And, exhale. The New York Liberty have officially made it out the other side of their daunting, post-All-Star break stretch of eight games in 14 days. While the Libs do have one more game on their current road trip, a Friday night date with the Minnesota Lynx, they’ll have more time to rest up prior to it than they’ve had in two weeks.
New York took on the Los Angeles Sparks in the conclusion of their two-game mini-series in L.A., on Tuesday night to wrap up said traffic jam of games. This followed a victory over the Sparks on Sunday, a wire-to-wire affair featuring a dominant first half then a shaky second, where the Libs almost/kinda/not really snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Which face would the Liberty wear against the Sparks in the rematch?
As it turns out, neither of the above.
Los Angeles picked up right where they left off on Sunday, with the defensive intensity dial turned up to eleven. Consistent switching combined with showing early, aggressive help in driving lanes befuddled the Liberty offense at times, which often looked out of sorts, accumulating multiple 24-second violations. The ball swung side-to-side, orbiting the arc but never really falling toward the rim.
And just as the Liberty appeared to get rolling offensively, early in the second quarter, Los Angeles started to aggressively trap ball screens, which the visitors seemed unprepared for:
a couple nice possessions, but a lot of tough ones vs. LA's traps: pic.twitter.com/rg4mcqBC6q— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 2, 2023
So, why wasn’t this merely a repeat of Sunday’s second half, in which the Libs scored just 36 points, allowing Los Angeles to creep back into it?
Well, on Tuesday, they ran stride-for-stride alongside LA’s aggressive, perimeter-oriented defense. The Liberty willingly met the Sparks at a striking level of physicality, no matter how weary legs may have played into their poor shooting on the other end, turning a chippy game into a bruising one.
The first half wasn’t ugly, but it sure wasn’t pretty, either. Nary a player scored double digit points. New York shot 12-of-32 from the floor, yet assisted on ten of those buckets. L.A. shot a nearly identical 12-of-33 and tallied nine assists. The 34-32 lead the Sparks took into the home locker room didn’t reflect poor offensive process so much as it did hounding defense. Well that and subpar shooting; the teams combined to shoot under 27% from deep in the brick-filled first half.
The third quarter was more of the same, though the Sparks had their guests on the ropes frequently. L.A. took multiple seven-point leads in the third, largely on the back of Nneka Ogwumike, who, as she usually does, became the Sparks’ go-to bucket-getter in the second half. She would ultimately finish with 20 points while moving into second place, ahead of Candace Parker, on L.A.’s all-time franchise scoring list.
But Ogwumike didn’t quite get enough help from her teammates to send New York into submission. Los Angeles continued to shoot poorly, and no other Spark managed to make more than four field goals in this one, though Most Improved Player candidate Jordin Canada sure did try, playing all 40 minutes of this one and shooting 4-of-19 from the floor.
The Sparks’ seven-point third quarter leads never ballooned to double digits, and the Liberty closed the gap by the start of the fourth quarter, trailing just 54-50. However, there weren’t many signs of life from New York, just signs of survival. There were no trademark offensive outbursts, no raining down 3-pointers despite taking a ton of them (33 of their 66 shots in this one were from deep). Breanna Stewart shot just 7-of-19 from the field while playing huge minutes again, this time 38 of them in a physical contest. Stout defense was keeping the Liberty alive against the 9-16 Sparks, but it clearly wouldn’t be enough to push them over the top. Where would that spark come from?
The answer, simply, was Courtney Vandersloot, an unlikely source despite her pedigree. Vandersloot had exited the contest briefly in the first half after an awkward spill led to a twisted right ankle:
Courtney Vandersloot heads back to the locker room in the second quarter after this right ankle sprain: pic.twitter.com/MGtkwYmgVB— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 2, 2023
Vandersloot, however, started the second half, appearing to avoid serious injury. But with the Liberty struggling to score the rock and convert from deep, was the veteran point guard really the answer? Sloot, a whirlwind distributor on an excellent passing team, came into Tuesday's contest averaging under 11 points a game for only the second time since 2016, and shooting a career-low from 3-point range. For all her offensive captaining, and even her fifth All-Star appearance, Sloot’s inaugural season in sea foam-and-black may be her worst as a scorer.
