The Liberty followed a lethargic performance against the Aces with resilient showing against the Sparks, solidifying their first road win in 18 tries
Before the Liberty’s West Coast road trip, Katie Smith sat in her final postgame presser with a metaphorical crystal ball. After a home victory against the Lynx on Wednesday, Smith knew her team had a quite the quest awaiting them in Las Vegas, and equated the next matchup to entering a “bees’ nest.” In other words, the Aces were rested and ready for a rematch and redemption.
But Smith wasn’t the only one with clairvoyance. Apparently, Instagram can predict the future as well. During practice before Friday’s contest against the Aces, the Liberty’s team Instagram story captured Amanda Zahui B drilling a shot from halfcourt, which then ignited a cacophony of sound from her teammates.
What if I told you that both Katie Smith and Instagram were correct? We learned that dessert was instead a hornet’s nest for New York, and Zahui B proved that her long-range abilities were far from a fluke. On Friday, the Liberty lost by 45 and scored 65 points. The following evening, the Liberty won by six scored 98. In one weekend, New York hit rock bottom. But in that same weekend, New York also reached new heights.
“But it was just our energy and effort,” Smith said when asked about how her team rebounded from falling to the Aces. “Again, at some point we hit some shots. We didn’t hit shots in the first half yesterday, but I thought they battled and came out on both ends and really gave the effort you know, from start to finish.”
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Call it a night and day performance, akin to rolling a snake-eyes followed by getting discovered in Hollywood. New York’s polarized performance on the West Coast has a hint of Jekyll and Hyde or even Harvey Dent’s Two-Face. To clarify, the Liberty never became sinister per se, but rather just perplexing.
Snake Eyes in Vegas
Luck wasn’t a lady for the Liberty in Vegas on Friday. The Aces were hungry after falling to New York at the Westchester County Center four days before. Liz Cambage scored nine points accompanied by two assists in the first quarter alone. The center finished shooting 77 percent from the floor on 17 points. It didn’t help that Kelsey Plum shot her most accurate game against New York, scoring 19 on 73 percent from the field.
The Liberty’s worst loss of the season was defined by a sluggish response to the Aces desire to impress on their home court. Amanda Zahui B lost that spark she had in practice after firing a rocket from halfcourt. I guess there’s a lot at stake when Lebron James, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook are courtside, although there’s a lot at stake for every regular season game in the W, as there are only 34 of them to begin with.
The Liberty usually rebound around 37 times a game but against the Aces, this number shriveled to a mere 21. In Las Vegas, 21 is usually a desirable number to reach, but not at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
This matchup got out of hand in the first half when New York couldn’t make a three ball. It wasn’t until the third quarter when Asia Durr got one to flow through the net. As a result, Tina Charles saw a season-low 17 minutes on the court, and Coach Smith was wise to give her 5-time All-Star a well-deserved rest.
Katie Smith acknowledged that her team “settled for a lot of jump shots” against Las Vegas, which came as a result of a timidness that we’ve only seen against the Fever in Indiana this season. Exhaustion makes this team unrecognizable, and Smith knew that this performance “wasn’t who they are.”
While Han Xu was able to pick up over 16 quality minutes, which included six points, a block and a couple of boards, her performance was passive and stiff, and that’s to be expected. Moving forward, the 19-year-old is going to need some mentorship and confidence to get her going. The talent is there, but it would be daunting for anyone when you are the youngest against some of the greatest basketball players in the world. The Han Xu legion of cheerleaders need to understand that the transition to America, let alone the WNBA has been more than difficult for the rookie. But good things come to those who wait.
Amanda is ready for her closeup
Instagram’s crystal ball took a little over 24 hours to really kick in, and it really kicked in. When Amanda Zahui B was fed her first layup against Los Angeles from Brittany Boyd, it looked like she had gotten her mojo back. Boyd was fired up as well and focused.
Not only was Zahui B locked in, as she scored 37 points against L.A., but she also appeared to be having the time of her life. Every time one of Zahui B’s seven three-balls landed, teammate Rebecca Allen rose from her chair, delivering a hyped battle cry and an impassioned fist pump.
