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New York Liberty defeat Washington Mystics 90-85, advance to WNBA semifinals

It took 40 minutes plus overtime of some off-the-rails basketball, but the Liberty have won a playoff series for the first time since 2015

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

On September 22, 2015, the New York Liberty defeated the Washington Mystics by five points in front of 9,255 Madison Square Garden fans to advance to the WNBA semifinals. The Liberty did not win another playoff series for quite some time, immediately losing to the Indiana Fever after that, then tumbling through eight years of chaos which included a temporary home in Westchester, a sale of the franchise, and finally, a permanent move to Brooklyn.

Nearly eight years to the day, on Tuesday, September 19th, 2023, the New York Liberty defeated the Washington Mystics by five points in front of 9,266 Barclays Center fans to advance to the WNBA semifinals. It was an absolutely wild game, the kind you can feel comfortable saying was one of the weirdest playoff games in recent basketball history without thinking all too hard, which is why we’ve skipped to the end already.

Now, let’s start at the beginning.

The first half was a closely played, physical affair, but ended with the Liberty leading the Mystics 46-35 after a quick burst that Kayla Thornton’s fingerprints were all over:

Her teammate Courtney Vandersloot said, “She comes in, and she makes winning plays, always. Whether it’s in the first quarter or late, she’s ready to do whatever the team needs her to do that night, and it’s different every single night.”

However, the Liberty would need more than Thornton’s signature hustle and grit to advance and put the Mystics to bed for good in the second half. As in Game One, New York shot just 3-13 from three in the first half, which kept the visitors within reach. A whopping 26 points in the paint kept the offense chugging along, but the sea foam couldn’t quite find the range.

Unlike Game One, that trend continued into the second half, and it nearly killed the Liberty. They scored just 13 points in the third quarter, and more worrisome than the shooting was the unrecognizable state of their offense. Gone was elite ball and player movement, now replaced by ball-pounding possessions that took forever to go nowhere.

“Yeah, I think we let their pressure get to us a little bit,” said Vandersloot. “Our offense was stagnant. Even when we were scoring, it felt like it was really hard. Credit to them, they played their asses off, they played really good defense.”

The Washington Mystics certainly did. Their renowned point-of-attack defense was in rare form with their season on the line, hounding the Liberty’s ball-handlers as soon as they crossed half-court. Brittney Sykes and Natasha Cloud slipped-n-slid off ball-screens, no matter how many Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu attempted to use.

Cloud, after her bold prediction that she’d stick to Ionescu for 40 minutes and cause a “rude awakening” for the Liberty in Game Two, followed through on her promise. Ionescu played 40 minutes in this one, scored 11 points on 11 shots, and was largely taken out of the offense by game’s end, and subject to a couple mean stare-downs from Cloud:

Sandy Brondello even admitted by game’s end, her focus was to keep Ionescu away from the action: “In the end, it was, ‘Don’t even come near the ball, you’re a decoy right now.’”

In fact, the reason the Mystics were ultimately able to erase the 11-point halftime deficit and take the lead by the fourth quarter was, in a word (or two), Natasha Cloud. Her defense, while impressive, was a link in a Washington chain that didn’t give an inch. Her offense, though, was the chain that pulled her team toward the finish line; Cloud finished with 33 points and nine assists, and wreaked havoc every time she touched the ball.

In Game One, the Liberty made it a point to help off her when her teammates drove to the basket. In Game Two, she went 5-of-7 from deep. In Game One, she was...well, let’s let her tell it:

In Game Two, Cloud got into the paint relentlessly, and made magic happen when she got there:

An emotional Cloud later declared herself “one of the best point guards in this league, period,” in an all-time postgame presser that we’ll have more on later. After her performance Tuesday, it was hard to object.

Thanks to Cloud and Washington’s defense, we were set up for an exciting finish at the Barclays Center, as the visitors led 71-65 with just under four minutes left. We had no idea what we were in for.

First, Brondello re-established Jonquel Jones in the post. Jones dominated when touching the ball in the first half...

...but rarely saw it come her way in the second before crunch-time necessitated it. The Liberty coupled that with moving Stewart to the point-guard role, having her handle many of the Liberty’s remaining offensive possessions. It freed up the paint for Jones while throwing Washington a different look on the perimeter.

The move worked, as New York stormed back with a 9-0 run to take a late 74-71 lead on the back of Stewart, Jones, and a Betnijah Laney 3-pointer, the team’s only one of the second half.

“B, JJ, and Stewie just really stayed composed, and they made really big shots. We’re just trying to keep it in their area as much as we could, and then it’s just great players making great plays,” said Brondello.

But it wasn’t enough to salt the game. Sykes immediately responded with a game-tying 3-pointer before Cloud stole the ball on the following possession, got fouled in transition, and made two free throws to put her Mystics up two with 25 seconds left.

Luckily for the Liberty, their next possession resulted in a pair of free throws for Sabrina Ionescu, but the all-world shooter clanked the first one, then the second. Even 91% career free throw shooters can miss. Only, the second miss was intentional, and Jonquel Jones ended up with the offensive rebound and drew a foul to head right back to the line with the Liberty in the same situation.

