The Liberty Have Risen to the Top–Thanks to Their Defense

The New York Liberty finished the WNBA regular season on a dominant run, going 18-4 after the WNBA All-Star Game. Along the way, the team beat the Las Vegas Aces to capture the Commissioner’s Cup in Las Vegas, improved on a solid first half and proved itself to be in the conversation for the best team in the league down the stretch.

What helped Sandy Brondello’s club get to this point? Look no further than its defense.

Jonquel Hits Her Stride

Aliyah Boston battles the NY Liberty in the paint.
Aliyah Boston of the Indiana Fever shoots over Jonquel Jones of the New York Liberty.

The Liberty defense has been top-tier, and that has been thanks in large part to Jonquel Jones. JJ has fully recovered from her foot fracture and has been a force on both sides of the court. After the All-Star break, Jones led the league in rebounding (10.3 per game) and ranked No. 11 in blocks (1.3 per game). Jones’s presence on the interior makes the paint a no-fly zone for opponents.

New York sometimes has trouble completing possessions, but that was not too big of a problem after the break. The Liberty allowed the lowest offensive rebounding percentage (26.2) in the WNBA in the second half. Combine that with keeping teams off the free throw line and stingy perimeter defense, the Liberty’s efforts led to the second-lowest defensive rating (99.7 points per 100 possessions) in the league after the break.

Jones’s athleticism allows the Liberty to defend in a variety of ways, as fans saw against Kahleah Copper on Aug. 11.

A center that can stick to elite scorers on the perimeter? That makes life easy for Jones’s teammates and troublesome for her opponents.

After the Liberty beat the Aces on Aug. 6, The Local W asked Betnijah Laney about the Liberty’s comfort when switching:

“If we’re switched, knowing that if I switch and I give you my man, that you’re gonna be aggressive and vice-versa,” Laney said. “So I think we’ve been doing a really good job of communicating better, just being more aggressive, having each other’s backs, helping when we need to help, and it’s really paying off.”

Jones’s ability to defend on the perimeter and Liberty’s increased physicality have allowed Brondello to switch everything and not have a drop-off. The same goes for when Breanna Stewart moves over to the center position.

One Band, One Sound

When switching a lot on defense, everything has to be in sync. Players have to be ready for their assignments and know where to go so everything stays organized. One mistake throws everything off and lets the other team get an easy shot. When the Liberty are moving in one accord, their defense covers all sort of ground.

This possession against the Minnesota Lynx on August 26 stands out. Here we see the team switch everything, When teams are able to fly all over the court and have a possession end in the hands of a career 27.6% three-point shooter, the mission is accomplished. In the regular season, opponents shot just 42.4% from the field against NY, the lowest mark in the league. The Liberty also held teams to 33.6% from three-point range, the fourth lowest in the WNBA.

In shootaround against the Connecticut Sun on Aug. 24, The Local W asked Sabrina Ionescu about the Liberty’s improved defense.

“I feel like now, just as in sync as we are offensively, is where we’re at defensively as well, and just understanding where we need to be, how we can help one another, and kind of being able to do it without communicating,” Ionescu said. “Before, we had to really talk through everything on defense because we didn’t know tendencies. We didn’t know what the coaches wanted us in and what defensive schemes we were in and our principles. But now, we’re just so locked in on both ends of the floor. And if we can do that for 40 minutes, we’re just a really tough team to beat and I think we’ve shown that in spurts.”

The consistency has been vital for the Liberty, and in the playoffs, the team will need to put together complete games to advance.

Time to Build

The Liberty have evolved over time. Someone who has had a front-row seat to the team’s evolution is Han Xu. Han has not been around much as Chinese National Team obligations have kept her going from continent to continent. On Sept. 1, Han was asked the biggest difference in the team’s on-court play since she’s been back, and Han cited the team’s increased aggressiveness, toughness and togetherness.

Fans got to see all three of those attributes in this possession against the Sun on Sept. 1.

“I think we’ve made it a point to be more aggressive, to communicate better, to just be more on a string in terms of being able to rotate,” Laney said after the Liberty beat the Aces on Aug. 28 in Brooklyn.

The Liberty have been able to do that and more, which is why they enter the postseason with a great opportunity to bring basketball glory back to New York City.