New York celebrates and reflects on a win over LA that eclipses their 2018 win total
WHITE PLAINS, NY—The pressure was on in the Westchester County Center. Anyone who walked in could feel it. Did it help that Swin Cash, a Liberty alumna and newly hired VP of basketball operations for the New Orleans Pelicans and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver were in attendance for the matchup that launched the WNBA? That doesn’t lessen the jitters, I’ll tell you that much.
By coincidence or not, the Liberty had a couple of pregame activities to temper the anxiety and increase their mental fortitude that rides on the heels of a “must-win.”
Amanda Zahui B.‘s role as New York’s motivator in chief officially resumed after a brief hiatus. During the national anthem soundcheck, Zahui B. was spotted with teammate Rebecca Allen lip-synching their own version of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Young children were dispersed around the arena celebrating the 22nd birthday of Maddie, the crown-wearing (and sometimes tutu-wearing) canine who serves as the Liberty’s official mascot. Bria Hartley‘s two-year-old son was playing with figurines of NBA legends Bill Russell and Gary Payton near the home team’s bench. After the pregame shoot-around, he later joined Hartley under the hoop dribbling a basketball all by himself.
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Young people flying around. The Los Angeles Sparks. The crowd staying loud throughout. A final score decided by a total of five points. Saturday afternoon’s contest against the Sparks was fairly reminiscent of the early morning school day game on June 4.
Was it groundhog day? Down to the wire, the answer could have been yes, but it wasn’t. New York pulled out an 83-78 win this time around. If L.A. scored 78 points during both County Center meetings, what changed over a month later? According to New York head coach Katie Smith, the stark difference between the two home games against the Sparks was an improvement in her team’s quality of defensive play.
“I think our defense is better,” she said in a postgame presser. “I think our help side was in. I thought we were getting up into players more and not allowing them to be as comfortable. I still think we can handle pressure better when they start ratcheting it up and getting their deflections.”
It is also worth mentioning that LA shot under 35 percent from the field during the June contest. On Saturday, more shots fell for the Sparks, knocking down over 43 percent of their field goals. With those two metrics side by side, again I think about how LA scored the same amount in both games. Firstly, the Sparks are shorthanded. Their bench is narrow due to injuries and a suspension.
But, New York’s defense also tightened up and on Chelsea Gray specifically, and was able to acknowledge how her style of play feeds into what has been the Liberty’s latest major Achilles heel, 3-ball defense. Gray scored 10 fewer points and took six fewer shots on Saturday than in her first outing against the Liberty.
To complement the New York defense, the Liberty unleashed refined team shooting of their own, including perfect shooting coming off the bench from rookie Marine Johannès and Nayo Raincock- Eckunwe. Reshanda Gray was two rebounds away from a double-double. This was ALL off the bench.
“I think we can finish better,” Katie Smith said. “There’s a couple of rebounds in there that you’d wish you could take away but I thought we shot it better. I thought people across the board, we had a lot of shooters on the floor obviously. But overall I thought we were locked in and we really tried to improve on some of the things we struggled with.”
MJ était parfaite
It is fitting that Marine Johannès began her WNBA career in New York. The historical metaphor is on point.
The Statue of Liberty was given to the United States from France in 1885 as a symbol of shared strengths and philosophies. Consider Johannès as France’s latest grand gesture to the city of New York, but this time the celebration revolves around a shared talent on the hardwood. After MJ’s home debut, the New York Liberty faithful are incredibly thankful for France’s latest gift, Johannès.
After facing off against MJ quite a bit while representing the Canadian National Team, Kia Nurse is not only hyped that Johannès is on New York, but is overjoyed that she doesn’t have to guard her. “She brings a European swagger into a North American game, which is a lot of fun to watch,” Nurse said. “But she’s confident and I love the way that she plays. I’m glad she’s on my team this time and I don’t have to guard her.”
After scoring 17 points while not missing a shot against the Sparks—including four perfectly executed three balls and a driving finger roll layup where it looked like she could have been holding Lady Liberty’s torch instead of the basketball— the French rookie has earned her alias. Welcome welcome MJ.
“Not bad,” Smith said with a chuckle after hearing that her rookie shot 6-for-6.
In the postgame presser, Smith said that she expects Johannès to be a threat whenever she’s on the court. But Smith understands that while the rookie’s first WNBA action has looked close to flawless, there are still adjustments to be made.
