Sami Whitcomb on custom The Local W graphic

Five Things, Three Stars, One Problem: Liberty 50, Sky 83

#1 – Patience with Betnijah

Playing in her first official game since undergoing knee surgery in the offseason, Betnijah Laney didn’t look like the team’s leading scorer from last year. One of the reasons for Laney’s false start has to be attributed to the Chicago Sky defense, which managed to shut down the entire Liberty offense. However, there was notable rust to Laney’s game last night that did make things more difficult on New York’s offensive flow. While Laney’s 2020 Most Improved and 2021 All-Star honors have been built on a diversified offensive skillset, it’s her dominance at the rim paired with a steady mid range game that best illustrates the issues she normally presents to opposing defenses. Against the Sky last night, both aspects were absent, highlighted by a lack of burst on her drives and gathers at the rim.

#2 – Turning Adversity Into Opportunity

With 3:25 to go in the third quarter and down 52-25, Liberty Head Coach Sandy Brondello found an opportunity to play Han Xu. Listed as the tallest player in the WNBA this season at 6’10, Xu was making her first appearance since the 2019 season. In nine minutes of play, she arguably had her best game as a professional, finishing with 10 points and one assist on 75 percent shooting, including a made three-pointer. Despite missing a few reads to the perimeter, there were several examples of Xu being able to throw unique entry passes into the paint. Xu’s length creates angles that are only available to her and potentially could be a fun set the Libs can run with their bigger guards. There are still rebounding concerns and a few possessions where she needed to be directed by teammates, but this was a step in the right direction in terms of her future outlook.

#3 – Living and Dying

Last year’s iteration of the New York Liberty played a fun brand of offense that was predicated around ball movement and letting the three-ball fly. While it meant there were nights when the team put on a shooting clinic, there were also games when the entire roster went cold. Last night against the Sky, the Liberty shot an abysmal 2-for-15 from deep, the team’s worst shooting performance since they finished 5-for-24 against the Minnesota Lynx last season. With Laney still working her way back into form, New York couldn’t afford a poor shooting night and a lackluster defensive showing. It truly was a perfect storm and the Liberty paid for it. 

#4 – Solving Sabrina

The Chicago Sky may be onto something when it comes to slowing down Sabrina Ionescu. Since allowing Ionescu to finish with 19 points, 12 assists, and 5 rebounds in an eight-point Liberty win early in 2021, the Sky have put the clamps on her and haven’t let go. Including last night, the Sky have faced off against Ionescu in three games, limiting her to an average of 3.3 points on nine percent shooting. During that stretch, Chicago has done a tremendous job of limiting Ionescu to just 11 total shot attempts. In the last two matchups, Ionescu has struggled to register a made field goal, something that has only happened three times in her young career. It’ll be fascinating to see how she eventually adjusts to the Sky’s scheme because Ionescu has the rare ability to destroy gameplans. It’s now just a matter of how many reps that will take. 

#5 – Solving Sabrina Part Two

It was brought up as a point of emphasis early by Chicago Sky commentator Stephen Bardo and then became increasingly noticeable as the game progressed. When on offense, the Sky were hunting Ionescu and showed no shame in testing her ability to defend out on the perimeter. Unfortunately for the Libs, this resulted in consistent penetration and compromised their defensive shell. It is a sound strategy that most teams should adopt, as forcing Ionescu to exert additional energy on the defensive end hurts the Liberty on both sides of the ball. Now in her third year, the expectations are high for Ionescu, but that’s life for any star in the WNBA. 

Three Stars

1 – Candace Parker (36-years-old and still putting in work, not a surprise considering her game thrives on high-IQ plays)

2 – Dana Evans (Her blistering stretch in the third officially put the game away)

3 – Emma Meesseman (Continuing to evolve as a playmaker, does everything, and that baseline fadeaway was beautiful)

One Problem: Slow Starts

Status: Unresolved 

For the second consecutive game, the Liberty started slow, this time falling behind 7-0 within the game’s opening minutes. While last night’s outcome was not decided during this stretch, it made an already challenging night trickier to navigate. Having dropped their opener against the Los Angeles Sparks, the Sky needed this game to avoid beginning the season 0-2, especially before embarking on their upcoming three-game road trip. The Liberty needed a strong start to offset the Sky building early momentum and it unfortunately did not happen. 

There’s little time to linger on this loss for New York. It was the first of a four-games-in-seven-days stretch, so they head home for a quick three-game homestand, which will start when they host the Indiana Fever on Friday night.