The Liberty’s season-long case of the turnovers stunts the team’s playoff hopes
WHITE PLAINS, NY — Katie Smith uttered the word “turnover” ten times when speaking to High Post Hoops on Sunday. The word was warranted. The Liberty give up the most points per game off turnovers of anyone in the league. New York turns the ball over at the third-worst rate in the WNBA.
“Literally in two games, we have given up 67 points off of turnovers,” Smith said in her postgame presser after a 94-79 loss to the Sun at home. “And they just cough it up and throw it over. You have to handle the ball, and if we don’t handle the basketball we are basically spotting people 25 points a game, and in this league, you’re not going to win.”
At least 11 of the 17 New York turnovers came on bad passes. The Liberty were missing some fundamentals in the ways in which they were handling the ball. According to Rebecca Allen, communication was a prominent issue on Sunday.
“A lot of it is communication-based, talking and listening,” she said in the locker room following the loss. “There’s two sides to communications and sometimes I feel like we are connected on that, but that’s just another thing we need to work on.”
The communication piece is tricky, especially when there is so much chemistry on this roster. Just tune in on Instagram, and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Before Sunday’s game, Reshanda Gray and Allen were engaged in some sort of dance contest for the camera. During the shootaround for the guards, Tanisha Wright emerged as another motivator, along with Amanda Zahui B., of course. She encouraged each guard and made a lot of noise. There wasn’t a face on the court without a smile.
Communication on the court and off-court chemistry don’t necessarily go together. But they should, and the energy must transfer onto the court after tipoff.
Communication was especially an issue for Amanda Zahui B. and Kia Nurse, who in the middle of the third quarter struggled to connect outside of the paint. Nurse committed two off-target passes intended for Zahui B. within a two-minute span. In general, the passing lanes were too obvious for Connecticut’s defenders. It was too easy for their flailing arms to make a swipe. According to Brittany Boyd, she saw that the Liberty didn’t employ ball fakes, a fundamental to agitating defenses.
“We just got to take care of the ball,” she said in the locker room. “I feel like we know how to do that. I think sometimes we overdo it and it turns into a turnover. Maybe ball faking can help. I think we see something open and that split second goes by and it’s not open anymore.”
Another 2019 struggle for the Liberty has been their ability to guard the three-ball. New York allows an opponent’s three-point field goal percentage of 35.3 and opponents average 7.3 made three balls on the Liberty per game, which is second-worst in the league. This defense, especially on the perimeter, continues to be an issue.
Katie Smith cited close-outs that are too short, inviting opponents to shoot their shot. “We talk about it, but we have to do it,” she said. “If it’s one of those nights where people are hitting or certain people are hitting then you have to put pressure on them, run them off the three-point line and get ready to guard and that means not only individually, but as a team flying around if they do get beat.”
Allen and Charles said Smith and her staff are very diligent when it comes to preparing the team with defensive schemes and scouts of certain sharpshooters. Charles said it comes down to “carrying your load.” Allen noted that sometimes her team “overhelps,” cutting across too much to the strong side.
When I asked Allen how she’s seen the defense improve, she didn’t want to comment. She’s frustrated. Boyd even blamed herself. “I have to be better,” she said. “Especially not turning the ball over and not giving them any free shots… If you want to blame somebody, you can blame me.”
New York’s turnover tendencies are connected to the Liberty’s defensive struggles. There are instances when the defense is sluggish and simply not following fundamentals, an issue of follow-through, not knowledge.
With Smith and Charles, both veterans of Laimbeerian defenses, this contradiction is baffling. But consider: if the team is turning the ball over at such a high rate, then of course, the defense is sluggish and not ready. If the turnovers come down, then the pace shifting in transition becomes a bit more manageable.