“I knew where she was going to go,” said Ionescu. “I just tried to miss a little long and to the right to just get a good bounce right back to her, and glad she was, you know, able to do it.”

Not only was Jones able to grab the board, but she made both of her free throws as well, tying the game at 76 with just 11 seconds to go.

“There was no other option other than to make the free throws,” said Jones of her clutch shooting. “Just saying what I normally say to myself when I shoot free throws. You know, just kind of making it familiar and not getting outside of the moment.”

Washington Mystics Head Coach Eric Thibault summed up Jones’ performance succinctly: “She’s big and good. Big and good. That’s a former MVP.”

Yet, all was not settled, as the Mystics had a chance to win the game at the buzz— NOPE! They immediately threw it away on the following inbounds. Well, at least the Lib— NOPE! They turned it over too. And thus, overtime:

The overtime period was only slightly less insane than the fourth quarter that preceded it. New York scored 14 points in the final five minutes, more than they scored in the entire third quarter, but it seemed like it may not be enough, as Washington went punch for punch.

Vandersloot scored just four points in regulation, then doubled her total in OT. But her buckets weren’t daggers, as Ariel Atkins, who shot just 4-of-14 on the night, scored four points of her own to bring the Mystics right back in it. As the Liberty led 86-85 with 30 seconds left, we got our final heart-stopping sequence of the night:

The fifth turnover for Brittney Sykes, who played 41 balls-to-the-wall minutes, even leading the Mystics with 12 boards, was just too much to overcome. Stewart hit two free throws to make the lead 88-85, and with the seconds ticking away, Atkins missed an impossible look from deep to officially end this game and the series before Stewart hit two more cosmetic freebies.

Stewart lead the Liberty with 27 points, added nine boards, and of course, played some point guard, which Brondello greatly appreciated: “Just making Stewie the point guard, that was a big moment...This was a tough night, so we just put the ball back in Stewie’s hands, and we’re making better decisions.”

Jones finished with a monster 19 and 14, and of course, the game-saving board and free throws. Laney added 19 points as well, and hasn’t stopped making clutch shots since the beginning of July.

For the Mystics, all five starters cracked double-digits, but after Cloud’s 33, nobody topped Sykes’ 14 points. Elena Delle Donne provided a couple moments of isolation scoring, but her 11 points on 16 shots weren’t quite enough to extend her team’s season.

“They really tested us tonight, and I think that will give us good preparation,” said Brondello of Washington’s effort. “We’ve faced everything now. I mean, what more can we face?”

Good question, but we’ll soon find out.

Final score: New York 90, Washington 85. The Liberty advance to the WNBA semifinals, and after a trying season filled with as much resiliency as injury, the Mystics go home.

Natasha Cloud balls out

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

It's been a trying, exhausting season for the Washington Mystics. They've dealt with debilitating injuries throughout the season and have had to play shorthanded more times than humanly possible. Someone who's kept the team afloat through it all is Natasha Cloud.

Coming into the game, Cloud was the center of attention as she personally took on the matchup of guarding Sabrina Ionescu. By and large, she was able to succeed as Sab didn't have her usual scoring outburst. But on the other end, Cloud had the game of her life. In the game preview, we talked about Washington’s lack of success from deep and how they needed to get back on track if they wanted to win. Cloud in particular had a rough shooting night in Game One. The Liberty played under screens when Cloud shot in game one, and did it again as they dared her to brat them from deep. So what happened this time?

Yup! Cloud was absolutely amazing as she scored a playoff career high of 33 points and tied a playoff career high with five 3-pointers. This game, in this setting, and with all the team has been through in 2023 meant a lot to Cloud, and she shared her feelings about it in postgame

She also talked about how awesome the Liberty fans were and appreciated the environment and the fans showing love after the game ended. Basketball fans love and respect players who give their all, back up their talk, and step up when the lights are brightest. Salute to Natasha Cloud on a wonderful game and a terrific season.

Celebrity row full again

After hosting Billie Jean King and Malala, the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate two days ago, Clara Wu Tsai followed up Tuesday with a second all-star cast, this one more basketball-centric. WNBA all-everything Sue Bird was there. Carmelo Anthony got a huge ovation when he was announced. Sitting next to Melo and his son, rising high school star Kiyan, was Spencer Dinwiddie and not far away was Ted Lasso himself, Jason Sudeikis, and Fat Joe. Then further down the front row was the Knicks Julius Randle, decked out in Liberty gear, with his son, and Sabrina Ionescu’s self-professed biggest fan, Mikal Bridges. who rarely sat during the thriller...

And like they did after the Game One win, the two friends embraced following the game...

He wasn’t alone…

When introducing Anthony, the Liberty showed highlights of the former Knick, but all the highlights were of his Olympic success with Team USA. No Knicks!

Next up

Minnesota Lynx v Connecticut Sun Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

The Liberty are back in action on Sunday afternoon at the 'clays with a 1:00 p.m. ET tipoff. Who will be their opponent?

We'll have our answer on Wednesday evening as the Connecticut Sun and Minnesota Lynx face off in the third and final game of their first round series. Tip off for that game is at 8 PM from Minneapolis.