Marine Johannès made a pass so spectacular it bent the universe to her will. Her New York Liberty were down six points in a playoff game that, truthfully, resembled many of their regular-season affairs. They'd put together intriguing stretches—flashed the ceiling of a young team built around dynamic guards—before all the momentum congealed, and they'd let a veteran Chicago team cruise back into the lead late.
If we use the WNBA definition (the score within five points with under five minutes to play), the Sky and Liberty played more down-to-the-wire, "clutch" games all season than anyone else. What set the two-seed reigning champion Sky apart from the seven-seed Liberty was how the scoreboard read when the five minutes were up: The Sky went 15-8 in their close games while the Liberty went 8-13. The Liberty's inexperience showed often. They lived and died by streaky three-point shooting. Road games were a struggle. It was a win at home on the very last day of the season that made them a playoff team in the first place. So the only way to understand the Liberty's Game 1 win in Chicago last night, a 98-91 upset over a team with the best home record in the WNBA, is that some higher being was swayed by this:
Chicago's defense picked their battle: In pressuring Johannès and Sabrina Ionescu late, they were limiting New York's best shooters, but also provoking New York's best passers. At first it seemed like the wise choice to have made. For a few possessions, Johannès and Ionescu were dishing and no one was finishing. In one particularly egregious moment, Stefanie Dolson misread a wide-open lane Johannès had created for her. And then, the pass! Johannès hit Natasha Howard with a perfect no-look, over-the-head feed that gave Howard flashbacks to her days on the Seattle Storm. "It kind of reminded me of a Sue Bird pass," Howard said afterward. (Here's the great Bird-to-Howard pass she might be remembering, which came in a regular-season game her team already led by double digits and was not quite so gutsy.) Notice that the Sky have 91 points at the time of the pass and that they lost 98-91. Chicago shot 0-for-8 from the field after the Howard layup, and managed not even a free-throw make in two attempts. The pass functioned as an energy transfer, zapping the Sky of their typical clutch-time power and channeling it all toward the Liberty, who ended the game on a 13-0 run shooting 5-for-5 from the floor.
The French Johannès, playing her second WNBA season after a two-year hiatus, has figured into women's basketball even when not in the WNBA, always popping up to give Team USA fits in the Olympics or in FIBA events. Her WNBA breakout this year feels something like seeing a fan-favorite single-episode character bumped to season regular. "I've watched her, coached against her for many, many years," her head coach Sandy Brondello, also the Australian national team coach, said recently. "And I've seen the potential and how just good a player she is ... I just wanted her to come and be her. I said, 'That's it. You're a scorer, you're a facilitator. You're a defender. You're everything.' I didn't put her in a box." All season, Johannès has made the most of her expanded character arc and her coach's trust. She has put her team in an excellent position now too, just one game away from a first-round series win.