The starting five struggles to well… start
The Liberty have lost three in a row. The latest came on Sunday against the Storm, dropping the contest 78-69.
Handling the ball. Turnovers. Confusion on defense. All of these fundamental issues from the first two weeks of the season have resurfaced. The question we seldom ask is “why?”.
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You’d think a roster in flux would have been the headline in mid-June when the Liberty not only lost Bria Hartley and Amanda Zahui B. to EuroBasket, but Rebecca Allen went down with a broken hand. But, it wasn’t. The Liberty won 4 of 6 without that group. On July 14th after loosing a third straight that is indeed the headline. This roster is in flux with mostly every player available.
“We didn’t show up,” head coach Katie Smith said postgame. “We knew what we were going to see and we know how they play. We didn’t handle their pressure and turned the ball over too much. We gave them offensive rebounds and basically spotted them 10 points to start the game. It went downhill from there.”
On the 19 Liberty turnovers, the Storm put 26 points on the board. New York’s frontcourt allowed five offensive rebounds from Mercedes Russell. Seattle also scored a total of 20 second chance points, including a three ball from Sami Whitcomb which was preceded by a missed Crystal Langhorne layup — Amanda Zahui B and Bria Hartley were right under the basket to receive it once it bounced off the glass. Both New York players fought for it, but Langhorne was able to recover the ball off their fingers.
On Instagram the following Monday, Bria Hartley wrote on her story: “I’m tired boss. Going from Paris to NY then Chi, the[n] Seattle and back to NY, talk about jetlag.”
I’d imagine the same goes for Zahui B. Was it wise for Smith to start these two? Reshanda Gray has been carrying quite a load, which with her work ethic she could have continued for another game or two against both Chicago and Seattle. Her struggles did return against the 6’5 Russell on Sunday, but remember, she did get the last laugh in the first meeting between these two teams.
Looking at the roster, it might have been inevitable to start Hartley. Smith remained cautious with Allen’s hand and that’s understandable. But if Asia Durr continues to rest, (which is probable), Nurse should move back to the two spot where her defense is needed. Rebecca Allen could get a start or two at the three position.
And speaking of Durr, it doesn’t help that she remains out with a strained groin. On the court on Sunday, Jordin Canada‘s only real foot race sparing partner was Marine Johannès. Matching up Tanisha Wright against Canada wasn’t ideal as the Seattle sophomore swiped the ball from the veteran twice in the second and third quarters. Durr’s speed is invaluable.
According to Healthline, a minor groin strain takes 2-3 weeks to really heal properly. That would place her return sometime around the game against the Dallas Wings on August 1.
Then again, Rebecca Allen suited up around a month after breaking her hand, an injury that usually takes 6-10 weeks to properly heal.
But the roster may have to continue to shuffle and adjust. Brittany Boyd left the court limping after a spar inside the arc with Canada with a little over seven minutes to play in the third quarter.
According to a team spokesperson, Boyd was diagnosed with an “ankle sprain-grade 2” by trainer Theresa Acosta following the loss to the Storm. She’ll be re-evaluated by Acosta on Tuesday and hasn’t been ruled out yet of the game against the Sparks on Saturday.
Johannès entered in her place and would rotate with Hartley until the fourth where the rookie stayed along with Hartley for the entire quarter.
The All-Star Kia Nurse had the most energy amid not getting some of her three balls to fall, but she still scored 19 points, knocking in half of her total shots. At times she was frustrated with her moves through the lane, but she was the lone starter who didn’t allow those circumstances to prevent her from playing up tempo basketball.
“In the first half, there was a bit of a lid on the basket and missed some easy ones that we usually wouldn’t miss,” Nurse said following the loss. “That kind of led to that hole so it was hard to dig ourselves out of it. I think in the second half we had a chance and just needed to execute things a little bit better.”
Defending the three ball remains difficult
New York relented allowing 13 three balls to a team that the Liberty knew are tied for fourth in the league in three point attempts per game. Nine of those long balls came in the first half including three from Langhorne who was Seattle’s leading scorer.