But you wouldn’t know that just from watching the end to Tuesday's game. The ex-Sky scored 20 of her game-high 23 points in the second half, and shot 4-5 from deep on a night where the rest of her teammates couldn’t hit water from a boat, shooting 4-28 from three. Many of her makes looked the same — a Los Angeles trap of Sabrina Ionescu would lead to a scramble situation, and eventually, a Vandersloot trey. That’s how the final frame started...
...and it’s how the the Liberty took a 66-65 lead after a 5-0 run from L.A. put the game in jeopardy:
Vandersloot described her performance plainly, saying “They were putting two on the ball with Sabrina when she was coming off ball screens. She was getting the ball out, and my teammates were finding me, so I was just able to knock them down.”
And of her scary-looking ankle twist, Sloot reassured fans that she’s “feeling good, I’m feeling ok. I just tweaked it a little bit. I just wanted to come in in the second half and be aggressive for us. I didn’t see how the first half ended, so I just wanted to make an impact.” Impact made.
Not much went right for the Liberty on offense outside of Courtney Vandersloot. Another aggressive, unique defense took Jonquel Jones out of the game entirely, as she shot just 2-of-3 from the floor. Ionescu finally cooled off from deep, shooting 1-of=8 from long range. And the bench, in an unfortunately recurring theme, chipped in just eight points to the cause. But Sloot willed (and shot) her team to a victory, sealed things with five points between her and an otherwise quiet Betnijah Laney. That turned a 67-66 deficit into a 71-67 advantage, the 15th and final lead change of the night.
Sloot, however, didn’t do it alone, of course. Aside from excellent team defense by all involved, Breanna Stewart, per usual, co-led the Liberty to their tough victory. Despite shooting 7-of-19 from three, Stewie added 12 boards, four assists, four steals, and three blocks, and was ever the handyman on Tuesday night. She plugged up holes no matter where they appeared, whether in help as a rim-protector...
Breanna Stewart with yet another great block: pic.twitter.com/qNdboDCRYY— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 2, 2023
...or grabbing three crucial offensive boards in the fourth quarter that led to desperately-needed second-chance points for her squad.
“Resilience. Toughness,” said the all-time great when asked what led to the tough win. “Just the ability to continue to fight through. We had a crazy schedule. When we stay together, when times are tough, we need to get closer.”
Scoring just 15 points in the final quarter, the Sparks simply couldn’t overcome a Liberty defense whose focus never wavered, historic all-around play from Breanna Stewart, nor hot shooting from Courtney Vandersloot. Final score: New York 76, Los Angeles 69. East coast supremacy.
- Stewart became just the fifth player ever, and joined Jonquel Jones, to accumulate a 15/12/4/4/3 stat-line. Not bad, and, somehow, not surprising.
- The win marked Sandy Brondello’s 200th total win as a WNBA head coach, including the playoffs. She’s just the ninth person to reach the mark and said of the accomplishment, “I’ve loved every minute of it, and it’s because of these players we have on this team. It’s a joy to go to work every day, because they want to be better, they want to be coached. I love what I do, I’m grateful.”
- There was a lot of talk about the 8-in-14-days stretch, and thus, a lot of talk about how the Liberty may lean on their bench to get through it. And while starting 6-2 out of the All-Star break with that schedule is undoubtedly a major win, the bench played a minimal factor. Tuesday marked the seventh time in those eight games where New York tallied fewer bench minutes than their opponent.
- Mikal Bridges, a fixture at Liberty home games in Brooklyn, was on hand at crypto.com arena, aka Staples, Tuesday night, along with assistant coach Ryan Forehan-Kelly.
Bridges joins Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas on Thursday.
The Liberty will travel to Minnesota to take on the Lynx, looking for revenge just after the Lynx, sans Napheesa Collier, came into the Barclays Center and left with a victory on July 28th. That game, the finale of New York’s three-game road swing, is scheduled for an 8:00 pm ET tip on Friday night.