The New York Liberty Finally Won
7:25 PM EDT on October 15, 2023
Technically, a game is only really won when the final buzzer sounds and one team has at least one more point than the other. But the feeling that a game is over can come much earlier than that, and getting to that feeling of having won is often an enormous aid in reaching the definitive victory that comes when the clock strikes zero. With that in mind, the New York Liberty admirably staved off a sweep in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals by having more points than the Las Vegas Aces when Sunday's game came to a close. But if there is reason to worry about the Liberty's ability to make this a real series going forward, it's that it took so long to feel like the Liberty had finally won.
It's worth stating it clearly upfront: The Liberty played an outstanding game. After looking so meek in the prior two games, both Aces blowouts, New York was up for the fight this time. Behind stingy defending that held Las Vegas to 33 percent from the field and hot shooting in the other direction—the Libs shot 52 percent from the field, 43 percent from three—the game had all the makings of a New York blowout. Jonquel Jones was the leader on both ends of the floor, racking up three blocks and two steals while prowling the lane on defense and scoring a super-efficient 27 points on just 15 shots on offense. With that kind of shooting, all while holding A'ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray to just 27 combined points on 28 shots, it was no surprise the Liberty won by double digits.
But for as dominantly as the Liberty played, it was curious that it took them so long to really put the Aces away. Every time it felt like the Libs might land the killer blow to open up a big enough lead to make everyone in the area start thinking about Game 4, the Aces would bear down, get a couple stops, hit a couple shots, and keep within striking distance. Kelsey Plum almost single- and (un)broken-handedly kept the Aces in it with big shot after big shot en route to her game-high 29 points. The Liberty landed haymaker after haymaker but the Aces' knees refused to buckle. You had the feeling that even in spite of New York's stellar play, the Aces were just one or two well-timed shots from cutting what should've been a huge lead into something dangerously slim and completely altering the tenor.
Ultimately, though, that moment when the game felt well and truly over did come. With about two-and-a-half minutes left in the fourth quarter, and with Las Vegas star Chelsea Gray back in the locker room with an apparent foot injury, Jones hit a three that pushed the Liberty lead to 13. Without Gray on the court and with the other Aces clearly out of gas, Las Vegas at last acquiesced. The Liberty hit a couple more shots soon after, the exuberant home crowd sensed that the rubicon had been crossed, and the Aces pulled most of their starters. The victory was well earned, but the box score—the 19 percent field goal advantage, the 87-73 scoreline—threatens to deceive anyone who didn't see just how much trouble New York had to finally put Las Vegas down.
I'd wanted to headline this post "The New York Liberty Live To Die Another Day," because the impression the game left me with was that the Aces would surely play better defense and make more of their open looks and, almost certainly, would come away with a win in one of the next two games. However, that was before Gray's injury. In this video you can see the moment Gray tweaked some part of her left leg while defending Breanna Stewart late in the fourth quarter. While on the bench she appeared to mouth that something had "popped." Eventually she hopped off the court down the tunnel and had to be assisted back into the locker room. There still hasn't been clarification about the nature of the injury, but the subtlety of the moment she picked up the injury, plus the whole "popped" remark, and the fact that she was seen using crutches after the game, would seem to indicate that it was bad.
The Aces aren't the Aces without Gray, and if she has to miss one or both of the remaining games of this series, then everything changes. Las Vegas lost what was supposed to be their unparalleled depth with Candace Parker's foot surgery back in July, and their playoff rotation really only includes six players. It's not clear just how good even this historically great Aces team can be if Gray isn't out there.
But there's still a chance the injury isn't as severe as it seemed and that Gray can recover in time to play Game 4 or 5. And even without her, the Aces just might have enough to win the one game that stands between them and a second consecutive title. For their part, the Liberty will hope that Game 3 not only kept them alive but also gave them new life in a series they have finally entered in earnest. It may have taken New York longer than they would've liked to win, but better late than never.