 MVP trophy is — this one had some real juice.
“I’m not really sure what I’m feeling right now,” said Sandy Brondello before the game. “I think it’s just embracing the opportunity...We’re playing against a very good team in a very loud atmosphere out here, so I think it’ll feel like a Finals game.”
From tip-off, it was clear Brondello called her shot. The Cup immediately had all the markings of two teams playing on a huge, different stage for the first time all season. Which is to say, both the Aces and the Liberty looked wildly uncomfortable.
The last time New York took the court, facing the Indiana Fever on Sunday, each of the first eight possessions ended in scores, and it was 10-9, New York, after two minutes. Flash forward to Tuesday night, and the score after three-and-a-half minutes? Zero, zero. Both teams’ intensity, let’s say, outpaced their offensive crispness. It’s not that there were no good looks, either. Courtney Vandersloot missed two free-throws, Jackie Young missed a wide open layup. Everybody was on pins and needles, even after A’ja Wilson broke the ice with two freebies at the 6:29 mark.
Offensive dry spells as a whole were the story of the first half, especially for the stars. Sabrina Ionescu shot just 1-of-9 without any long-range bombs in the first half, and Co-star Breanna Stewart just about matched her, shooting 1-of-8. On the flip side, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young combined to shoot just 4-of-17 for the home team. By comparison, A’ja Wilson’s spent her 2-of-6 start to the game lighting the nets on fire. Not exactly the star-studded barn burner a television audience subjected to a, let’s say odd Amazon Prime broadcast may have been expecting. With just under two minutes remaining in the first quarter, the score was just 11-8 in favor of the visiting Liberty.
Then, Marine Johannès happened.
Johannès, who’s had a tough season coming off New York’s bench, experiencing career-worsts in both her passing and shooting numbers, left all that in the rearview in the biggest game of the season on Tuesday. The French guard, totally oblivious to the brickfest she wandered into, hit two quick 3-pointers to give her Libs a 17-11 lead after a quarter.
Then she hit two more, on back-to-back possessions early in the second quarter, making the score 28-17 with just under eight minutes to go. Johannès looked like she may be catalyst for a classic 2023 Liberty type of game, a blowout following a sluggish start. Brondello was even comfortable playing her next to Vandersloot and Ionescu in the first half, a trio that played just a dozen total minutes this season, prior to Tuesday.
“We don’t play it a lot,” said Brondello of that guard-heavy lineup. “It depends on our opponent, and I thought we matched up okay with them, but also [Betnijah Laney] got into foul trouble...maybe that’s something we’ll continue to grow going forward because they’re all playmakers, they’re all scorers.”
On Tuesday night, it was Johannès doing the scoring that threatened to break the game open. And then, well, the Liberty forgot to score. A 28-17 lead early in the second turned into a 34-32 deficit heading into the locker. Yeah, four points in eight minutes.
“They were playing a bit more physical and getting into us a little bit more, and we weren’t moving the ball as well as we should have been,” were Brondello’s observations after watching her team fall into quicksand and her opponents inch by them.
It appeared, early in the second half, that little was going to change. The Aces opened the third quarter on an immediate 5-0 run, signaling “uh-oh” to every Liberty fan. But Courtney Vandersloot, who would finish with a classic 11/6/10 line, proceeded to play her most pivotal stretch of the night, assisting or scoring on New York’s next three buckets to signal right back that we indeed had a game.
Or, did we? The Liberty outscored the Aces 16-5 over the last five minutes of the third quarter to take a decent 56-48 lead into the final frame. Johannès’ fellow reserve, Kayla Thornton, came up big during this stretch, nailing consecutive threes of her own from the right wing:
Kayla Thornton has hit some big shots in this one. pic.twitter.com/dfFDiBPwRp— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) August 16, 2023
Through three quarters, Thronton and Johannès, two reserves averaging a combined dozen a game this year, had scored 23 of New York’s 56 points. At times, these two were straight up carrying their starting five, an offensive unit that is already one of the best the WNBA has ever seen.
In the fourth quarter, the dam broke open. Sabrina Ionescu quickly transformed into the Hulk, hitting a trio of unbelievable, unguardable threes to expand the Liberty’s lead:
Sure, she had been quiet up to that point, but ensured nobody was leaving Michelob Ultra Arena without remembering her performance. Breanna Stewart never quite got going from the floor, shooting just 4-16 on the night, but the constant attention and double-teaming she saw from Vegas no doubt wore her opponents down and freed up opportunities for others.
