Forgive those of us who managed to talk ourselves into the New York Liberty. Yes, fine, they were a 16-20 seven-seed going up against a 26-10 two-seed that also happens to be the defending WNBA champions. But! They were a heck of a lot of fun to watch, possessed an at-times devastating and beautiful offense led by Sabrina Ionescu, and looked much better toward the end of the regular season than they did at the start. And hey, if the 2021 Chicago Sky taught us anything, it’s that it’s not necessarily foolish to put your chips on an underachieving-but-talented team getting hot and staying that way through a playoff run. Why not root for something fun?
Here’s what the Chicago Sky think about fun: a 90-72 ass-kicking that ended the Liberty’s season in front their stunned home fans. As it turns out, fun isn’t much of an answer for 40 minutes of swarming, suffocating defense and ceaseless transition offense. Fun tends not to deal well with full-court harassment, hyper-aggressive hedges and traps, and lung-busting rotations that make it seem like one team is defending with six players. Fun can’t thrive when Candace Parker, Kahleah Copper, Emma Meesseman, and Rebekah Gardner have locked it in a cage and begun poking it with sharp sticks.
The Sky won this game, and this series, through the application of relentless defensive pressure. It does not take a brain genius to figure out that the Liberty’s offense runs on the virtuosic playmaking abilities of Ionescu and Marine Johannès, and so Chicago focused much of their defensive energy on making life as hard as possible for New York’s best ball-handlers. Both had to deal with defenders rushing at them as soon as they approached half-court, and every dribble-handoff or pick-and-roll they tried to initiate was met with a flurry of limbs arriving through hard hedges and traps. After Game 1, it seemed like this strategy might just backfire on the Sky, as Ionescu still found space to score 22 of her own points while also making enough clean passes out of double-teams to set her teammates up for open shots. Johannès, meanwhile, was doing stuff like this. But Chicago sealed up the cracks after Game 1, executing every blitz and rotation just a little bit harder and closing up those passing lanes just a little bit quicker, and the Liberty’s offense was left sputtering. New York finished Game 3 with 16 turnovers, which helped give Chicago a 27-5 advantage in transition points. The Sky were just too much.
Here we must pause to give particular credit to rookie guard Rebekah Gardner, who was called forth from the bench throughout the series to latch onto the Liberty’s guards and refuse to let go. She was an absolute demon of an on-ball defender, and singlehandedly erased what the Liberty must have thought was going to be a sizable physical advantage at the guard position when the series started. I don’t doubt that Ionescu will be seeing Gardner in her nightmares for a while.
Meanwhile, the Sky’s offense just kept humming at the other end. Parker knit everything together with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists—you can basically pencil her in for this exact stat line before any big game—and Chicago had six players score in double figures. Copper in particular made a meal out of all those transition opportunities created by the Liberty’s turnovers, scoring 15 points through repeated assaults on the rim.
If the Liberty deserve any credit for their performance, in can be found in how game they were to try and meet the Sky’s intensity. You could forgive a team for losing its moxie as the turnovers and snuffed-out offensive possessions continued to pile up, but the Liberty just kept coming back for more. It was like watching a novice surfer repeatedly getting tossed around by 30-foot waves, but never failing to paddle back out. At one point, they almost found their footing, just as they did in Game 1. After missing her free throw on an and-1 to start the fourth quarter, Ionescu did this:
A tough Betnijah Laney jumper on the next possession brought the Liberty within three, but that’s as close as the Sky let it get. They weren’t about to lose another game to a late momentum swing, and went on a 20-3 run in order to prove that point.
For as fun as it was to imagine a Liberty upset in this series, I must admit that the Sky’s transformation from plucky, Cinderella champions into punishing and imperious title-defenders has brought plenty of entertainment on its own. The WNBA hasn’t had a back-to-back champion since 2002, and the Sky seem committed to putting an end to that streak. This is not a team that looks like it will be satisfied with a few playoff wins; they are playing like they want to prove to everyone that last season was no fluke. So far, I’m convinced. Chicago will meet either the Dallas Wings or Connecticut Sun in the next round, and all I can say to them is, “good luck.”