Bizzare calls on the court, missed open shots, and five fourth-quarter turnovers gave New York a tough loss throughout a brute battle against the Chicago.
WHITE PLAINS, NY— With under 30 seconds remaining in the first half of New York’s 91-83 loss to the Chicago Sky Wednesday night,, Brittany Boyd hustled down the court into the lane on a give-and-go from teammate Tina Charles. Boyd hoisted it up on a reverse layup, but couldn’t get it to go. Boyd sought redemption in a one-on-one with Chicago’s Allie Quigley as the Liberty point guard pulled off one of her signature steals. Without a Sky defender in the backcourt, Boyd was perfectly positioned for a wide open layup, a play that would have shifted the tempo for New York.
But on the fast break, the buzzer sounded. A shot clock violation? Boyd had swiped the ball. But the layup was a no bucket, and Katie Smith wasn’t having it and neither was center Amanda Zahui B.
“That’s bad, really bad,” she said to the referee the on the ensuing Liberty inbound with under seven seconds remaining in the half.
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New York struggled to find and counter the Chicago’s offensive rhythm all night, and an opportunity to change the tempo of the game had been snatched.
It happened again: a Jantel Lavender layup which constituted another shot clock violation for the Sky in the fourth quarter. Initially, the two-ball counted, was reviewed and altered over three minutes later.
Boyd played her 30 minutes in a tempo tug of war with backcourt powerhouses Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot. Boyd’s 14 points, including versatile driving jump shots and layups, were the bedrock to New York’s fight against Chicago.
“I’m just here to start it off and get us going,” she said during pre-game warmups. “As point guard, just take control, finding people and getting people touches where they are in their sweet spots. Just doing my job and running the team with energy.”
While the Liberty turned the ball over a mere nine times against the Sky, missed opportunities at both ends, including four turnovers in the fourth quarter, plagued New York down the stretch.
“It’s the little stuff,” Head Coach Katie Smith said after the game. “We know this team was a good scoring team, they had people scoring all over the floor, but the little opportunities, easy buckets in transition, the duck-ins, little stuff like that. That stuff has to be taken away to get a win like this against a team that can score pretty easily. And on our end, making a couple of extra buckets would be helpful.”
New York fell behind early, shooting 21 percent as they were outscored by Chicago 20-12 in the first quarter. While in the early stages, this matchup was reminiscent of the “snake eyes” performance against the Aces, some Liberty shots began to fall. While Tina Charles still finished shooting way under 4o percent from the field, her 16-point performance was defined by a crisper release from beyond the arc, knocking in half of her attempted three-pointers.
Katie Smith was asked about Charles’ struggles from the field after only putting up single-digit scoring performances on the West Coast.
“I mean we want all of these guys to shoot it better,” she said. “It would help us out in the long run. I just want [Charles] to be aggressive and take aggressive shots and not hesitate. And again playing inside out, getting on the block, taking moves, obviously, there’s a lot of pressure in there. Us finding her when she’s got easier opportunities without the defense set. So there’s a lot of stuff that goes into it, but I also just want her to make that she’s continuing to be aggressive every single night.”
Defense is a battlefield
For the second game in a row, opposing defenses have exerted the right amount of pressure on Charles. Nneka Ogumike in L.A. and now Chicago’s combined stylings of Lavender, Stefanie Dolson, and Cheyenne Parker were all able to ruffle feathers of Charles once again.
“We didn’t want [Charles] to get open looks,” Sky head coach James Wade said. “And we knew she was going to score. But we didn’t want to compound that by putting her at the free throw line and giving her offensive rebounds. Sometimes you can’t stop those things, but that was our focus.”
Courtney Vandersloot, who led the Sky with a 25-point performance while shooting 75 percent from the floor, echoed her coach. Playing Charles tough was a key to her team’s success, but she also noted that clutch shooting from Parker kept her team out in front.
The Liberty struggled to contain drives to the rim from Vandersloot and Gabby Williams. While Williams didn’t get as many touches as her teammate, she was just as accurate from the field. Both players were able to glide past Tina Charles and Amanda Zahui B. A strange sight for sure.
Before tipoff, Katie Smith expressed how she wasn’t taken aback by Chicago’s record. She knew it was only a matter of time before they started clicking, acknowledging their ability to shoot from almost anywhere.
New York must continue to figure out backcourt and perimeter defense. It has struggled this season against 3-point dynamos Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray and Natasha Cloud. Against the Sky, Boyd and Tanisha Wright pounded the hardwood with boatloads of energy, but both tried to do too much, leading to personal fouls and turnovers.
