Here come the Liberty: What New York’s winning streak means for the WNBA playoff picture

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 28: Bill Laimbeer and Herb Williams of the New York Liberty react during the game against the Chicago Sky in a WNBA game on August 27, 2017 at Madison Square Garden in New York, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 28: Bill Laimbeer and Herb Williams of the New York Liberty react during the game against the Chicago Sky in a WNBA game on August 27, 2017 at Madison Square Garden in New York, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Just over three weeks ago, the New York Liberty lost two straight games and dropped to a record of 12-12. Only five WNBA teams currently sit above .500 with one week to go in the regular season. As the calendar turns to September, the Liberty are winners of 8 straight, including a week in which they topped the league’s three best teams back-to-back-to-back. Is New York hitting its stride at just the right time?

Connecticut and New York are separated by only half a game. Good luck to either team in angling for a specific second round match up — the order below them is still in question. Internally, one or both of those teams may have a preferred opponent between Los Angeles and Minnesota. Don’t bother. Those two teams at the top are separated by half a game, too.

And this may be a bit of a stretch, but look to the Liberty’s winning streak and zoom out. New York was a .500 team less than a month ago. I’d bet the .500-ish teams fighting for a playoff spot will be eager to look beyond their own record faced with the opportunity to win two sudden death playoff games to earn a semifinal berth.

But what exactly has New York done to catch fire of late? The defense has led the way. The Liberty are third in the WNBA in defensive rating, right behind the Sparks at 97.8. Their starting lineup of Bria Hartley, Epiphanny Prince, Shavonte Zellous, Tina Charles and Kia Vaughn played three games together prior to the All-Star break and has only gotten better since. Charles was optimistic about their chances to settle into a groove with that group back at the end of July.

The Liberty are one of the WNBA’s best rebounding teams. They rank first in defensive rebound percentage. New York has built upon that strength by selectively running with their starting and bench units. The Liberty trail only the Lynx in offensive rebound percentage, and make the most of those extra opportunities to the tune of 13.2 second-chance points per game (third-most in the WNBA).

Tina Charles is at the center of just about everything this team does well. Her name belongs in any MVP conversation. In addition to the scoring prowess and player of the week honors, she’s played the third-most minutes to date this WNBA season. Charles played all but the final 1:57 of her team’s August 13th win over the Sparks, after the final result was clear.

That heavy minutes load doesn’t stop Charles from running the floor hard to create easy scoring opportunities for herself:

There is a clear glut of bigs in the WNBA that can do just about everything. One could argue it is the league’s biggest overall strength. Some strengths of Charles’ game feel underappreciated. She grab it off the glass and run right through the teeth of a defense:

And Charles does plenty away from the low block. She can get to the rack and keep defenders off balance with some great footwork on the rare occasion that she doesn’t see a double team:

Let’s be sure not to get fatigued with Charles’ low block brilliance, though. I’ll let the 2017 WNBA GM survey do the talking. Three of the eight responses for “What is the most effective individual offensive move in the game?”: Tina Charles’ hook shot, Tina Charles’ fade away, Tina Charles’ reverse pivot. Here’s a perfect left hook:

Fellow All-Star Sugar Rodgers has been coming off the bench, but she’s still been closing a few games in which she’s played well. There isn’t a perfect solution to a Rodgers-Charles pick and pop, especially when Rodgers starts things off by flying around screens:

Charles is shooting 36% from deep, which commands the respect of a defense anytime she’s out there. Watch this string of passes, which led to a reverse lay in by Zellous:

Charles saw a third defender come into the picture and the ball moved faster than the defense. In so many of these clips of the Liberty offense, you’ll see that their spacing is pristine. They aren’t allowing one defender to guard two of their own — a must, considering all the double teams Charles regularly sees.

Hartley cans an open three off an inside-out dish from Charles in this next clip. Charles caught Hartley’s defender somewhere between the two of them. Plus, her back was turned to Hartley, who shuffled over to create an easy passing lane for Charles to dime her up:

Then there’s almost the flip side to that last sequence. Charles skips it to an open Hartley, who drives and kicks back to Charles for an open three:

If asked to explain New York’s win streak in just one sentence, I’d say this: Their new starting lineup has found their version of the beautiful game.

I’ve got five examples, starting with a setup they’ve used before to start Charles at a wing and set a back screen for her to get into the post:

The defense loaded up toward Charles. The defense loaded up again on the quick second look to her. Hartley didn’t force it, instead moving the ball to the other side where Zellous made a nice read to get off an open look as the defense scrambled back.

Here’s a really small wrinkle within a simple sequence that ended with Charles getting up a wide open three:

Vaughn shows that she’s setting a ball screen really early on. Hartley goes right into a handoff with Prince, who uses that screen to get to the middle of the floor. The handoff to Prince does two things to give her a better chance to bend the defense: 1) Prince gets a running start and 2) the defenders on that side, just for a beat, tilt toward Prince, allowing Vaughn to set a solid screen.