“No, my teammates made it very clear, and I heard them throughout the whole game, a lot of balls just bounced and bounce, ” Zahui B said. “And then they fell in. I mean, obviously, it’s fun. But it’s the greatest part about this game is that we won, we won on the road after a tough game last night. So I definitely feel like we as a group redeemed ourselves. It feels great.”
When the Liberty’s center walked away from any bank shot from long, she exercised a swagger and put up the “OK” symbol to signal to her teammates that they’ve got to keep moving and that they did.
“We have a lot of energy, we truly believe in one another,” Zahui B said after the game. “And that’s what I really love about this group. Yeah, we had some rough games. But at the end of the day, we support each other and we always talk each other up, whether it’s on the side, outside of basketball court, or on the court in the middle of the game of practice. We believe in each other. So, I mean, you want to win as many games as possible. But when you can see the result where you’re actually executing and do all the small things and then we get a result like this. It feels great.”
For New York, energy matters. And Amanda Zahui B’s breakout performance took some of the shock out the Sparks. But, we can’t forget their defensive gameplan was to contain Charles, and they succeeded. Nneka Ogwumike won the battle of the bigs this time, keeping Charles to nine points in the entire contest. Charles still made an impact as her 13 boards kept the Liberty’s tempo in check.
But LA didn’t adjust to Zahui B’s nothing but net performance. Chiney Ogwumike couldn’t keep up. And while Sparks Head Coach Derek Fisher shied away from discussing his defense’s approach on Zahui B, he did admit that New York made fewer mistakes than his squad and earned the win.
“[The Liberty] have nothing to do with the unforced turnovers that we made,” he said after the game. “They have nothing to do with not having the discipline at times to move the basketball from one side to the other, instead of getting stuck on one side. They didn’t present any challenges to us that we haven’t seen before. But they do deserve credit for finishing the game.”
Will the real New York Liberty please stand up?
New York has remained competitive in six of a total eight games played, but only has won half of those contests. On the first of June, the Liberty couldn’t finish against the Sparks. But a couple of weeks later, we now know that New York has what it takes to finish.
The Liberty are their own foil. They’ve proven time and time again that they can compete. Their duality is unpredictable. Their energy, which has been responsible for keeping the team in games, is also unpredictable. But going forward, which team will show up?
Will we see the Liberty team that ran the floor, fought for shots and kept pace with a talented LA Sparks squad? The team that could finish. Or will we see the passive group that fell behind because of lethargic defense and shots that refused to fall?
New York faces a hot Chicago at home on Wednesday. While the Sky have performed comfortably at Wintrust Arena and currently ride a three-game win streak, the Liberty will have to defend the perimeter. Chicago has very capable three-point shooters in two-time defending 3 point contest champion Allie Quigley, sophomore Diamond DeShields and center Stefanie Dolson. (Could it be a battle of the bigs from outside of the arc? I wouldn’t count it out. Does “The Amanda Show” resume for another episode?)
A key for New York right out of the gate will be controlling the tempo, which during the West coast road trip was the main difference maker between game one and game two. I expect that Brittany Boyd and Tanisha Wright, who picked up her 400th career steal against the Sparks, will target league assist leader Courtney Vandersloot. Boyd’s aggression and eagle eye inside the paint against the Sparks must continue to prevent the Liberty from relinquishing the pace to Chicago.
Also, it will be Zahui B’s final curtain call before she heads over to Sweden for the EuroBasket. With the New York fans still riding the high of her 37-point breakout performance, expect her last hurrah to warrant an encore. When her energy is on, Zahui B makes it of the utmost importance to share the wealth.
“I feel like I’m always trying to fire up my teammates,” Zahui B said after her 37-point performance. “I think that’s a huge part of who I am as a person, but also as a player, support my teammates, throughout every game every practice, and help them as much as possible. And if I need to talk shit a little bit to you, so you get extra hype, then I’m gonna do it.”
The Liberty are going to need that “extra hype” to transfer from Zahui B once she departs on Thursday. We’ll have to see who’s next in line for their closeup from Mr. DeMille.
Sabreena Merchant contributed reporting from Los Angeles.
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