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It’s A Long, Long Road To Las Vegas For The Liberty

Breanna Stewart and Sabrina Ionescu high five during a game
Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

I appreciated Florida Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk's honesty last month, after Game 1 of the first round of the NHL postseason, when he was asked about his team clicking into "playoff mode." It was a good debunking of the idea that every pro player can or should treat every game with equal importance.

"It's very hard going all the way to the Finals and then getting up for games to start the year," Tkachuk said with a bit of a laugh. "It's hard to make the playoffs, so you gotta find a way to get back there, but we've been waiting all year for this moment, to have a chance to do what we didn't do last year."

The Panthers are now within sniffing distance of a redo after losing in the Final last season; only the New York Rangers block the path. Over in Brooklyn, however, the New York Liberty sit in a remarkably similar spot as the Panthers did all the way back in October: fresh off a long-awaited but unsuccessful Finals trip against Las Vegas, full of belief that they'll be back, but forced to play a long run of less meaningful games until they're allowed to prove it. These regular-season months are as much about staying healthy as they are about playing to the peak of their abilities, and Monday night's win over Seattle to go to 4-0 on the year was a clear window into how this overpowered starting five can coast to victory at something less than max power. The trick will be staying interested.

The Storm weren't an especially intimidating opponent—an 11-29 team last year missing a marquee signing in the injured Nneka Ogwumike—and the Liberty treated them like it. In the first quarter, particularly with an advantage in the paint on both ends, the Libs built a double-digit lead, and then they just kept it the entire rest of the way. It didn't matter that they only hit three of their 23 long-range shots or that they lost the turnover battle. Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart's unmatched presence in the skies, plus the team's widespread ability to drive and make free throws, was far too much for the Storm to handle in this 74-63 final.

When their best players are fully in sync, as they were for their inoculation of the Fever last week, the Liberty astound. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot, though she might be trimming her minutes at age 35, is still a threat to Sue Bird's all-time assists crown, particularly for as long as she continues passing to lethal scorers like Sabrina Ionescu and the reigning MVP Stewart. Jones, the 6-foot-6 MVP from 2021, boasts a practically unguardable mix of inside power and outside range. And Betnijah Laney-Hamilton, once unfairly pigeonholed as the team's Fifth Beatle because of her less-impressive résumé, has established herself as essential support who can tailor her game to whatever New York requires. The bench, which shed two of its top three players from last year, remains a question mark, but the Libs' first five is so impressive that even the Aces—at least for as long as Chelsea Gray heals—seem like they'd struggle to match them point for point. Against lesser teams, it's almost unfair. Here's Ionescu running a play with Jones, who slices through the defense, as Breanna damn Stewart waits under the net to clean up a miss. The superfluous pieces here could power a whole other playoff team's core.

Watching the Liberty, you're bound to get inspired by the simple cause-and-effect logic: "Let's get a handful of the absolute best basketball players in the world and put them on the court together." But that high ceiling is also a curse, in that it's impossible to be pleasantly surprised by this team's main lineup. They're either as awesome as advertised, decent enough, or disappointingly dysfunctional, and it remains to be seen whether they'll be better at playing a full 40 than they were last year. Monday's second quarter wasn't promising: The Liberty went scoreless through the first four minutes, because Seattle focused on keeping them out of the paint and they couldn't hit their threes in turn. Against a team like the Storm, it didn't matter. The lead stayed safe. But a sequence like this—a turnover from Jones so sloppy the cameras don't even catch it and then 24 seconds of aimless heroball from Stewart—is a failing grade if you're supposed to be a superteam.

I promise I'm not trying to nitpick an undefeated squad's 11-point win in May. It's just a testament to the emphatic and entrenched greatness of the Aces that New Yorkers are so anxious about whether their theoretically incredible team can hang. For sheer blinding star power alone, watching a Libs game is time well spent. But the Liberty aren't playing these games against the standard of the team across from them. They're competing every night against the best possible versions of themselves, and the group that bested them last year.

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