New York’s playoff push took a turbulent turn against Dallas

How do the Liberty curtail Dr. Jekyll’s duality spell moving forward amid a disastrous showing in Dallas?

Tina Charles wore a vintage Mets T-Shirt as she spoke to one of Wings’ sideline reporters before the game on Thursday. While she was asked about her philanthropic efforts and recent film project “Charlie’s Records“, Charles had something else on her mind: a playoff push. She acknowledged the gravity of the remaining games.  Every game in August is a playoff game. She’s not wrong, but maybe that’s something she needs to reiterate to her teammates.

I’m not going to use any euphemisms here, the Wings’ 87-64 beatdown of the Liberty wasn’t pretty. It was ugly and even a little bewildering. Dallas is tied for putting up the least amount of points per game.

“We talked about how we had to battle,” Katie Smith said after the game on Thursday. “We had to hit them. We had to hit them and go get it. But they kept coming and we didn’t push back enough. We knew they were gonna come out after getting beat by Vegas like that. We also knew they’d come hard and attack us.”

A loss like this raises a laundry list of questions and concerns. Everybody talks and the chatter surrounds firing head coach Katie Smith, selling franchise player Tina Charles or dishing out one of New York’s veteran guards in Brittany Boyd and Bria Hartley before the August 6 trade deadline.

If this team is serious about a playoff push—and they do have the talent for one—the duality must be ameliorated.  After Thursday night’s disaster, there are questions that have come to an absolute head. So let’s get started.

How can Bria Hartley and Rebecca Allen be used effectively? 

ARLINGTON, TX – AUGUST 1: Bria Hartley #14 of the New York Liberty dribbles the ball during the game against the Dallas Wings on August 1, 2019 at the College Park Arena in Arlington, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images)

While Asia Durr was recovering from a groin strain after a blow out loss against the Aces on July 7, Head Coach Katie Smith has relied on her confidence in Bria Hartley to step up. Hartley returned from Eurobasket a couple of days before New York’s July 12 matchup against the Sky in Chicago. She led the French national team alongside current New York teammate Marine Johannès to second place in the tournament.

Initially, I understood her lethargy. Both she and Amanda Zahui B. weren’t going to adjust back to the strength and speed of the WNBA at the drop of a hat. But Hartley hasn’t adjusted well to the new look of the Liberty, a team that thrives on a hybrid of speed and strength inside the arc and out.

Smith was looking for Hartley to contribute defensively similarly to how Tanisha Wright has carved out a role for herself. But that’s the issue, Hartley’s strengths haven’t given New York any sense of defensive reliability.

On offense, the Long Island native can score and juke out defensive challenges quite well. She can penetrate the lane while executing off a pick. After a little over two minutes in the first quarter against Dallas, she banked in a two off a Wright bounce pass which was set by a Charles screen.

Hartley also has speed on offense, and similarly to Kia Nurse‘s approach to charging the lane, she can draw fouls while throwing her body around the paint. Her free throw shooting is efficient.  But when the rest of her team struggled to out-pace the Wings on foot in transition, her contributions didn’t shine or serve as significant.

Hartley’s defense lacks the same spry that she’s got with the ball in her hand. Against Dallas especially and since she returned from Europe, I’ve noticed that her eye isn’t always on the ball while she looks to defend. Her switches haven’t been crisp as she’s been late.

On a switch to guard Isabelle Harrison with 6:40 left in the first quarter, Hartley fouls. When New York was still in the game in the middle of the second quarter, Hartley entered the game and immediately fouled Arike Ogunbowale. And then less than a minute later, instead of tightening up on Ogunbowlale, Hartley just halts her guard on the rookie. Ogunbowale proceeds to send an on-point pass to Imani McGee-Stafford for a cutting layup. At this moment, the Liberty were down by five.

While Hartley may be less turnover-prone than Brittany Boyd, there’s less of an urgency in how she’s been playing. So how should Smith and company move forward? The same approach that the Liberty applied to Boyd and Tanisha Wright’s roster switches should be applied here with Hartley and her teammate Rebecca Allen.

Even coming off a hand fracture which held Allen out for ten games, her offensive and defensive numbers have increased in 2019. The significant averages include her highest field goal and three-point percentages since her sophomore season and highest total rebounds and blocks per game since her rookie season. While Hartley’s points and assists per game have remained stagnant over the past two seasons, her field goal percentage has lowered over six percentage points.

I spoke to Allen after the Liberty’s season opener and she told me that before any sort of quick release three-point shooting or anything on offense really, defense is ALWAYS her first priority. And this philosophy shows. Watch her film and notice that her eyes are on the ball at all times.

She’s fighting for rebounds and helps teammates do the same. Also, she doesn’t falter after mistakes. Dallas shooting guard Allisha Gray intercepted a pass from Boyd, which was intended for the Aussie native with a little under six minutes left in the fourth. Allen successfully blocked Gray’s hail marry pass and the ball landed back in the hands of Boyd.

Rebecca Allen will give you defense. At this point, it’s obligatory for New York to start with a focus on defense.

ARLINGTON, TX – AUGUST 1: Tanisha Wright #30 of the New York Liberty handles the ball during the game against Arike Ogunbowale #24 of the New York Liberty on August 1, 2019 at the College Park Arena in Arlington, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images)

What’s next on the checklist for this defense? 

