Liberty vs. Sun Playoff Preview: Matchups, Advantages in Semifinals
After clinching their first WNBA playoffs semifinals appearance since 2015, the New York Liberty are set to face off against the Connecticut Sun in a best-of-five series with a spot in the finals on the line.
The Liberty went 4-0 against the Sun in the regular season, the only team in the league Connecticut was not able to beat.
Yet the Sun, after beating the Minnesota Lynx in three games in the first round, are also headed to their fifth straight WNBA semifinals. They have reached the finals twice during that span but have yet to win their first franchise championship.
The Liberty, who swept the Mystics in two games–including a thrilling win in overtime in Game 2–will be looking for their first WNBA finals appearance since 2002.
The first two games of this series will be played at Barclays Center while the third game, and fourth if needed, will be played at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. If a Game 5 is required, both teams will head back to Barclays. Both arenas are just about three hours away from one another, so expect both fan bases to be in attendance at each game, making for an exciting series.
While the Sun have yet to beat the Liberty this season, they have come close in both games in Uncasville. Both games in Brooklyn were runaways for New York, taking the first one 81-65 on May 27 and 89-58 on Sept. 1. In the games at Mohegan Sun Arena, the Sun lost to Liberty 89-81 on June 27 and 95-90 in overtime on Aug. 24.
In their fourth faceoff, the Liberty overcame a 20-point second-half deficit as Breanna Stewart recorded 24 points and 12 rebounds and Jonquel Jones had 21 points and 14 rebounds.
Even while the Liberty handled the Sun with somewhat ease during the regular season, anything can happen in the playoffs.
This semifinal series will feature two of the top three MVP candidates in Stewart and the Sun’s Alyssa Thomas.
Thomas has had a historic season, setting the league record for triple-doubles with six and posting 24 double-doubles. She also broke the single-season record for total assists with 316.
Thomas became the first player in WNBA history to record at least 600 points, 400 rebounds and 300 assists in a single season. She is also an elite defender and was named to the All-Defensive First Team.
Thomas’s impact and importance to the Sun cannot be understated. During the team’s Game 3 win over the Lynx, Thomas set a WNBA playoff game record for points created with 58 of their 90 points. When Thomas plays well, the Sun see success.
“AT is obviously a great player and a huge part of what the Sun does,” Stewie said after the Aug. 24 matchup. “She continues to play the entire game and that’s what her team looks at her to do and we try to defend her… the way that we continued to fight is what we were most proud of.”
On the other side, the Liberty have Stewart, who has also broken multiple records this season. Stewart, voted AP WNBA Player of the Year, has scored 40 points in four games this season, broke the Liberty franchise record for most points scored in a season in her first year with the team and also earned a spot on the All-Defensive First Team.
While Stewart struggled in the first game against the Mystics in the last series, she was a crucial part of the Liberty’s win in Game 2, scoring 27 points, including 8-of-8 from the free throw line and grabbing nine rebounds. Even when Stewart doesn’t have her best game, she knows she can trust her teammates to step up.
“We’ve been through it all, ” Stewart said after the close-out game against the Mystics. “We’ve been battle-tested, and gone through all things in the regular season for these moments.”
A Familiar Face
The Liberty’s Jonquel Jones will be one of the most intriguing players to watch in this series, considering she is going up against her former team. Jones played for Connecticut for six seasons and was the 2021 WNBA MVP. She asked for a trade to the Liberty last offseason and has come alive since the All-Star break.
Jones averaged 12.8 points after the break compared to 10.3 before, while also grabbing 10.5 rebounds per game compared to 6.1 before the break. Jones will have some extra motivation to beat her former team while the Sun will look to play spoiler.
“Any time you go back home and back to the team that drafted you, it’s a lot of nostalgia and a lot of memories, ” Stewart said about Jones in the June 27 matchup, Jones’s first return to Uncasville. “It’s love on both sides, but she obviously wants to play well.”
For the Sun, guard Rebecca Allen will be facing off against her former team, as she spent seven years with New York.
The Liberty will also have the size advantage in the matchup with Jones and Stewart in the front court. New York has gone 14-0 when Jones has posted a double-double during this season. The Sun’s tallest starter is a six-foot, four-inch Dewanna Bonner while Jones is six feet, seven inches. Connecticut’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa can provide a spark off the bench, but the loss of Brionna Jones for the Sun, who went out for the season with an Achilles injury on June 20, will definitely be felt.
The Liberty rank second in the league with 37.9 rebounds per game, while the Sun rank eighth with 33.6. If the Liberty can grab offensive rebounds and control the glass, it will be difficult for the Sun to keep up.
“It’s no secret our size is an issue. So our discipline has to be great, and our attention to detail,” Connecticut coach Stephanie White said. “Offensively, we have to make them work and find ways against their length, speed and athleticism to get good looks.”
