Liberty looking for Unity ahead of regular-season debut in Brooklyn

The Liberty outshot the Sky, Charles dominated, defense took leaps

With under nine minutes to go against the Chicago Sky on Wednesday night, the New York Liberty staged a block party, and I mean that quite literally. For the worst-rated defense in the league, that might come as a surprise. But in less than twenty seconds, Rebecca Allen mustered up two blocks, including help on the first one from Reshanda Gray and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and a straight-up denial of Dolson.  Allen followed those two rejections with a hand in Diamond Deshields’ face to prevent a score.

While New York gave Chicago three chances on that drive, the Liberty played tight defense, making it impossible for a shot to go in. But following that defensive tenacity, Bria Hartley took an open jump shot in the lane, and her airball was received by Vandersloot. While that wasn’t recorded as a turnover, it was in execution.  The league assist leader cut through the lane, plowing through a New York defense that just wasn’t ready.

The defense fell asleep. It broke down. While the Liberty were still up four after Vandersloot’s first of four driving layups in the quarter, that sequence that changed the course of the game and gave New York the “L” instead of the “W”.

“[We] just need to stop the ball,” head coach Katie Smith said following the loss. “Our coverages were or you know, bigs possibly switching it and it  and just didn’t get our bodies in front. And we’re giving up layups and it can’t happen. So again just a couple of little breakdowns that hurt us but they can’t get down the lane and get layups.”

For the first three-quarters of the game, Smith thought this defensive effort was a vast improvement. She noted that there weren’t “warm-up shots where [The Sky] standstill with no one in front of them.” And the Liberty made it a priority to “run people off the line.”

Amid the breakdown, for three quarters, the Liberty defensive front held their own against the second-best offense in the league. For three quarters, the Liberty allowed the Sky to shoot under 17 percent from beyond the arc. New York, however, made 11 three balls, including another parfaite shooting performance from Marine Johannès, who had four go in from long. Who made the others you may ask, I’ll address that shortly.

“I thought we played really well,” Smith said. “I thought this was a really good effort for us even thought we came out with a loss, I just think that if we play like this, we are going to get some wins down the stretch.”

The “Spida” spins most impressive web with a new career-high

Rebecca Allen is making up for lost time. A June hand fracture kept her out of ten games this season, but in coming back from injury, the five-year veteran has made it her praxis to disrupt offenses.  A criticism I had of Katie Smith‘s post-EuroBasket rotation was how Allen has been used, especially when New York needs a boost on defense. But on Wednesday, Smith decided to take an overdue chance on the Aussie native.

The nickname “Spida” (Spider with an American intonation), is fitting. Allen’s wingspan and long legs aid her in batting down the ball, and with her catch and release. Her trigger is quick, her leap and arm positioning resemble a Kara or Carol Danvers flying through the air. With approximately a 60 degree angle to shoot the long ball, her one fluid motion looks awfully heroic. And against Chicago, Allen’s three-ball kept the Liberty in it, rescuing New York from falling behind due to a revitalized Courtney Vandersloot who scored 12 points while shooting 5-7 in the second half.

But back to Allen. Tina Charles and Bria Hartley set her up a combined five times. Hartley knew the Aussie had her grove on Wednesday night, and on one of her three balls in the third, Hartley called it while pointing her finger on the floor. Once the ball landed in the hole, Hartley followed her prediction with a fist pump. Allen fluttered around knocking down six total three balls while shooting 7-13 from the field. She scored 21 points, the most she’s had in any WNBA contest.

Allen was humble explaining what worked offensively. “It was going in,” she said. “They ran some really good screens as well, got some good flares, they got me open. So that helped my game.”

“Spida” matched up incredibly well against Chicago’s sophomore All-Star Diamond DeShields and center Stefanie Dolson. Allen blocked two shots from each, taking the pressure off Charles, Amanda Zahui B. and Kia Nurse, who were tasked guarding Dolson and DeShields. With swiftness, Allen was able to track down DeShields, while it was all force when it came to Dolson. “She puts a lot of pressure… You know she’s in attack mode,” Katie Smith said about Allen postgame on Wednesday.

The two stops on DeShields were a game of cat and mouse for Allen. In the second half, she ambushed the sophomore’s shot from both DeShields’ left and right. With under nine minutes to play in regulation, Allen looked like she was a leapfrog, chasséing to track down and deny DeShield’s attempt at a one-footed jump shot.

Allen is a player with specialties that define how the Liberty play when they are successful. A majority of the New York’s wins have come on outrebounding opponents on defense and having at least three players scoring in double digits. Half of the Liberty’s wins have come on performances when the Liberty shoot at least 40 percent from three. Allen won’t relent on defense and that has been a problem for some of her fellow supporting cast members from the bench.  Her style of play is jittery and that’s not a criticism by any means. She catches her opponents off guard and doesn’t relax on defense.

“And I think her defense is something that’s really crucial for us and her rebounding and she’s flying around, she’s able to protest shots, she’s long and she tracks down every ball. She can knock down shots, we’ve run stuff for her, but I think defensively she’s really showed herself improved over the years.”

Rebecca Allen is a helper and it doesn’t matter if it’s on the court or off. When Tina Charles needs assistance under the rim.  She’s there. When Amanda Zahui B. takes a hard tumble to the ground in the third quarter, she stops her momentum on the court. She’s there. When the floor in front of the Liberty’s bench in Wintrust Arena is slippery and wet, Allen lunges forward with a towel to aid Bria Hartley and Reshanda Gray in the cleanup. She’s there.

