We may be used to it, but that doesn’t mean we’re tired of it. The New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces faced off for the fourth time this August in front of a record-setting Barclays Center crowd on Monday night. And while it may not have carried the weight of the New York’s Commissioner’s Cup victory in Vegas, there were some real stakes in this heavyweight matchup.
The Liberty entered the contest just two losses behind the Aces for the WNBA’s top seed; a win not only would have closed the gap to one loss, of course, but would have secured a 2-2 split in the regular-season series. The following tiebreak scenarios (namely winning percentage against .500 or better teams) would result in long and convoluted calculations, but a Liberty win would at least make those a possibility. A loss, and New York’s dream of finishing the regular season as the W’s best would be all but dead. For Vegas, a win would afford Becky Hammon’s squad room for some much-needed rest down the end of a grueling, 40-game regular season.
“I feel like I’m pressing gas but there’s no gas in the tank,” said Hammon following her squad’s loss to Washington in the prior game.
There was certainly gas in the tank to start the night for the Aces, who jumped out to a 16-7 lead midway through the first quarter on the backs of Jackie Young and A’ja Wilson. The two All-Stars combined for 13 of the first 16 points, with Wilson lighting up the midrange in her usual fashion:
The Liberty came out the gates firing from distance; a whopping 13 of their first 18 shots were from 3-point land, and while many of them were open, not many were going in. It was an unlikely source that dragged the sea foam inside the arc and towards the basket: Sabrina Ionescu.
Her struggles from two-point range this season have been well-documented; she was converting a dismal 32% of those looks prior to the All-Star Game. However, Ionescu’s drives have steadily improved in the second half, shooting close to 40% from two since the break, and Monday night was the culmination of that progress. Ionescu, not Courtney Vandersloot, was the team’s primary ball-handler in the first half, and responded with finishes like these...
On-ball Sabrina is fully here: pic.twitter.com/DID2N03GUR— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 28, 2023
...without losing her long-range prowess, as if that was ever in doubt...
Sab’s conditioning so crazy. handled a ton of PnR in the 1Q and can still flow into this: pic.twitter.com/GfUP2qowBi— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 28, 2023
Ionescu credited her season-long improvement inside the arc to “just looking to score” post-game. “I think early on I was driving looking to pass and realizing I was open too late and kind of fumbling some of my shots. Instead, now, I’m going in a lot more strong and determined to get to the basket.”
Ionescu finished the first half as the leading scorer, with 17 points to Wilson’s 15 — Vandersloot, knocking down two triples in more of an off-ball role, was the only other scorer in double digits by half, with 10.
The Libs quickly battled back, thanks to their starting backcourt, after that early 16-7 deficit, and were locked in a tight, back-and-forth contest until a game-changing 11-0 run midway through the second quarter gave the home team a 38-26 lead. Outside of Wilson, no other Ace could put the ball in the bucket. Young cooled off immediately after her hot start, Kelsey Plum was invisible in the first half, shooting 1-of-6, and Chelsea Gray made nary a field goal. After 20 minutes, Wilson’s work was the dam protecting her squad from a Liberty blowout.
The third quarter did little to determine the outcome of the game. There were no big runs in either direction, no game-changing stops or scores, just a Liberty lead that floated on the precipice of double-digits for ten minutes. Well, that and the highlight of the night, by way of Marine Johannès:
Johannès was joined in the third by Breanna Stewart, who was unable to find that sort of range all night long, but ramped up her two-point scoring throughout the night, playing a total of 38 minutes en route to a 20/12/7/2/3 stat line.
“Stewie can do everything,” said Sandy Brondello after the game. “She’s guarding the best player on the other team. She’s rotating. She’s rebounding, running, creating for others. It’s not always about scoring.”
Part of the reason the sea foam leaned on Stewie so much, aside from her obvious greatness, is that her frontcourt partner in Jonquel Jones was severely limited by foul trouble. Jones finished the game with just 18 minutes after picking up three first-half fouls, unfortunately not a new phenomenon for Jones. However, the Liberty did not just stay afloat with her sidelined, but dominated in the Jones-less minutes.
Prior to the game, Sandy Brondello acknowledged the need for a “Plan B” when Jones hit the sideline, calling her critical to the Liberty’s success in the season’s second half while admitting “foul trouble is part of the game, isn’t it?”
In a stunning turnaround, Jones finished Monday’s contest with a team-worst plus-minus of -10, after weeks of anchoring New York on both ends.
However, she did make her presence felt before night’s end. With the Liberty leading 70-58 to begin the final frame, Jones was fouled on an offensive rebound attempt that granted the hosts another possession, on which Stewart nailed a short jumper to push the lead to 14.