“There is an adjustment figuring out her role and figuring out what we need at certain times,” she said. “You don’t want to take stuff from players that makes them them. But you also have to be smart and when to say ‘hey at this point in time, that’s not necessarily the right pass, you’ve got to take care of the basketball.’ But you want them to make sure they are always confident and doing what they are capable of doing.”
Inside the locker room after the win, Tina Charles pulled the rookie’s leg. The 7x All-Star shouted that her new teammate can speak English and that she shouldn’t be shy to talk about her performance in postgame interviews. “Speak woman speak,” she said to Johannès.
The adjustment to American media isn’t a walk in the park and MJ’s teammate Rebecca Allen was helping her along and giving her confidence. I asked Johannès how she likes the personalities of her new teammates.
Allen turned to her and asked her, “Do you like us?”
“Eh-Eh,” Johannès said while shrugging her shoulders with a wide-open smile. After a loud roar of laughter in the locker room, Johannès took a deep breath and answered the question.
“I’m really happy to be here. It’s a dream for me. So I’m just happy. I try to enjoy it.”
Her expressions and body language in the locker room said it all for me. She’s thankful. She’s looking to contribute whenever. She’s feeding off the energy from American fans. She’s relishing a dream come true.
What’s truly magnificent about MJ is her calm, comfort and clutch on the court. Not a lot on the court can phase the 24-year-old. And while she was a little shy and overwhelmed in the locker room after the game, there is no question that she can communicate effectively with her teammates.
Right before the end of the first half, with 49 seconds left on the clock, Johannès and Tanisha Wright were in position outside the three-point line while teammate Nurse was taking two free throws off a Tierra Ruffin-Pratt foul. While Nurse was firing well-arced buckets, Wright’s gestures communicated that she was definitely conjuring a plan to execute with the rookie. Around 42 seconds later, we knew exactly what was discussed while Nurse was at the line.
Off a Chelsea Gray jumper, Wright handed the ball off to MJ and the two guards passed it back and forth until both Gray and Sydney Wise were a bit off-balanced. Wise tried to infringe on some of Johannès’ space, but that didn’t even matter. She took a dribble and a step to her left, and without any hesitation, she fired a rocket that elicited a swish followed by a roar and a seven-point lead.
The rookie watched it land like a batter would a home run, but then continued her sprint down the court.
“She knows her timing and she knows she’s never going to rush herself,” Nurse said about her teammate in the locker room. “And if you get your feet and your shot under you like that, it’s more than likely going in.”
With five seconds left in the third quarter, on an inbound pass from Rebecca Allen, it was Johannès versus Wise once again. With a little bit more of a bounce in her dribble, MJ created space for herself and let it rip right over Wise’s left shoulder. For the second time, she extended the lead to seven with one swift motion.
During the Liberty’s pre-game shoot around, Coach Smith was asked about who MJ reminds her of the most. The Chicago Sky’s Allie Quigley was the first current player that came to mind. Smith sees similarities in shooting skills, athletism, bounce and how Johannès shifts.
EuroBasket and Liberty teammate Bria Hartley agreed with the initial assessment but believes MJ has her own identity more than anything. “I think Quigs is definitely a lights-out shooter. I think Marine is more smooth, a little more flashy in my opinion. So they are a little different. I’m not sure who I’d compare her to right now. I think she’s her own person, she’s Marine Johannès.”
According to Katie Smith, “Defense is fun”
In preparation for Saturday’s game against the Sparks, the Liberty doubled down on defense. And I’m glad they did. The three-ball became way too easy for New York’s last three opponents before LA. That work showed especially against Chelsea Gray in the fourth quarter. Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe‘s defensive pressure on Gray with 12 seconds to go in regulation paid off. Gray pushed off the New York center with Ekunwe landing right on the floor. But clearly Gray was off-put by her pressure because her last shot was an airball.
“We’ve been really focusing on defense in practice and it’s kind of amping up the energy,” Kia Nurse said. “Getting up to people’s shorts and making them uncomfortable. I think that’s something that happened a lot. We did a great job defensively trying to get deflections and steals and allowing that to become a part of our offense and our transition game and that was a big difference for us today.”
Katie Smith noted that the week break after the loss in Seattle allowed the Liberty to make adjustments in practice. She pushed them to play harder, finish and go get rebounds.
“I’m challenging them every day,” she said. “Defense is fun. When you are grinding and flying around and trying to box out somebody that’s four inches taller than you and you get the rebound. That stuff is fun. It’s work, but that’s worth it…When you are working hard and figuring it out and doing it together, it can be a lot of fun. And I hope they continue to do that and really embrace it and grow from it.”