19 Chicago points were scored off New York turnovers in the second half

With her eagle eye always on the ball and a little over a minute and a half to play,  Allen sprinted across the paint and extended her 6’5″ wingspan up and over to reject Stefanie Dolson‘s attempt at a two. The Aussie was dragged down by Dolson following the emphatic block with no foul call.  She struggled to get up from the floor and New York proceeded to turn the ball over with only four players down at the other half of the court. That time, Allen wasn’t there to help.

I’m baffled as to why Spida’s energy didn’t transfer to New York on the other end. These sloppy passes that lead to wide-open three balls, which in Wednesday’s case was in the hands of Vanderquigs, are akin to spring allergies that just won’t go away.

Allie Quigley #14 of the Chicago Sky handles the ball against the New York Liberty on August 7, 2019 at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Illinois. 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 Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Here’s a stat: 10 of Allie Quigley’s 22 points came off New York turnovers. Quigley was responsible for scoring half of Chicago’s points off the Liberty’s lost possessions. It makes rational sense to hand the ball over to the sharpest shooter when the opposing defense is still tottering along and trying to get in position.

The Liberty were up by a point with a little over four and a half minutes remaining in the fourth. Quigley tipped a no-look pass from Johannès intended for Tanisha Wright.  The ball took a bounce and landed near the hand of Dolson who then on two dribbles fired a hail marry over to Quigley with Johannès attempting her best interception while trailing slightly behind the three-time All-Star.  As Quigley positioned herself to shoot, Allen leaped up from the bench with a yell to accompany an animated Katie Smith.  Tanisha Wright sprinted to try to get a piece of Quigley’s shot but was too late. Allen watched the three-ball land with a swoosh. She placed her hands on her head in exasperation.

Just look at the box score.  Nine of New York’s 12 second-half turnovers were relinquished on hurried and loose ball handling. How is this rectified? How are these turnovers reduced once and for all? New York ought to employ defensive offense, meaning their protection of the ball must include fakes and must be as gritty as “block city” was on Wednesday. There was a Vandersloot third quarter fast-break layup that could have been easily avoided if Tina Charles performed a backup dribble on Cheyenne Parker instead of dribbling the ball right in front of Parker’s hands.

While Wednesday night in Chicago was an improvement, New York’s 2019 nemesis remains alive and well.  “…a few breakdowns here and there you know it’s a little stretch to turn the ball over too much in the second half with five in the first half and 17 for the game,” head coach Smith said.  “So those type of things again still creeping in, but I thought overall our effort on both ends was good.”

Charles, New York’s “backbone,” is looking ahead

In a week, Tina Charles has scored a combined 44 points, has brought down 15 boards, dropped eight dimes and four blocks. Both her body and verbal language have shown that she’s hungry to play late into September again. It’s been two years since Charles has gotten a taste of the postseason. And with a chance to make a run for it, Smith has made sure the walking bucket has had touches.

“We need her to not only want it, but we need to have her get touches because it does create a lot, again we had 30 assists and she had a lot of those,” Smith said on Charles’ performance against Chicago.  “So again, her mindset and her attack mentality and I think she was getting fouled all night and barely got any calls. So I thought she played through a lot and was really one of our backbones tonight.”

Speaking of fouls, part of what made the contest again Chicago so compelling was to see Charles battle Stefanie Dolson under the rim, inside and outside the paint. Dolson did all that she really could against the 7x All-Star, but the ball landed for Charles, 11 times out of 20 attempts to be exact.

While Dolson’s facial expression while guarding Charles showed her frustration and aggravation, Charles views the fellow UConn center like a little sister.  “I hosted her on her visit,” Charles said in the locker room following the loss.  “We’re close. She’s from New York. Played against her before and that’s just how it is. Doesn’t matter what you are on the court, off the court, just trying to get out of one another.”

CHICAGO, IL – AUGUST 7: Tina Charles #31 of the New York Liberty handles the ball against the Chicago Sky on August 7, 2019 at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Illinois. 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 Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Chicago Sky head Coach James Wade commented that Charles is a future Hall of Famer, but alluded to Dolson needing some more help with Charles in the post. “For a reason, I think she’s in the top 10 in scoring,” he said.  “I think our first two games were pretty solid against her. This game I felt like she was a little too comfortable early. She was able to see shots go in and you gotta push up a little bit. I think that Stef gave her a little too much space.”

While Charles certainly won the one-on-one with Dolson, the Queens native would have rather had the team W more than anything. Unity on and off the court is integral for New York’s success and that will be on full display at the Barclays center on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET when the Liberty take on the defending WNBA champions, the Seattle Storm.

New York’s regular-season Brooklyn debut will be the organization’s third annual Unity Day, which is a day that honors and provides awareness for “equality and social progress.” The festivities began early for New York as Charles and Tanisha Wright gave opening remarks at the Unity Day panel in which they honored  2019’s Unity Day theme: the representation, and health of incarcerated women. After the game in Chicago on Wednesday, Charles spoke openly about what Sunday’s game means for the dedicated New York Liberty fans.

“I think it’s more about the fans than versus us,” Charles said.  “A bunch of this in this room have played at MSG, in the beginning of our years, but it’s just great that the fans will be able to come to a location that is well-deserving for a professional team, for just what this organization means as being one of the first when the league started, and the legacy that it upholds. I think it’s more so about the fans and that it’s a unity game, just what the NY liberty is trying to do there with women incarcerated, so I think it’s really great just what they are  highlighting.”

The Liberty are on the hot seat and come to Brooklyn riding a four-game losing streak and will be without rookie Asia Durr (who is still battling a groin strain) and center Amanda Zahui B., who is battling a concussion from her ugly fall against the Sky. But let’s remember, the last time New York was faced with injuries and absences, they proceeded to go on a four-game winning streak. The dawn of a new one would be exactly what the Liberty need and to get it started in Brooklyn would be the icing on the cake.

Ben Rosof contributed reporting to this story.

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