On the Aces’ side of things, Jackie Young hit some shots here and there to lead her team with 16 points. Plum and Chelsea Gray, frequently hounded by Laney, each put up 15, but needed a total of 25 shots to get there. A’ja Wilson did’t make a shot in the second half and faded away without a peep, ultimately watching her Aces fall out of reach by midway through the fourth quarter.
As excellent as the Liberty defense was all night, and as shallow as Vegas looked without Candace Parker — Alysha Clark and Kiah Stokes combined for the only four non-garbage time points the other Aces would score all night — one cannot help but think the game might have gone differently if the hosts were able to throw one in the ocean. The Aces shot just 19.2% from deep compared to the New York’s 42.9%. Post-game, Becky Hammon said the “math” on those percentages was just too steep to overcome. Final score: New York 82, Las Vegas 63.
I have not mentioned the Commissioner’s Cup’s MVP, however. It was not Stewie, nor Sloot, nor Sabrina, nor Johannès, who led all scorers with 17. It was Jonquel Jones, fully and finally erasing all questions about where she fits in with this Liberty team. Jones was New York’s steadiest presence throughout, controlling the paint on both ends. 16 points and 15 boards, including seven offensive ones, many of which came in the second half.
“She’s just a double-double machine,” said Brondello of her star center, adding “and that really helps us. Rebounding is such a big thing we talked about all season long; we weren’t great at it. She’s buckling down and doing a fantastic job.”
Jones called the win “definitely a step in the right direction” toward “the ultimate goal, which is to win a championship. But anytime you’re able to be a part of a first is always a special thing.”
Along with the Liberty’s 16 turnovers, their statistical weak spot of Tuesday’s victory, and improved shooting in the second half, Jones’ complete domination on the boards helped produce one of the craziest stats you’ll find from a single game in a long time: The Las Vegas Aces grabbed four rebounds in the second half. As a team. In total.
This was Sandy Brondello's immediate reaction after hearing the Aces had just four rebounds in the second half: pic.twitter.com/yNjRJR2wVT— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 16, 2023
Between Brondello’s reaction and Hammon simply stating, “I’ve never seen that in my life,” the two coaches summed it up perfectly.
The New York Liberty played a complete game, though (and this may be encouraging) not their typical one to win the Commissioner’s Cup. It was not a barn burner, nor did it feature a supernova performance for a star. Sure, they made a bunch of threes that their opponent missed, which has been a common theme for New York this season, but this game was played in the mud. The Liberty had to win ugly, with defense and rebounding, and they did. It’s no wonder Jonquel Jones won the game’s MVP award.
“Spacing was congested,” said Hammon of her team failing to match their normal offensive production. “It was 5-on-4. They weren’t guarding Kiah, and they weren’t guarding Alysha either.”
It was a gameplan executed to perfection. And it led the New York Liberty to their first piece of hardware in franchise history.
Winning for a Bigger Cause
As a result of their win, the Liberty players will each make $30,000, not bad for a day’s work. But more importantly, Callen-Lorde, an organization that “provides sensitive, quality health care and related services targeted to New York’s LGBTQ+ communities,” will receive a total of $25,500 for New York’s seven wins during the seeding games and, of course, the Cup victory:
Prior to the Commissioner’s Cup, Jackie Powell of The Next quoted Jones as saying that playing for Callen-Lorde “gives us extra incentive to just play a little bit harder, and I know it’s not just about us.”
The Commissioners Cup is the first piece of hardware won by the Liberty in more than a quarter century in the WNBA. They went to the WNBA Finals in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2002, but came away empty-handed. It’s also the first trophy for Joe and Clara Tsai whose sports holdings include the Liberty, Nets and two teams in the National Lacrosse League. And in a year of disappointment in New York sports, it was a welcome chance to cheer a championship team.
The New York Liberty won’t be going anywhere, as the Cup was just the first game of a double-header! New York will be playing the Las Vegas Aces again on Thursday night, with tip-off scheduled for 10:00 p.m. ET.
- Box Score: New York Liberty 82, Las Vegas Aces 63 - WNBA
- Game Highlights: New York Liberty 82, Las Vegas Aces 63 (Video) - WNBA
- Jonquel Jones, 2023 Commissioner’s Cup MVP (Video) - WNBA
- Liberty beat the Aces 82-63 in the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup behind Jonquel Jones’ MVP performance - AP
- Liberty win Commissioner’s Cup with blowout of rival Aces - M.A. Voepel - ESPN
- Liberty take down Aces to win 2023 Commissioner’s Cup, Jonquel Jones awarded game’s MVP - Fiifi Frimpong - New York Daily News
- After Commissioner’s Cup loss to Liberty, is doubt suddenly creeping in on Aces? - Jim Trotter - The Athletic