“Yeah, we definitely dug ourselves a hole, but there’s no reason for us to dig ourselves a hole,” Smith said. “Off of turnovers, [offensive] boards, they hit threes and shot the ball really well. We tried to paint the picture about what we were going to see – we just saw them a week ago, but we had to handle their pressure. We knew that and did not.”
As of now, New York’s numbers on opponent 3-point attempts and opponent 3-point percentage are fourth worst in the league. I saw a couple macro issues on Sunday that have been plaguing the Liberty all season long.
- Player recognition was an issue on Sunday and Katie Smith knew that. Crystal Langhorne shot the ball well all afternoon and New York continued to leave her open, giving her uncontested shots. Hartley and Zahui B would switch to her too late or sometimes the Liberty wouldn’t get a player even close to her. The only excuse I’ll give New York goes to Rebecca Allen who finally unleashed some defense on Sunday. She was able to bat down a Sami Whitcomb three ball attempt, but Whitcomb, who’s got the quickest catch and release on the Storm, was able to follow through the block and throw up another before the shot clock buzzer.
- The transition defense needs to shift quicker. The Storm played a great game of cat and mouse on the Liberty, drawing their defense into the paint. New York appeared rather sleepy following Jordin Canada, as she whooshed around the court off transition rather than keeping an eye on open outside shooters. Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and Zahui B were fooled by Langhorne and Natasha Howard.
- Natasha Howard, who played amid domestic violence accusations, shot it well against New York just like in the last contest between these two. She racked up some long jump shots along with two beyond the arc, one of which she didn’t even have to take a dribble to fire. That just cannot happen.
The bench wasn’t warm in Seattle
In the fourth quarter, New York was in a deep hole. Katie Smith summoned her bench to play the last ten minutes and similarly to their showing against Chicago, the bench came to play.
An issue against the Aces at home was simply that the entire roster didn’t show up. The bench missed routine shots and couldn’t take advantage of starters sitting out. Against the Sky and more prominently against the Storm, the bench showed that the Liberty had some signs of life.
“I thought our second crew in the second half played a little harder, but definitely disappointed in our effort and our focus to start games,” Head Coach Katie Smith said.
Bria Hartley looked much better in the fourth quarter and both she and her EuroBasket teammate Marine Johannès penetrated Seattle’s defense, taking advantage of the opposing starters sitting on the bench.
Allen provided some help on both sides, setting up Han Xu and Raincock-Ekunwe beautifully on the inbound. In light of the Witcomb second chance three ball, Allen played alert and prevented a turnover in the fourth.
On some made free throws from Hartley, some beautifully executed buckets from Han (it’s really pretty when she scores, just saying), and a three ball, a steal and some free throw action from MJ, the Liberty finished the game behind in single digits. That looked nearly impossible at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
How long can New York trust the process for?
It’s a bizarre time to experiment, but this roster needs to switch up it’s current post-EuroBasket formula. It simply isn’t working. Before they go into the All-Star break, New York needs find a spark, which they hope to do at home against LA this Saturday in the final game of their season series.
The number seven is holding this team back. Remember, seven was the total number of games Katie Smith and her squad won in 2018. This is a hump I’m sure she and the front office have been thinking about. One more win solidifies the improvement between seasons.
“There are a lot of things that we need to continue to get better at and it’ll be good to have a little bit of a break here before our next game to clean that stuff up in practice,” Kia Nurse said after the loss on Sunday. “We continue to fight and battle to the last buzzer. Credit to Seattle, who executed their game plan and played really well today.”
Nurse understands how at last EuroBasket created some negative output for her team. She said having all of the pieces together in practice for a good week will help when they tighten up on defense.
The Liberty haven’t shown up since July 5. First they cannot finish, and now they cannot start.
While it is crunch time, “trusting the process” does work, even if it’s individually rather than collectively. On Sunday, Reshanda Gray made both of her free throws and nailed a jumper with ease. Kia Nurse became an All-Star in her sophomore season. The Liberty will trust the process and each other until they simply cannot. As cheesy as that may sound, I think that’s their reality.
As Katie Smith has mentioned before, the injuries and other adjustments for her team should be viewed as opportunities for others to step up. Could it be Allen, MJ, Hartley or Han? The first person who shows up will step up.
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