Coming off of EuroBasket, the Liberty were disoriented. The defense was still stuck at the airport.  I broke down what their perimeter defense needed to do to improve.  Let’s bring back that list and add some other suggestions.

  • The Wings caught the Liberty’s transition defense shifting. Especially against Allisha
    Gray who made three buckets from beyond the arc.
  • Here’s the good news, the will to contest shots has improved and can get EVEN better.
  • Tanisha Wright was given the assignment to try to contain Arike Ogunbowale. So you could argue that there has been some attention to player recognition, but that strategy excludes what happens if Wright wasn’t at her usual level of play. And that was the case.

Let’s add three more points of consideration:

  • The Liberty collectively should have been guarding the most talented player on the opposition, Ogunbowale. In the first meeting this season between New York and Dallas, the rookie couldn’t put the ball in the hole. A lot has changed since that first meeting, and the entire defense should have helped Wright.

“Remember the last time we were in New York she had the poor shooting night and we missed the last-second shot to beat them there,” Agler said on Ogunbowale. “Two days later she came back and she responded, and we beat Minnesota here and she played well especially down the stretch where she hit some big shots for us. If you watch how she has progressed throughout the season, all those things that with against her and how she has taken it upon herself to sorta be the go-to player for us and now the team is wanting her to do that and be that and she has been great.”

  • I’ve alluded to this when discussing Hartley’s performance, but every defensive piece must give multiple efforts even when the possession gets visibly out of reach. This team shouldn’t be relying on a shot not going in.
  • I’ve noticed that Asia Durr is an A+ student of the game, and I know that she uses her time on the bench judiciously.  This isn’t just a rookie activity and she shouldn’t be the only one doing as such. I don’t know what’s going on in each player’s head and maybe this is a practice that’s been at work for a bunch of them. But, I can find out and will.


Han Xu #21 of the New York Liberty plays defense against during the game against the Dallas Wings on August 1, 2019 at the College Park Arena in Arlington, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images)

What is the key to deducing the Liberty’s duality? 

Or in other words, how does New York silence the universal power of the metaphorical Mr. Hyde?

Mercury in retrograde is over (and this will be my last astrology reference on this site until the season ends). Many WNBA teams suffer from fatigue. The travel conditions and sometimes inconvenient scheduling have contributed to the Liberty’s tendency to present itself as two different teams this season. Katie Smith has to figure out how to tame Mr. Hyde and her mentor and current Wings head coach Brian Agler believes that she can do it.

“[The Liberty] are still there and have enough talent on their team and like most teams in the league, there are things they have to get better at,” he said after the Dallas win. “[Smith] is smart enough to figure those things out. She doesn’t need me to tell her what those things are, but I know she is going to value the defensive end because that was the kind of player she was. I do know she is the type of competitor she is that Katie will work hard to get this team into the playoffs.”

Here’s how I see it: give the ball to the folks who are more focused.  Smith should consider providing more playing time to those who are locked in even when the rest of the team has given up the fight. Putting Brittany Boyd’s six turnovers aside, I saw a drive and even a wave of anger in her eyes. She committed a technical foul against Dallas, but I see that as an output of her frustration. Also, Allen was visibly full of angst coming out of the post-loss handshake with the Wings.

While this team is incredibly mercurial, their inconsistent play has a pattern. And while that’s an oxymoron, it’s still true. The second half of the season has started very similarly to the first for New York. There’s an adjustment period that this team deals with after a break or a roster change. If the coaching staff can anticipate some of that, maybe some of these blowouts can be avoided.

The matchup against Dallas reminded me of their first road game this season against the Fever. Their shots did not fall and the defense was uninspired. There were some Han highlights, but that was it.  Here’s the good news though, another Eurobasket tournament doesn’t exist in August.

While we like to forget the Liz Cambage 53-point romp of the Liberty from yesteryear, its lingering effects defined the 2018 season for New York. There’s a reason to believe that this team won’t let one loss against Dallas define their entire second half of the season. This team is younger and deeper.

If the starters look meek in the first five minutes then maybe more bench players should have a chance to shoot their shot. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. There are players on this roster who know how this team runs and haven’t been able to execute. It’s a questionable decision to let this continue.

Han Xu has become more comfortable. Let’s not forget that this league is just as unfamiliar with her as she is with them. There’s an advantage right there.

Defense is perfected with not only experience and patience but speed. The ability hustle should be matched up appropriately as age can sometimes only be a number. It is difficult to be able to determine who will be on or off coming into a game, but it was clear that Tanisha Wright struggled with a more WNBA ready Arike Ogunbowale.

Here are a couple of pieces of positive news for now: Asia Durr is moving well coming off her groin strain and Charles’ shots are beginning to fall. But, as I’ve recounted, the Dark Knight cannot act alone. Durr didn’t seem too discouraged coming off the blowout. “We had some great looks, she said. “So, we’ll go back, watch the film and see what we could learn from it.”

Before the Liberty’s win against the Sparks on July 20, Head Coach Smith praised her players but referred to the adjustments that are integral to New York’s success. “They’ve shown up every single day ready to work,” she said. “It’s our job to make sure that we keep pushing the right buttons and helping them break some of these kinds of habits…”

I’m curious as to what Smith means exactly by “these kinds of habits.” I’ve probably addressed them above, but now the real question is how New York plans on breaking them.

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