New York Showed Up In A Big Way
10:57 AM EDT on October 16, 2023
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — No one on the Liberty has played in more Finals games than Jonquel Jones. For all Breanna Stewart’s pedigree, her title runs have been rather tidy; before this year, she had never lost a game in a championship series. It’s a funny artifact of her talent that, while she has plenty of experience on basketball’s biggest stages, she has no experience playing with her back against the wall. But her teammate knows those lows, knows what it’s like to be down 0-2, knows how it feels to be the underdog. "We have to prove that we belong," Jones told reporters before Game 3 on Sunday afternoon. Ringless but well-prepared for the moment, she looked like a champion in New York's 87-73 win over the Aces to avoid a series sweep.
And really, this couldn't have been a sweep, could it? Surely we hadn't waited all summer for that? These teams are too well-matched and fun for that kind of ending. The Liberty survived a bad Sabrina Ionescu game and a bad Jones game and bad Stewart games in the regular-season series against the Aces—I saw this with my own eyes. It just couldn't be true that they were doomed from the start. The Aces' command in the first two games brought out takery of the Sabrina Ionescu is a tremendous fraud variety. But what Ionescu's game lacks, it also lacked before the Finals began, and lacked when these teams played each other competitively in August. My issue with this take is it isn't hot enough: It doesn't seem like a novel insight to say that Sabrina Ionescu is toast on defense. The reason anyone had faith this winter in the Liberty working wasn't that Ionescu would magically become a lockdown wing, but that these Liberty bigs are versatile enough to pick up the slack.
New York’s guards have had trouble staying in front of Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young in this series, so the adjustment head coach Sandy Brondello made was a clever one. The Liberty put extra size and speed on Young in the form of Betnijah Laney, and handed Laney's old Chelsea Gray assignment off to Stewart. Stewart has shot poorly in these playoffs, but she makes up for it by doing things like this. (Her ability to defend all the way down the lineup is why she was named to the All-Defensive first team just minutes before Sunday's game.) Her wingspan gave Gray trouble, cutting off easy passing lanes and forcing Gray into those rare shots that are too tough for even Chelsea Gray. The matchup also limited the Gray-A'ja Wilson pick-and-roll, helping to kill two Aces with one stone.
As for the rest of Wilson's offense—she finished 4-of-16 from the floor and recoiled when she read the stat sheet on the interview podium postgame—it was gobbled up by Jones, who paired her own 27-point performance with her best defensive game of the playoffs, adding eight rebounds, three blocks, and two steals. Jones was everywhere. She challenged Wilson at the rim and played the smart help defense the Liberty's guards often require. “Defensively, she was on A’ja a fair bit tonight," Brondello said. "I think you saw that. I think she did a fantastic job shotblocking, changing shots, switching and staying in front of guards.” She patted Jones on the shoulder. “It’s not easy for a player that size.” I wrote earlier that this series would be swung by the guards. Bigs cosplaying as guards counts, too.
The new matchups complicated what had been working for the Aces, though Becky Hammon didn't feel like they fully accounted for the loss. “I don’t think that should shave 40 points off of our score,” she said. The sight of Stewart on Gray evoked a similar adjustment made in last year's Finals, when the Sun stuck long-limbed DeWanna Bonner on Gray, and got the point guard to turn the ball over four times. The Sun avoided the sweep, but Gray figured it out in the next game. This time, Gray may not have a chance to respond. She left Game 3 with some kind of foot or ankle injury, and though Hammon didn't have an update postgame, Gray wasn't able to put any weight on her left foot as she went to the locker room.
Having your sport wrung through the bad take machine is an unfortunate sign of growth: Michael Wilbon insisted for some reason on Friday’s Pardon the Interruption that the Liberty had “the worst home-court advantage, home-court situation in terms of spirit” in the entire WNBA. (“All, whatever it is, 12 teams,” he added expertly.) But 17,143 fans disagreed, and were rewarded for their spirit. There were connoisseur-ish things to like about what the Liberty did—the matchups, the switches, the screens—but the game they played was also just a crowd-pleaser, aesthetically. "She A'ja-ed A'ja!!" I wrote in my notes, as Jones hit a turnaround fadeaway right over Wilson. In the third quarter, Plum was working Vandersloot near the basket and Jones, rather than let any of this funny business happen, swatted Plum's shot into the seats. Soon, everyone was out of their seats. The city showed up and, finally, so did their basketball team.