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New York Liberty defeat Washington Mystics in Game One, 90-75

After a shaky start, the New York Liberty cruised to a postseason-opening victory over the Washington Mystics

2023 WNBA Playoffs - Washington Mystics v New York Liberty Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Liberty vs. the Washington Mystics is no ordinary 2-7 first-round playoff matchup. The Liberty admitted as much prior to Game One on Friday night, with Courtney Vandersloot saying “Washington is a really good team that’s struggled with injuries, and that’s really the only reason they’re a seven seed.”

Head Coach Sandy Brondello had the same opinion, saying of the Liberty’s opponent, “They’re not a seven-seed, we all know that.”

Any fan who may have dismissed these warnings as surface-level respect for an inferior opponent was roundly corrected after the first quarter on Friday night, which Washington won 29-23. The Mystics, known for their physical, athletic defense, carried those traits over to the offensive side in a track meet of an opening frame. They pushed off misses, off makes, off New York’s turnovers while making shots and seemingly recovering every 50/50 ball to boot:

While the Liberty largely kept pace on the other end, it was an uneasy start to the postseason for sea foam fans, who watched their team rank 2nd in the W in defensive rating after the All-Star Break.

The second quarter was not a full return to form for the Liberty, who specifically struggled in pick-and-roll coverage and were prone to some stark breakdowns...

...but the next ten minutes marked a drastic improvement from the first. The Liberty won the period 23-13 to take a a 46-42 lead into the halftime break, with their improvements coming almost entirely on the defensive end.

The Liberty lead would have been even larger if they lived up to their well-earned reputation as the WNBA’s premier 3-point shooting team. Instead, they shot just 4-of-16 from deep in the first half, and did most of their work on the inside.

Jonquel Jones put up ten points and six boards consistently throwing her weight around on the inside. The Washington Mystics, down Shakira Austin (hip), could hardly contain her.

Betnijah Laney, however, was the games’ leading scorer at the half, not only making two triples but shooting 6-9 overall on her way to 14 first-half points. The last of those came on this back-breaking buzzer-beater off a nice tip-pass Breanna Stewart:

“I think that when you think about the playoffs and games like this, it’s not big plays,” said Stewart after the game. “More often than not, it’s the little plays that really change the momentum like that, hustle plays. It’s the fact that B and I didn’t stop.”

While Washington kept it tight with a balanced scoring attack in the first half — nobody reached double-digits, but four starters had at least seven points — Laney’s buzzer-beater turned out to be a momentum swing.

The second half largely mirrored the first, but with one major exception. The Liberty began to nail their 3-pointers, much to the delight of a raucous Barclays Center crowd while maintaining a strong inside presence. Much of their hot shooting was thanks to, who else, Sabrina Ionescu. The 2023 All-Star and second team All-WNBA player came out of the break firing and never slowed down, scoring 20 points in the second half while making six deep three-pointers. By the final buzzer, Ionescu had set a franchise record for most threes in a playoff game, fittingly so:

As on the above play, Washington’s bigs sat too low on the pick-and-roll, time after time, and Ionescu made them pay for it, often thanks to sturdy screens from Jones.

“Their posts were kind of dropping off in transition, waiting for us to come down there, S being able to use that opportunity to get [Ionescu] open looks,” said Jones. “So many times, people have so much attention towards her because they know she can shoot the ball well, but as a post player, I know that if I set a good screen, she’s gonna be open.”

And while Jones was a master of the little things on Friday night, she wasn’t too shabby at the big ones either. She finished with 20/12/4 and two blocks, but perhaps most importantly, guarded Elena Delle Donne for the majority of the second half, and did a damn good job at it. Delle Donne was quiet as a mouse after the halftime break, scoring just three points on three shots to finish with 11 in total, and while it was a team effort to defend her, the Liberty weren’t shy about heaping credit on Jones.

“It’s really good when you have options,” said Brondello. “We wanted to establish JJ down low and we needed her to be assertive on the block, and to get the ball to her and the rebounding. But defensively, we just thought it would be a good matchup. It allowed Stewie to roam a little bit behind, and that was big, that really changed the game.”

The third Liberty star of the game was undoubtedly Laney, who hardly let up in the second half, finishing with 19 points, eight boards and quite a few incalculable defensive plays:

“Defensively, especially, we go as she goes,” said Jones of her frontcourt partner. “When she’s having a night like she’s having offensively, we just become that much better. She’s definitely one of the heart and souls of this team.”

Add in a quiet yet characteristically well-rounded performance from Vandersloot, who put up 7/6/6/1/2, and the Liberty more than survived another tough shooting performance from Stewart (3-of-16) against the Mystics. The home team won each of the last three quarters, not allowing Washington to touch 20 points in any of them.

“I felt like we were on a string. We were really in the gaps, being able to help each other out, and we were able to get stops off of it, which fueled our offense. You know, it just made us feel good,” said Laney of her team’s defensive effort after the first quarter.

While the Mystics put up an admirable fight behind Myisha Hines-Allen, who led the way with 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting, their offense simply gave out. The visitors shot just 5-of-22 from deep, and while Delle Donne, Brittney Sykes, and Ariel Atkins all reached double figures, none of them shot particularly efficiently. After cutting New York’s lead to 71-65 early in the fourth quarter, Eric Thibault’s team wasn't able to land another punch.

As well as the underdog played in the first quarter, 46 points for the rest of the night just wasn’t going to get it done against these New York Liberty. Final score: New York 90, Washington 75:

Helping hands

WNBA 2023 Playoffs - Washington Mystics v New York Liberty Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

In the postseason, rotations get incredibly short. Teams go eight deep and the further we go, probably six at most.

Stefanie Dolson only played six minutes, but was a +/- +10 on the night.

Sabrina said what she said ... then proved it

Earlier in the week, Stefan Bondy, the Daily News Knick beat writer, tweeted that after the Giants’ 40-0 whopping at the hands of the Cowboys and the Jets’ loss of Aaron Rodgers, coming so soon after the Yankees and Mets collapse, “it’s very possible the Knicks are now the best team in New York.” The Liberty and their fans took exception and Sabrina Ionescu referenced the controversy prior to the game...

Then, she did what she did.

Things you love to see

Not long after the game end, Sabrina Ionescu made her way to courtside to greet her biggest Brooklyn fan: Mikal Bridges, just home from Manila and the FIBA World Cup. Bridges was easy to spot. He was wearing her jersey...

Bridges has been one of the Liberty’s most recognizable fans, attending games regularly before duty called and his made his USA Basketball circuit of the Earth.

The Nets leader wasn’t the lone Nets player in the stands...

That’s Lonnie Walker IV, Royce O’Neale, Day’Ron Sharpe, Spence Dinwiddie and Dennis Smith Jr. Sean Marks was also on hand as his Liberty counterpart, Jonathan Kolb, was presented the WNBA Executive of the Year award. Other front office types at Barclays: Assistant coaches Ryan Forehan-Kelly and Corey Vinson, assistant GM Andy Birdsong and Long Island Nets assistant L.D. Williams.

Celebrity row was an eclectic group indeed. Among co-owner Clara Wu Tsai’s guests were women’s sport icon Billy Jean King snd Noble Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani human rights activist. She won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate at the age of 17. Malala, who advocated for the right to be educated as a woman had been the target of a Taliban assassination attempt two years earlier.

Overall, a crowd of 8,789 fans gathered in Brooklyn. It wasn’t just the quantity but the quality...

Next Up

2023 WNBA Playoffs - Washington Mystics v New York Liberty Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The teams do it again on Tuesday night. Tip off after 7:00 p.m. ET at the 'clays.