Three-point shooting will be another interesting factor to watch in this series. The Liberty, who were one of the most efficient three-point shooting teams in the regular season and attempted the most threes per game in the WNBA, did not shoot very well from distance in their first series against the Mystics. New York shot just 28.1% from three in both games and made only four three-pointers in their OT thriller win, which is highly unlike them.
Sabrina Ionescu, who had seven threes in Game 1 against the Mystics, was very quiet in Game 2 after some hounding defense made it difficult for her to get the ball. She will need to come alive again in this series as the team’s most consistent three-point shooter.
While the Liberty have cooled down a bit in the playoffs, the Sun heated up in their three-point shooting. In Game 1 against the Lynx, the Sun were 16-of-30 from downtown and were 9-of-20 in their Game 3 win.
During the regular season, the Sun made just 7.2 threes per game while New York was first in the league with 11.1 makes.
While Ionescu is a player in this category to watch for the Liberty, Tyasha Harris is a player to watch on the Sun. Harris, who put together a fairly nice season early in her career and was part of the Jonquel Jones trade last year, led the league in three-point percentage during the regular season with 46.8% while Ionescu wasn’t far behind with 44.8%.
Harris scored 18 points in Game 3 against the Lynx, knocking down four three-pointers.
It will be interesting to see if this trend continues for the Liberty or if they will be able to pick it back up, gaining more contribution from their shooters throughout each game.
Stopping the Sun’s Duo of Thomas and Bonner
The biggest problem for the Liberty will be stopping Thomas and Bonner, who combined for 53 of the 90 points in Game 3 against the Lynx.
Bonner is having one of her strongest seasons in her 13th season in the league. In Connecticut’s Game 3 win over the Lynx, Bonner scored 25 points, becoming the third player in WNBA history to record 1,000 points and get 500 rebounds in the playoffs.
“We just got to be us,” Bonner said about the upcoming matchup against New York. “They are a great team, they’ve been a great team all season and are playing great basketball right now but we have to go in and just be us and enjoy this for the time being but then have to go watch video and see what we can do.”
Both Bonner and Thomas have had some challenges against the Liberty this season. In the four regular-season games against the Liberty, Thomas struggled at times, only averaging 11.5 points against New York and shooting 32.7% from the field. In three of the four matchups, Bonner scored under 15 points.
This is an experienced duo that knows how to step up in big moments and will need to do so in this series against the Liberty. Other players will also need to step up, including Allen, Tiffany Hayes and Natasha Hiedeman.
The Liberty will also hope to continue to get contributions from players like Marine Johannès, Kayla Thornton, Stefanie Dolson and Courtney Vandersloot.
The Liberty will need to figure out how to navigate the Sun’s defense. While the Sun can struggle offensively at times, their defense is something they will need to rely on to pull off an upset.
Connecticut held their opponents to 79 points per game this season, which ranked first in the league, and limited fastbreak opportunities for opponents to just 8.2 points per game, also forcing the most turnovers during the regular season.
The Liberty, who have struggled with limiting their turnovers during the regular season, will need to take care of the ball against a tenacious and aggressive Sun’s defense.
Betnijah Laney will also be a key factor for the Liberty after she received All-Defensive Second Team honors. Laney will most likely be tasked with guarding players like Bonner and Thomas and will undoubtedly make it difficult for them.
It will also be an exciting matchup between both coaches. Sun coach Stephanie White, in her first season with the team, was recently named the WNBA Coach of the Year after leading the Sun to a 27-13 record and No. 3 seed, especially after the loss of Brionna Jones and the departure of Jonquel Jones during the offseason.
Many thought this might have been a rebuilding season for Connecticut, yet White, who has spent 16 years in the WNBA as a player, assistant, and head coach, has built her team much success.
While White received 36 of the possible 60 votes in the race, Liberty coach Sandy Brondello came in third place in the voting with six votes. Brondello, in her second season with New York after spending seven seasons with the Phoenix Mercury, has helped to build and coach one of the most successful and stacked teams in WNBA history, yet it has not been easy. Brondello had to instill a new culture of New York basketball and coach her team into building chemistry and becoming a cohesive group to get this far.
It will be an exciting matchup, and with a trip to the finals on the line, both teams are bound to put on a show.
Game One: Barclays Center – 1 p.m. ET on Sept. 24 (ESPN)
Game Two: Barclays Center – 8:00 p.m. ET on Sept. 26 (ESPN)
Game Three: Mohegan Sun Arena – 7:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 29 (ESPN2)
Game Four*: Mohegan Sun Arena – 3:00 p.m. ET on Oct. 1 (ABC)
Game Five*: Barclays Center – TBD on Oct. 3 (ESPN U)