The New York Liberty are set to tip-off their 2023 WNBA postseason run against the Washington Mystics on Friday night, in perhaps the most intriguing battle of the W’s first-round. The Mystics, a tough but oft-injured team in ‘23 whose 19-21 finished belies their true talent, are no small foe. The Liberty, of course, know this, as their 32-8 campaign season was bookended by two losses to Washington, as they had to watch their best regular-season in franchise history end with Brittney Sykes hitting this ridiculous buzzer-beater:
Thankfully for the sea foam, they get a re-do in this 2/7 matchup starting on Friday. There’s a lot of noise heading in that while the Mystics would be a fun, sexy upset pick, they probably don’t have the horses to pull it off. Is that underestimating Head Coach Eric Thibault’s team? Is it giving them too much credit? Let’s dive in.
We’ll start with the expected matchups heading into the series:
- Courtney Vandersloot - Brittney Sykes
- Sabrina Ionescu - Ariel Atkins
- Betnijah Laney - Natasha Cloud
- Breanna Stewart - Elena Delle Donne
- Jonquel Jones - Myisha Hines-Allen
Of note: Hines-Allen is starting in place of injured sophomore Shakira Austin, who was ruled out for Games 1 and 2 in New York due to a re-aggravated hip injury. What will the Mystics be missing without their starting center?
For one, a defensive presence that is both bigger and more mobile than her replacement. In their regular-season matchups Austin contained Jones far more effectively than Hines-Allen, who had trouble keeping Jones off the boards and staying out of foul trouble in the season finale, sans Austin, last Sunday.
For Jones, who saw a dip in offensive production in September after a monster late-July and August, indicative of the ebbs and flows of her season, she’ll have to stay out of the foul trouble that often plagues her to post her matchup aggressively. But it’s on the Liberty to look for her when the opportunity comes — how big of a focal point Jones is within the offense is a key to look for early.
Austin’s absence will also affect how sturdy Washington’s pick-and-roll defense against Sabrina Ionescu will be. Her excellent mobility allows her to help out at the level, able to contest long-range pull ups while still able to recover to the screener:
Hines-Allen, like many, doesn’t quite possess these traits. With Sykes likely sticking to Vandersloot (who was on the bench in the above clips), we may see the Liberty continue to increase the amount of ball-screens for Ionescu, potentially drawing switches for her teammates (read: Stewie) to attack.
Lastly, and at the risk of piling on, we must acknowledge that Hines-Allen is shooting just 37% from two this season. Thus, Austin’s disappearance is a major blow on that end as well. The third overall pick in 2022 suffered her initial hip injury in June against these Libs in the fourth quarter of a tight game — here is the very next possession from that contest, featuring Hines-Allen’s inability to capitalize inside:
Perhaps this results in more aggressive defensive coverages from New York, less worried about bleeding points on the interior — we saw this against the Candace Parker-less Las Vegas Aces, who started Kiah Stokes in her place. Austin’s ten points and seven boards a game may not be eye-popping numbers, but her absence in this series looms large.
Elsewhere, the battle between Vandersloot and Sykes, one which I touched on here, is mouth-watering. Sykes, likely the premier perimeter defender in the W, will be tasked with keeping Vandersloot out of the paint, and thus her Mystics defense out of constant rotation. (I’d recommend clicking on that link for a detailed description of the tricks Vandersloot uses to consistently get ten toes in the paint.) Add that matchup to a Stewie-EDD showdown for at least two playoff games, and you have enough reason to tune in to ESPN on Friday night already. More tactical intrigue, however, lies on the wings.
In June, Eric Thibault comfortably threw Cloud on Ionescu and Atkins on Laney. Yet, by their September meeting, those matchups were untenable for Washington, thanks to Laney’s late-summer explosion as a consistent post-up threat and cutter. This has been well-documented as the final piece of the Liberty’s historic offense, as defenses now must account for much more than Laney simply standing in the corner; she’s ready to bully anybody smaller than her.
For Washington, that means that Laney now requires the larger defender in Cloud, putting Atkins on Ionescu. Atkins is no defensive sieve, but she’s quite not the screen-navigator that Cloud is. Add that to the defensive drop-off from Austin to Hines-Allen, and we get those aforementioned switches on Ionescu pick-and-rolls.
While a dangerous proposition, Washington may have to take that switching a step further. Ionescu’s activity off-the-ball, whether setting screens or running off them, gave Atkins some problems in their most recent matchup:
However, this isn’t a one-way street here. Ionescu simply couldn’t guard Cloud, who took the former Oregon Duck to the paint and didn’t let up:
Atkins, however, presents her own unique challenge for Ionescu and the Liberty coaching staff. The way to attack New York’s weak link on defense is not through repeated isolations, but threw off-the-ball movement that forces Ionescu to run through screens. And fortunately for Washington, Atkins is a bonafide movement shooter that’s going to be primarily guarded by New York’s worst screen-navigator:
For a team that’s expected to struggle to keep pace with the Liberty’s historic offense in this series, the Mystics will need every bit of pull-up accuracy they can get from Atkins. The lefty guard will certainly be able to get her shots up in New York, and how many of them she makes is going to be a huge factor in determining we wind up in Washington for a potential Game 3.
