Katie Smith isn’t wrong, the Liberty got their “butts beat”
WHITE PLAINS, NY — On an afternoon where the Liberty’s crowd was its most lively and multitudinous, it was more than disappointing for New York to fall at the hands of Las Vegas once again, 90-58. Call it snake eyes, or Mercury actually in retrograde —(this will be my last astrology reference, I promise)—the Liberty’s 90-58 loss to the Aces showed us that the margin for error in this league is so slim.
Playing a game a day after a three-game road trip is far from ideal. But Head Coach Katie Smith would rather not make excuses for her team’s obvious fatigue against the Aces. Smith has said in the past that both wins and losses come from contests where full energy is on display. She understands what she can and cannot control, but the Liberty just didn’t have it on Sunday.
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“We might have gotten ourselves beat today anyways,” she said following the game. “I just wasn’t personally pleased with the effort we had on both ends.”
While New York notched their first win of the season against Las Vegas in early June, the Aces have consistently brought wide heapings of energy against the Liberty in the rest of their season series. Vegas knows how to push the right buttons against New York. Smith acknowledged their star power in bigs Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson but believes that her team can beat anyone. In her eyes, the Aces aren’t an Achilles heel.
“I think they took it at us,” she said. “They pressured us, but you have to handle the pressure and we also have to give it back,” she said.
Mr. Hyde makes an unpleasant return to New York
After the win against the Mercury, I found myself more assured than not of the Liberty’s identity revival. The pieces were always there, but at last, we saw them at work. Sunday’s contest, however, reminded us of their tendency for unpleasant polarization.
Shooting under 30 percent from the field, turning the ball over almost 20 times and allowing five three balls from Kayla McBride doesn’t justify a win.
Before Sunday, Kia Nurse had been on a tear. During the four-game streak, she shot over fifty percent while scoring over 18 points per game. She was also incredibly efficient on defense, accumulating blocks while defending the Mercury’s DeWanna Bonner to a tee.
Early against the Aces, it was apparent that Nurse just didn’t have her shot. She missed four straight field goal opportunities in the first quarter. Something that confused me was the pattern to continuously give Nurse a try at the three when she clearly didn’t have it. Katie Smith stood by the gameplan.
“It’s not necessarily a choice,” she said. “[Nurse] was open on some of it. Some of the sets that she got in the actions. It could have had Durr in it. It depends what we found and they are chucking our bigs on some of the cuts. The cross picks. Again, I still want her to take the wide open shots.”
The Aces scored 24 points on turnovers, six of which came off Brittany Boyd, who is usually responsible for enforcing opponent TOs. Boyd’s role in setting the tone early has been integral and her three early first-quarter turnovers surrendered the tempo to the Aces. New York succeeds when Boyd is able to move the ball up the court in transition.
The defensive dilly-dallying got under Head Coach Katie Smith’s skin the most. She expected her team to be able to “space” Vegas’ sharpshooting McBride who scored 24 points. It irritated Smith that the New York defense didn’t make her uncomfortable.
“I believe that if we play hard and are locked in, we are taking care of each other, are flying around on defense, we have enough firepower,” she said in her postgame presser. “But that can’t wavier. We don’t score as well as a lot of people. So we have to be locked in on the defensive end to give ourselves a chance to be in ballgames. And that’s our lot. That’s who we are… Our defense has to be the mainstay every single night and rebounding and then we will give ourselves a shot.”
Aside from showing some signs of morphing into Rip Van Winkle, the Liberty just wasn’t communicating well, which even during the beginning of the season wasn’t a standout issue. This came to a head in the beginning of the third quarter when Tanisha Wright was dribbling the ball while trying to get Tina Charles‘ attention at the top of the key. Wright was frustrated as Charles wasn’t receiving her on-the-court communique. A second later, Wright screamed “Tina” at the top of her lungs.
While Wright went on to nail the three ball on her own, that was chilling. In Liu of that disaster, Charles managed to score 13 points, extending her double-figures streak to seven games. Wright would earn 1,339 career assists against the Aces, placing her 11th on the all-time list.
After the final fourth-quarter buzzer, New York congregated on the center court line for a pep talk, a routine that I’ve seen game after game. Led by Wright and Charles, who appeared to be all right, I asked Boyd in the locker room what wisdom was imparted. “Focus on what’s coming up in these next couple of weeks,” she said. “We got some more days to practice, and we gotta go to Chicago and Seattle. Just look on-ward and focus on what’s ahead of us.”
Smith and co. plan on getting after defense and how to handle pressure in practice this week. The Aces executed eight blocks on the Liberty. The identity of this team has been solidified and this showing against Vegas wasn’t who they are. It’s who they were, but not who they are.
If Nurse doesn’t score, the tempo falters. If ball-snatching and handling aren’t at play, the tempo falters. This team rallies on its hybrid mixture of speed and size. And that exact juxtaposition defines the Liberty’s future in addition to its present.
Here’s the duo of the future
While the performance against the Aces was anything but encouraging, the home crowd was at peak #libertyloud when Han Xu removed her warm-up shirt and headed to the court. With under five minutes to play in the third, the tallest baller in the building was at last on the court.
*Cue the Han Xu fanatics.* They were in full form on Sunday afternoon. Her teenage boy contingent chanted anything from “HAN, HAN, HAN” to “MVP”.
Han’s first field goal at home came off a jump shot beyond the lane on a pass from Wright. If I didn’t know any better, the earthquake had traveled with the Aces to the White Plains. The County Center erupted. A giant smile broke onto the 19-year old’s face. Han was glowing.
“I’ve told you guys from the jump, the kid can score, looks to score and can shoot it,” Smith said on Han’s performance. “And that’s one thing that she brings is she’s a scorer. On the offensive end, she’s very smooth, understands, and can put the ball in the hole.”
Via Han’s translator Xiaoxue Chang, the rookie expressed that she was a little nervous coming into the contest against the Aces. But, her nerves didn’t stem from possibly matching up against Liz Cambage. “As a rookie, I’m not afraid of anything,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how big Cambage is. I am tall too. I have that confidence on defense.”
According to Han, her nerves subsided once she nailed that first jump shot. Asia Durr was the first of her teammates to give her a slap on the back.
“I was shocked that so many people cheered for me,” Han said via Xiaoxue Chang. “I didn’t know why that happened. But I was happy. So when I’m on the court I will play hard for everybody, for myself, for the team.”
Coach Smith remarked that Han’s defense on Cambage was solid, but alluded to less playing time as of late because of Han’s apparent strengths and weaknesses. She’ll have to work on her speed moving down the court. New York wasn’t going to put Han in against a large but agile Natasha Howard.
Han would match her season high of 7 points on seven shots along with three boards and a block on Jackie Young. And speaking of Young, Han wasn’t the only New York rookie to get the best of Vegas’ number one draft pick.
From the naked eye, Asia Durr was the most consistent and alert Liberty player on the court. Durr’s defense came to fruition against Young as she batted away two of guard’s turnaround jump shots. “Just knowing your personal and knowing your scouting report,” Durr said on her defensive performance against Young. “Just being smart about you know who you are guarding.”
In addition to another block on Kelsey Plum and four assists, Durr gave New York some life in the second quarter, bringing the score to its slimmest margin off two straight “Night-Night” three balls.
I asked Durr about her buddy Han while following the rookie up the stairs back to the locker room. She turned to me and flashed her toothy smile. Her response was short and sweet as her expression did most of the talking.
“It was great,” she beamed. “That’s what Han does. Han’s a great player.”
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