For Bria Hartley, if her team can come together as a unit, she knows the defense will follow through.
“I think our focus on defense and just knowing that our teammate has our back no matter what,” she said. “There’s going to be times on defense where it gets broken down, people get beat and it’s just like someone stepping up to help and the next person is stepping up to help. I think as long as long as we have that mentality, just keep rotating and keep playing, we are going to do really well.”
99 Problems, but the bench ain’t one
While New York doesn’t actually have that many problems, the squad’s starting five continues to struggle to put up the numbers and the minutes that we expect. With Asia Durr out, Zahui B. not at full form along with some missed free throws from Nurse and questionable offensive foul calls on Charles, someone had to step up. On Saturday, the bench put up the majority of the Liberty’s points, a feat achieved for the first time this season.
Katie Smith shifted her reserves as well. Brittany Boyd, typically the starting point guard, saw her minutes off the bench. Tanisha Wright was inserted as a starter.
Initially, I thought there might have been a decision to rest Boyd because of the ankle sprain she suffered in Seattle, but that wasn’t the case. Smith was very pleased with Boyd’s minutes as she contributed six assists, six points, and five boards off the bench. “I thought she did an excellent job when she came in,” Smith said. “Tanisha does a good job of starting out with a defensive tone and Boyd, she comes in with that burst.”
Reshanda Gray stepped up against L.A. amid low scoring and rebounding performances from the Liberty’s other bigs in Charles and Zahui B. Gray was two rebounds away from a double-double, but regardless of the numbers, her presence was felt by her team, coach and Chiney Ogwumike, who fouled out in the fourth quarter. Katie Smith was asked about what has been behind Gray’s breakthrough this season. According to New York’s head coach, it’s a combination of tightening up her finish around the rim and amping up defensive skills that were already satisfactory.
“I think being able to throw [Gray] the basketball and she’s able to make moves and go finish against contact,” Smith said. “She’s been able to guard a Kalani Brown and Britney Griner, folks that are obviously taller than her, but she’s able to position herself, so what she brings is hard work.”
While Zahui B wasn’t at her full basketball beast mode on Saturday, her energy from pregame didn’t subside on the bench. She knew that there was a lot to celebrate. Her intensity transferred from the bench to the court rather than vice versa. On the bench, she was jumping around, flailing her arms, and even fluffing Raincock-Ekunwe’s hair at one point.
Winning the season series against the Sparks had additional significance for the Liberty. Saturday’s win supersedes Katie Smith’s 2018 win total, as New York sits 9th in the overall season standings at 8-10. While Smith acknowledges that this number is a direct symbol of collective improvement from season to season, apparently she’s not thinking about this as much as I am.
The seven-win threshold that took four games to crack didn’t phase her. Smith prepares for one game at a time. And while she acknowledges the milestone, her mindset remains that her team can always strive to be better. A win doesn’t warrant any loss of intensity or complacency.
“I thought they’ve approached everything as professionals,” Smith said. “We still need to get better. I just think they’ve had the right mindset every single day in practice. They’ve been positive and they show up ready to work.”
New York’s head coach has the steadfast belief that the Liberty can compete with every single team in the league. According to Smith, the talent is there, however, the consistency is not.
“You really want to see them rewarded for that and know that it’s working and it’s happening and that process of the grunt work that you see every day and why it’s important and why it matters,” she said. “But wins show that, and I hope that’s what they see. I hope they understand when they are locked in that good things can happen and we can be a problem in this league. But we have to be consistent and we have not done that.”
Going up against the Sun on Wednesday will be a Connecticut homecoming for Nurse, Charles and Hartley. With that factor at bay, will we see a bounce back from the Olympian Charles?
Concerns shifted to Charles’ low offensive day during Katie Smith’s postgame presser. But Smith knows exactly where to go from here. She’s pleased with Charles’ aggression with the ball, but believes she could be fighting for more boards when it’s clear that the All-Star’s shot just isn’t catching the net.
Leaving the County Center on Saturday allowed for New York to take a deep breath and relax. There’s a cause to celebrate not just Maddie, but the team’s progression.
On Wednesday, facing Connecticut will be the ultimate test. In the preseason, the Liberty fell to the Sun twice. Wednesday will be an opportune time to prove their coach wrong or right. While the Sun are the number one team in the league, they may face some surprises in a locked-in Liberty bench.
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