It was a microcosm of the fourth quarter to follow, in which the Aces were just a step slower than what was required to mount a comeback. After making their first three triples in the first quarter, they went 6-of-20 to finish the game, and bricked multiple wide-open looks in the fourth. Vegas also finished with fewer offensive and defensive rebounds than their East Coast counterpart, fouled more, and lost both the fast-break and points in the paint battle. This was not the best game of the season for either squad, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an area of the game that New York did not outplay Las Vegas in.
“I felt the whole game, I felt pretty confident we had good control of it,” said Vandersloot. “You know, after our slow start, we came back and we really picked it up defensively. I think we were making things hard for them, we were scoring in transition...I do feel we had a really good grasp on the game pretty much the entire time.”
The Aces, however, made one late push: a 10-2 run to cut the New York lead to 90-82 with just over a minute left. However, the run was purely cosmetic, as the Liberty woke up from their quick daze to finish out their fourth consecutive win. Perhaps the announced attendance of 11,615, a Barclays Center record for a New York Liberty game — and the best number since James Dolan exiled them to White Plains, gave the sea foam the push they needed to lead for the final 30:21 of the game. “We couldn’t have won this game without you,” said Ionescu during her on-court interview. Final score, New York 94, Las Vegas, 85.
The Liberty’s defense held the Aces All Star backcourt of Plum and Gray to a combined 7-28 from the field and made their field goal attempts as difficult as possible
In postgame, we asked Betnijah Laney what’s been the key to the improving Liberty perimeter defense, and she said:
“I think we’ve just made it a point to be more aggressive, to communicate better, to just be more on a string in terms of being able to rotate and all of that.”
This Liberty team is getting better by the day, and with the playoffs set to begin on September 13, the sky is the limit for Sandy Brondello’s club.
Jonathan Kolb chats with the press
After the game, Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb took some time to chat with the assembled media outside the locker room. He covered a wide array of topics, and when Alexa Philippou of ESPN asked him what this night meant for the organization and women’s basketball at large:
“It’s really special for us. This league is great, but I think for it to achieve what we know it’s going to achieve, this market needs to be elite. So that’s something we really set into motion this offseason [and] to see the fans react the way they have. We want Brooklyn to be, and New York, really, we’re the New York Liberty. We want it to be a Liberty town in the summer and it’s really turned into that,” said Kolb, architect of the team’s off-season transformation.
“I think when you see outside with the players’ likeness on the building, on the subway, and everything else... walking around Brooklyn, you see [Betnijah] Laney jerseys, Sabrina [Ionescu] jerseys, [Breanna Stewart] jerseys and the like, it’s been really special. We want to keep it growing, we do.”
Kolb also talked about how far the franchise has come since its darkest days in 2019 when they won 10 games, then 2020 when they won two. They still have a lot more work to do, but are proud of where they are and the show they’re able to give fans. This Liberty franchise has been through a lot since its inception back in 1997, and for the loyal fans that have stuck it out with them, everything is starting to pay off in a major way.
Four Brooklyn Nets players were on hand: the team’s three rookies — Dariq Whitehead, Jalen Wilson and Noah Clowney — as well as newly signed free agent Trendon Watford.
The rooks have been at a number of games and are also filling in for Mikal Bridges who was at almost every Liberty home game before shipping off for the FIBA (Men’s) World Cup.
For the Liberty, the magic number for the second seed is at one. If the Connecticut Sun lose one more game or the Liberty win one more game, they’ll clinch the number one seed in the Eastern Conference.
They are now 1.5 games behind the Aces for the one seed. Las Vegas has five games left in the regular season
- home vs. the Mystics on 8/31
- home vs. the Storm on 9/2
- road vs. the Mercury on 9/8
- home vs. the Mercury on 9/10
New York has four games left:
- home vs. the Sun on 9/1
- road vs. the Sky on 9/3
- road vs. the Wings on 9/5
- home vs. the Sparks on 9/7
- home vs. the Mystics on 9/10
The Liberty will need some help, but the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs is still within reach.
The Liberty have a few days off before they return to action on Friday night against the Connecticut Sun. Tip after 8:00 p.m. at the ‘clays.
- Box Score: New York Liberty 94, Las Vegas Aces 85 - WNBA
- Game Highlights: New York Liberty 94, Las Vegas Aces 85 (Video) - WNBA
- Liberty beat Aces 94-85, tighten up race for top seed in WNBA playoffs - Doug Feinberg - AP
- Liberty beat Las Vegas Aces again behind Sabrina Ionescu, get closer to No. 1 seed - Fiifi Frimpong - New York Daily News
- Liberty validate they are legit WNBA title contender with third win over Aces - Andrew Crane - New York Post
- Sabrina Ionescu’s 25 points lead Liberty past Aces, tightening race for top seed - Brian Heyman - Newsday
- Liberty vs. Aces score, takeaways: New York closes gap in race for No. 1 seed in WNBA playoffs - Jack Maloney - CBS Sports
- Will New York Liberty maintain momentum after besting Las Vegas Aces again? - Ben Pickman - The Athletic