“A lot of it’s one-on-one, duck-ins, you have to anticipate, you can’t let people put their bodies and numbers in front of you,” Smith said following the loss. “You can’t sag off of their shooters, but it’s a one-on-one battle, and you can’t allow them to have easy touches, you gotta three quarter and have to put your body on them, the same as they do for us. And obviously, you gotta keep people who are drivers out of the lane and off of layups and keep your body in front of them. Part of it is individual. It’s not much more than that.”
The “Amanda Show” drops double-double before heading to Europe
Before heading off to Sweden, the Westchester home crowd had one last opportunity for a month to see the revelation that has been Amanda Zahui B.
In the first half, Zahui B struggled a bit matching up against Sky firecracker Diamond Deshields and Lavender. After two straight personals, Smith sat her. But Zahui B. returned in the second half with 11 points (including two three balls in a row) and eight more boards.
When asked about what she’ll miss the most about the Swedish native, Smith replied it will be her “her positivity” and ability to make sure “she’s bringing everyone along.”
“That on top of the playing will be missed, what she’s brought on and off,” Smith said. “She’s just had a phenomenal year, and just her approach and her confidence.”
In the locker room, the goodbyes were bittersweet. Zahui B looks forward to showing her home country what female athletes can do on the hardcourt. She noted that it’s taken a while for Sweden to get to a point of contention.
I asked her what she’s going to miss most, and she replied that it’s the collective of personalities on this team. “First of all, I love them to death,” she said. “I really love this group. Han and Asia, like they are my babies, I just love them.”
Asia Durr remains her toughest critic, but her comfort on the court shows
Speaking of the Liberty youth, Durr had herself quite a night. She scored 19 on 6-for-12 shooting from the field. All of her three balls went “nite nite”. Could it have been some pre-game encouragement from her new best friend and fellow rookie Han Xu? Sorry for the tease, but I’ll come back to it, I promise.
“She’s competent in what she does,” Smith said in her postgame presser. “She’s skilled. The part we continue to tell her is we drafted her for a reason, and she is a scorer. She can shoot it, she can get to the rim, she can pull up, she can do a lot of things. Every time she catches the ball and every time she gets off a screen, she should be looking to score. And that’s why we got her.”
While Durr was pleased with her solo performance, she acknowledged mistakes, especially on defense. She knows she needs to improve on being prone to screening, which as a rookie is par for the course. But according to Durr, she sees herself as a “sponge” and someone who is learning and pushing herself “every day.”
While Durr’s humility and inner critic were front and center, teammate Kia Nurse interjected and talked up the rookie’s aggression in the paint. And Han Xu also talked up her teammate.
Before the game, Han complemented Durr on her shoes in English. Her translator told me that they are teaching each other their respective languages and have a close connection.
“She’s my really really good friend,” Han said. “I like her.”
When I asked Han about what she’s been able to learn from Durr, and especially from tonight’s performance, she said through her translator: “So like Asia was really fast today. And there were players that on the other team were really fast. And so she could chase them and cut the ball. So she did it really well. And that’s the thing she caught from Asia.”
This performance didn’t fall on this team’s poles, but is still mystifying
New York didn’t surrender against Chicago, but the Liberty also had trouble adjusting and couldn’t finish on multiple drives. The Liberty’s duality wasn’t completely on display against the Sky, but its inconsistency was. Kia Nurse took a little longer to settle in, for instance, and shot just 5-for-17.
In the coming days, we will see if Smith and GM Jonathan Kolb can bring in some temporary outside help amid the loss of Zahui B to Europe and the still-injured Allen, who is expected to see her doctor in a week. I asked her how she’s feeling, and she noted that she can do more with her hand every day. “Bones are good,” she said. “Bones heal fast.”
It’s going to be a grind, but Smith was confident in her players to take care of their bodies and each other coming down a stretch with many interchanging pieces. During her post-game presser, she foreshadowed more minutes for Han Xu, Reshanda Gray and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe.
It’s difficult to continue building when there are so many moving parts. This group is locked in emotionally, but it becomes more and more difficult to trust the process when its players continue to emerge and depart through a revolving door. The process becomes much more difficult when the variables on the equation rotate in such a short period of time rather than stabilizing.
But, we don’t love sports for stability or what’s expected. We appreciate a 37-point performance from Amanda Zahui B not because Derek Fisher is able to predict it, but because it represents an athlete’s breakthrough and ability to adjust.
Ben Rosof contributed reporting.
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