How Physical do the Referees Call it?
The Washington Mystics, especially without Shakira Austin, are going to need a friendly whistle to pull off the upset. And by friendly, I mean nearly non-existent. Plays like this, where Atkins chips Breanna Stewart as she comes off an off-ball screen, can’t be called fouls against these underdogs:
Is that a foul? Maybe. But for a defense as physical as Washington’s playing against an offense as mobile and side-to-side as New York’s their best chance to slow it down is, well, by literally slowing the players down. How much freedom of movement the Libs have is a key, even if it might be a boring one, to this series.
If Atkins can shove Laney around on post-up attempts, then the Mystics can sic Cloud on Ionescu, making their defensive equation a bit simpler. The harder Breanna Stewart gets checked each time she comes off a screen, the harder the Liberty have to work to create good looks for her. The mud is where Washington wants to play this series, and if they can drag the games down there, it bodes well for their chances at an upset.
The Liberty lead the WNBA in regular-season 3-point percentage at 37.4%, while the Mystics finished 7th at just 33.6%. Yet, in the season finale, those percentages just about flipped, as Washington shot four percent better from deep than their East Coast companion. Can they keep it up in the playoffs? If so, the Liberty’s defensive style of providing aggressive help in the gaps, often leaving shooters open just one pass away, may not be tenable.
Here, Betnijah Laney cheats alll the way over in help, yet goes unpunished as Natasha Cloud hesitates, then misses a 3-pointer:
But what happens when it’s not Cloud, who failed to scrape 30% from three on the season, on the wing? What if it’s Brittney Sykes, not only a capable shooter but just as importantly, one that won’t hesitate. How reluctant will the Liberty be to plug those gaps, and if they don’t, can their perimeter defenders hold their own? Here, with Laney providing a little less help, Marine Johannès can’t keep Atkins from getting to the free-throw line:
While Sykes made the Liberty pay with a long-range bomb later in this game, in an identical situation, we also got a glimpse at the ideal help defense for the Liberty.
No, if the Mystics are hitting 3-pointers, the Liberty can’t give up open looks from beyond the arc that easily. But a tenet of this Sandy Brondello D is that no drive to the middle goes unpunished. If any opposing ball-handler wants to seize the middle of the court, they’re going to have to get through a sea of limbs to do so. Above, Courtney Vandersloot shows how it’s possible to enforce that principle without giving up an open three (requiring some resistance from the primary defender, as well, of course.)
How consistent with the Liberty’s help defense in the gaps be against Washington? Can they split the difference like Sloot showed? Will the on-ball defense be sufficient enough to allow for it?
There are certainly more angles to this series than just the aforementioned factors. We haven’t even gotten to bench play, though that’s largely because each starter will likely be pushing 35 minutes, particularly with three days of rest between Games 1 and 2, barring foul trouble. We also hardly talked about two of the game’s biggest stars in Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart going head-to-head in a playoff series for the first time since, well, last season.
This is a special first-round series, despite the absence of Shakira Austin. In many ways, it’s a series we’ve seen before, with a truly elite squad taking on an underdog that is much better than its record, thanks to regular-season injuries. But neither the Liberty nor the Mystics are cookie-cutter squads.
Ultimately, I will be a coward and predict that the New York Liberty defeat the Washington Mystics in a two-game sweep at the Barclays Center. Elena Delle Donne will give us one Herculean performance good enough to drag her team to victory, but so will Stewie. The Sloot-Sykes matchup will be as entertaining as we hope for, but without a dominant enough winner to swing the series.
The Liberty are uniquely constructed in that they can almost perfectly counter the serious top-end talent for Washington, talent unbecoming of a seven-seed. Elsewhere, Sandy Brondello & co. have enough plans of attack to avoid the prolonged scoring droughts that would allow Washington to push this series to the limit.
In any case, this should be a blast.
- WNBA playoffs 2023: Are the New York Liberty now the favorite? - ESPN
- 2023 WNBA playoff field set: Schedule, best first-round matchups, key storylines to watch - Sabreena Merchant - The Athletic
- WNBA playoffs set to begin with Aces and Liberty hoping to each make history - Doug Feinberg - AP
- Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb wins 2023 WNBA Executive of the Year - Fiifi Frimpong - New York Daily News
- The Liberty are New York’s best team right now and there’s no debate - Barbara Barker - Newsday
- W.N.B.A. Playoff Preview: Two Teams to Rule Them All - VIctor Mather - New York Times