How well did the band do back together? Spoiler alert, New York couldn’t consistently hit the right notes.
There were no R&B hits from the late 70s harmed in the making of the Liberty’s 99-83 loss to the Chicago Sky. But apparently there were more than a few sour notes. Coming off a 42-point loss to the Aces on Sunday, there was a lot on the line for the Liberty.
Road fatigue coming off a four-game win streak and major roster additions were enough to keep the New York hopeful at bay. But should we have expected the reinforcements to come in on a trek rather than a crusade? Yes, probably.
“The first quarter we kind of just hung,” said head coach Katie Smith after the loss in Chicago. “I wasn’t particularly pleased with it. The second quarter was terrible. 28-10. That’s where we basically lost the game. Third quarter wasn’t great, obviously end of third and fourth, the game was pretty much out of reach. So, not pleased with the intensity on the defensive end, that was the dictating force. Still though, we’ve got to hit shots, and at the end of the day we’ve got to slow them down.”
During the four-game win streak, the Liberty found traces of their identity. But in the past week, they’ve had trouble executing what they’ve become. Katie Smith’s road warriors had become unrecognizable. (And apparently she agrees.)
The group that wasn’t overseas began executing strengths that were waiting patiently to be unleashed. What was most frustrating in the 16-point loss to Chicago wasn’t necessarily that New York missed key shots or appeared lost on defense, but the fact that they lost parts of their identity in the process.
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The 2019 New York Liberty have established themselves as a team that thrives on transition. Once they halt their opponent’s rhythm, they can outrun them down the floor, finishing with agile ball handling, sharp shooting or pure muscle inside. The shorthanded Liberty thrived on a tempo set by Brittany Boyd. Boyd, who had five assists for the night and remained second in assists per game behind Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot, missed a couple of her signature cutting and driving layups.
The numbers don’t lie. Chicago scored a total of 23 fast-break points to New York’s four. The Liberty’s four steals to the Sky’s seven, none of which came from Boyd, created two successful fast break opportunities. In the first half, Tanisha Wright connected to rookie Marine Johannès for a one-handed airborne layup. In the fourth, Boyd connected with Rebecca Allen inside off the Han steal.
That was it. That’s just not Liberty basketball.
Disoriented from Overseas
I mentioned that New York would gain speed and strength from the EuroBasket trio. The speed was there, but the alertness and better ball handling that defined the Liberty of a week and a half ago was missing.
In 2019, a symptom of New York’s disfunction has been turnovers. New York would turn it over a total of 15 times against Chicago, including seven times in the second quarter alone. While the Sky had a comparable amount of lost possessions, they scored 17 points on the Liberty’s ball-handling miscues, while New York could only turn 12 turnovers into ten points.
Returning from EuroBasket, Bria Hartley didn’t look sluggish, but she was sloppy and certainly disoriented. Many didn’t expect the guard to start at the two spot as rookie Asia Durr didn’t leave the bench against Chicago.
Katie Smith confirmed after the game that Durr was sitting out due to a groin sprain. Following the blowout against the Aces on Sunday, Durr was seen with a tiny wince and a limp. Smith acknowledge that Durr is still active, but decided that she should rest.
“Coming back here, I think I feel pretty comfortable,” Hartley said about adjusting back to the WNBA’s style of play after the game. “The only thing is like remembering plays and not mixing them up with plays from a different team, and just getting back into a flow with these teammates. For the most part I know these teammates very well, and I felt comfortable tonight.”
Well, Hartley was comfortable on the floor, but that didn’t mean she showed her full aptitude in her care for the ball. Hartley moved on the court with ease, including a spin move and a finish past a triple team, while also scoring a total of 13 points. But she had a case of the butterfingers. She had four turnovers all coming on inaccurate passes, two of which came within the last four minutes of the first half.
Earlier this week, Amanda Zahui B. was cooped up in a Serbian airport for over 24 hours. Her flight was delayed and the plane even turned around at one point. WNBA Twitter and I were worried that she might not make it back to New York. Zahui B. made it in on time to practice and to travel to Chicago of course, but the “movie” she was in might have had more of an effect than predicted.
The center, along with most of her teammates, was sluggish on defense. Zahui B. was delayed to the ball, allowing Allie Quigley to nail her first of three balls from beyond the arc, and Stephanie Dolson an open jump shot. Both she and Tina Charles struggled once again to contain the sonic feet of Sky commander in chief Vandersloot.
Zahui B.’s five points all came from the line as she couldn’t get one of her three field goal attempts to land. When asked about the difference between European basketball and the WNBA, she acknowledged how there’s an adjustment coming back for her.
“The WNBA is always a higher pace and more physical, so those are the main things,” she said in the locker room. “Whenever I’m coming from overseas, coming back in here, you’ve got to adjust to the physicality and athleticism that’s over here.”
