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The Aces Have Met Their Match

Jonquel Jones #35 of the New York Liberty drives to the basket during the 2023 WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship on August 15, 2023 at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

A few years ago, the New York Liberty adopted a new and exciting strategy, which was to take tons of threes without a care in the world. Whee! This was the analytics-driven brainchild of their young head coach, Walt Hopkins. Between the 2020 season, when Hopkins was hired, and the 2022 season, the Liberty shot from deep more than any other team in the WNBA. (In the 2019 season, they had ranked eighth of 12 teams in attempts per game.) A New York Times postmortem from their 2020 season holds up center Kiah Stokes as a system success story. She had gone from never making a three in her first four WNBA seasons to making five in one game. "I think Walt has done a great job with the system. He’s really put a lot of confidence in me," she said. "He’s like: ‘If you miss it, so what? Everybody misses a shot.'" That last part was especially true of the 2020 Liberty, who also ranked dead last in three-point percentage and finished with a 2-20 record. Hopkins was fired a year later.

The 2023 Liberty still take tons and tons of threes, as good teams often do. But one reason they won last night's Commissioner's Cup game against the historically good Las Vegas Aces—their second straight double-digit win over the reigning champions—is that suddenly they have players who make tons and tons of threes. The team is on pace to be the best volume-shooting team in WNBA history, making their near-30 three-point attempts per game at a 40-percent clip. And that's really the most important part of three-point shooting: the make. Anybody can just take them. It's neat if you can get unlikely players to hoist 'em up every now and then; there's a big difference between that and the kind of reliable, repeatable shooting barrage that Sabrina Ionescu or Marine Johannés are capable of providing. Johannés gave her team 17 points off the bench on 5-of-7 shooting from three last night. As it happens, Stokes plays for the Aces now. When Becky Hammon reflected on a New York defense that held Vegas to just 63 points, she pointed to the spacing: "It was 5-on-4. They weren’t guarding Kiah."

The Aces were title favorites from the minute they won their last championship. When Candace Parker signed with the team as a free agent this winter, Cathy Engelbert probably went ahead and called the trophy engraver. And it looked like the long-awaited clash of superteams might not even be much of a series when the Aces clobbered the Liberty in late June. But the foot injury Parker suffered last month—she underwent surgery in late July and is out indefinitely—only put extra stress on a starting lineup that's always risked being overworked. The top-heaviness of the Aces never seemed to bother them much last year, but the margin for error is shrinking: Without Parker (and without Dearica Hamby, whom they traded away to make room for Parker), the Aces lack an offensive option in the post who can help A'ja Wilson breathe a little. In the two games the Liberty and Aces have played this month, Wilson finished with just nine points in each.

The competition is tougher this year, too. Wilson just doesn't match up well against the Liberty, who have the team advantage in length and size, and can throw Stewart and Jonquel Jones her way. Johannés's five threes, or the pair Kayla Thornton added back-to-back late in the third quarter, tell half the story of the Liberty's victory: The team can straight up shoot its opponents out of games. But there's always a prequel to be found on the boards. Wilson headed to the bench late in the fourth quarter with just five rebounds to Jones's 15. The MVP of the game made life impossible for Wilson, gave her teammates abundant second chances, and helped defensively wherever she was needed. It's no coincidence the team's hot streak has arrived at the same time Jones is finding her footing after a rough start to the season. "I’m just happy to be able to be playing good basketball and feeling like myself out there," she said after the win.

The box score can tell you whatever you want to hear. It's strange enough to inspire 100 hypotheticals. Liberty fans, doesn't it say pretty remarkable things about the team's depth and defense that the Liberty won 82-63, in a game Ionescu, Betnijah Laney, and Breanna Stewart shot a combined 8-of-35 from the field? Aces fans, what are the odds the offense dries up like that again? Perhaps you're a purist who believes this game didn't even happen. Being a special midseason tournament game created solely to sell an extra media rights package, the Commissioner's Cup doesn't count for anything. As far as the record books know, the Aces' 20-game home winning streak remains intact, the Liberty have the exact same record they entered Tuesday night's game with, and neither Wilson's nor Stewart's field goal percentage has suffered for her crummy shooting night. I thought the results interesting enough not to discard entirely, but it's true that this game could be rendered a distant memory by a wonderful quirk of the schedule: These teams play each other again in an actual regular-season game on Thursday night. This time it'll be up to the Aces to make it a series.

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