Here’s a high-low score with Charles feeding Stokes:

For a second, it looks like it will be a Hartley-Stokes pick and roll. Hartley rejects that and Stokes dives to the rim and seals off the inside. Charles times her cut to the free throw line perfectly and lobs a pass to Stokes for two.

In this fourth clip, Tina Charles ‘shorts’ a Prince-Amanda Zahui B pick and roll:

Charles gave it right back to Prince, which led to a no-dribble-drive-and-kick three for Rebecca Allen.

And here’s a possession in which Charles doesn’t even touch the ball:

After two handoffs and a reversal, New York can’t get it into Charles. Vaughn doesn’t panic, but instead returns to the right side and hands it off to Hartley for a three.

Cheryl Reeve, Head Coach of the Minnesota Lynx, once gave the best basketball talk I’ve ever heard. There were many reasons I thought it was great, but specific to this beautiful game that I’m saying the Liberty have found: Reeve emphasized and acknowledged the need for teams to “just play” on offense.

Fans of the game probably fawn too much over play design, stretch 4s and 5s, (spread) pick and roll, ATOs, sideline out of bounds calls, under outs and “who took the big shot” at times. Sometimes, good defenses will snuff out the best play design of all time. Sometimes bad defense will even unintentionally muck up a great set play.

What do teams and players do when that happens? Sometimes Charles will get doubled hard. Other times, teams will make it tough to get the ball to her. What happens then? During this winning streak, the Liberty look like they’ve really grown in their confidence to “just play”.

The guards are noticing the extra attention that shades toward Charles even before she has touched the ball and catch defenses leaning with their crisp ball movement. I mentioned their spacing, which is vital to allow Charles to hit the open player out of a double team. LaChina Robinson may have beat me to it in really singing her praises, but Bria Hartley’s excellence in some of the game’s subtleties has really allowed her to shine in her starting role.

Let’s close with some defense. This clip ends with Zellous being whistled for a foul underneath, but take a look at the two switches that take place before that:

I’d argue Charles’ defensive versatility is criminally underappreciated, just from seeing moments in which she’s really been able to slide and stay in front of guards. Factor in the minutes and the rebounding and you’re looking at a player I’d call one of the best anchors in the WNBA. Stokes and Vaughn have also looked solid at times guarding in space.

The Liberty move well on a string, especially with that starting five:

That clip admittedly isn’t a perfect choice — both Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray can and will hit those kind of looks a lot of the time. But the Liberty gave the full effort to scramble and try to take those away. The back side covered up the nearest passes and they came away with possession that time.

New York is going to force you into long passes and aim to contest anything happening on the strong side. Watch how Zellous sticks around on the strong side to really load up for this pick and roll:

Stokes ended up coming over to contest (Jonquel Jones was sitting with foul trouble at the time, which helps) that shot at the rim.

In general, the three starting guards for New York are versatile, heady, intelligent defensive players. Both Prince and Hartley hold up well against 1s and 2s. Prince made some big plays defensively in their August 20th win over Minnesota by ‘digging down’ onto MVP favorite Sylvia Fowles to help force a couple of turnovers:

Zellous generally matches up with the best wings or simply the most dangerous perimeter threat on the other team. She’s active in passing lanes as a helper and fights hard for rebounds and positioning against bigs.

Zellous doesn’t even guard the ball in this sequence, but her impact is easy to see:

Prince and Charles switch a Chelsea Gray-Jantel Lavender pick and roll. Zellous then executes what some would call a ‘scram’ — she takes on Lavender inside and Prince picks up whoever Zellous was guarding. Zellous then helps on the drive and Prince comes away with a right-place-right-time steal.

The starting trio of guards has balanced out the scoring for the Liberty, too, to support Charles. Hartley, Prince and Zellous have combined to score 30 or more points in six of eight games over this streak. Their assist-to-turnover ratio has been just under two and they made 39.4% of their threes over the same stretch.

Rodgers is the engine for the second unit, but the entire Liberty bench has averaged 22.4 points per game over this streak, which has boosted their season average (now 19.8) much closer to the league average.

The question remains: How much should we make of this Liberty win streak? Skeptics will bring up last season’s early exit handed to them on their home floor by the Phoenix Mercury in the second round.

But to go back to the WNBA GM survey one last time, do you remember who was voted as most hungry to win a championship in 2017? Trick question. There was a tie. Maya Moore was one of the two. Naturally, Lynx players would get some votes coming off the 2016 Finals. The other player receiving most votes? Tina Charles.

New York’s perennial MVP candidate is playing well and her teammates are playing with confidence. This winning streak opens the door to make a great “Why not us?” / revenge run through the playoffs after 2016’s early exit / peaking at the right time case for the Liberty.

The playoffs are right around the corner. Who will face off in the 2017 WNBA Finals? Only time will tell, but the Liberty have done great work in less than a month’s time to now be considered in that conversation.