Zahui B. mentioned her game is a hybrid of both styles, and that might have factored into her performance against the Sky. “I’ve been here for a while, but yeah,” the Liberty center said. “But I feel like I’m somewhat a mix of both. Being physical but also playing that European style of basketball, I try to put it together and things work out.”
No Beginner’s Luck for MJ
As mentioned before, Durr was out, and Han entered the fourth quarter once this game was out of reach. Marine Johannès, however, entered the game at the end of the first quarter and was the New York player on the court with the most energy and focus.
“I think she did really well,” former EuroBasket teammate Bria Hartley said. “She was aggressive, I was happy she went out there looking for a shot. She’s a really talented player, so I think she can make an impact when she’s on the floor.”
In addition to her first half connection with Wright, MJ returned in the fourth with an effervescence even when the game was far out of reach. In the fourth quarter she went 3-for-4 including two nothing but net three balls. She complemented her scoring with pristine ball handling and distribution, while racking up three assists, including a wide open layup on a pass to Reshanda Gray.
Coach Smith was pleased. “She’s going to be a good addition,” she said. “Someone who obviously can score, good at pick and rolls, flies around on defense, has a really good basketball IQ, so really was happy with what we saw here in the WNBA, this is what she did overseas, basically happy to see it translate. She looked good tonight.”
Johannès’ first three ball in a Liberty uniform came on a literal around the world triangulation from New York. The ball traveled from Canada (Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe) to Australia (Allen) and then to France (MJ) within two seconds. The pass to Johannès from Allen was an absolute rocket. Her hand must be feeling all right. But, I did notice a little hesitation from the Aussie to get underneath the rim and block, something she’ll be building toward.
Katie Smith doesn’t believe that MJ faces many challenges coming from Europe to the WNBA. “She’s played with a lot of these players and with them, Vandersloot, Quigley, Tina Charles, all these guys play against each other,” she said postgame. “She knows how to play basketball. And she’s quick, she can guard. Obviously score at all levels, so I think she’s going to be pretty good and it’s going to be a good transition.”
Apparently Johannès is proficient at English, as Katie Smith admitted her French isn’t quite where MJ’s English is. “She has Bria here, who was on the national team, and Nayo who played with her, so that’s a comfort for her as well, to have that history with them,” she said. “I’m excited for her to go on this journey and see what she can do in the WNBA.”
The rookie had a successful night under the radar, similarly to how her teammate Kia Nurse snuck up on the starting roster of the 2019 WNBA All-Star Game. Expect MJ to take some scoring pressure of Nurse, especially when she goes through a three ball drought.
“[I’m] super excited for her to be here, obviously,” the All-Star said. “I played against her a number of times on the national team and she’s a great player and really fun to be around. We’re happy to have her here.”
In Charmin we trust. Can we unite the nations?
Kia Nurse proved why she’s an All-Star, but that wasn’t enough for New York to travel to Seattle with a win. Her absolutely gravity defining, buzzer-beating put back off a Tina Charles three ball attempt is a play that belongs in two places: Sports Center’s Top 10 and at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in two weeks.
She finished impressively against the Sky while spinning and leaping. Similar to her teammate Charles, she can score while in a double team and can use the glass and the rim whenever she needs to. Her eye for the basket was much better against Chicago than it was against Las Vegas, shooting 46 percent from the field while scoring 18 points.
But the synergy from her #SCtop10 worthy moments didn’t translate through to her teammates. But while energy was significantly down, Nurse watched resilience from the bench in the fourth quarter.
“I’m proud of the way we continued to battle,” Nurse said after the game. “Tough one from the start, obviously they’re a good team. But we didn’t execute the way we wanted to.”
Nurse is correct, there’s improvement in how the bench responded to being on the court for close to the entire fourth quarter. The squad against the Aces just gave up. While Han Xu on paper might have scored less points in Chicago, she looked even more comfortable than she did against Vegas at home. In the final six minutes of regulation, New York went on a 6-3 run from its bench with key contributions from Han, Johannès, Allen and Raincock-Akunwe to narrow the final lead to 16 total points rather than way over 20.
In addition to Zahui B representing Sweden of course, New York could be resemble a United Nations General Assembly meeting. To extend the metaphor even further, how will the Liberty continue to merge and weld different identities, nationalities and ideas of how to solve some of the most difficult problems on the court.
Speaking of unity, Charmin Smith was in attendance on Friday night. Reshanda Gray did her former two time assistant coach coach well by nailing both of her free throws. But I wonder, did Katie Smith ask the Watson to her Holmes what she saw after the second meltdown in a row.
Reunited didn’t feel good last night, but the Liberty have to understand that it will. The Liberty didn’t leave the light on in Chicago, but they’ll figure out who will in Seattle.
Andy Brown contributed reporting from Chicago.
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