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You’re Goddamn Right The Aces Have Met Their Match

Sabrina Ionescu and Marine Johannes celebrate on the court
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Imagine thinking that just because the Mets and the Yankees are going to miss the postseason, New Yorkers would shut up about their teams for the rest of the summer. Imagine! About a month out from the start of the WNBA playoffs, the New York Liberty's skyscraper-high ambitions have paid off in a way the local baseball teams' haven't. Adding Courtney Vandersloot, Jonquel Jones, and Breanna Stewart to a franchise that had already been lucky enough to land Sabrina Ionescu a few years earlier was always going to produce, at least, a very good squad. But in the past few weeks, as these new teammates have continued to jell and the Liberty have dropped just one of their last 12 games, they have looked increasingly unstoppable. Their record of 24-6 is still second to the defending champion Aces in the overall standings. But in their last two games against Las Vegas, 10 days ago and then Tuesday night, the Libs have swatted the Aces like flies. The Upper East Coast Area is feeling good.

"This is why we all came here," Stewart said afterward. "We came to win games."

After an 82-63 victory on the road in the Commissioner's Cup final, New York has now outscored Vegas by a stunning 57 points across that pair of August meetings. The Aces (who in fairness, which I extend grudgingly, have been without the injured Candace Parker) will have two more regular-season chances to get their heat back, including Thursday night. But these results, and specifically the way the New York defense has obscured the scoring talent of A'ja Wilson, is a red flag for Aces fans if this is indeed the future Finals matchup that almost everyone predicted.

The Liberty did not own this game start to finish, and the Aces, in fact, held a lead as big as 39-32 early in the third as the teams mostly traded cold streaks. But the spark of 17 points off the bench from Marine Johannès—who has two modes as a shooter: accurate and extremely confident, or errant and extremely confident—kept Vegas from pulling too far ahead. After the half, the Liberty more and more turned rebounds into productive shots, while the Aces never could get comfortable. In the fourth, Ionescu tossed some dirt on them with back-to-back threes, which permanently stuck the New York lead in double digits.

Back to me: As a kid in the mid-2000s, I absolutely loved the Detroit Pistons. Who wouldn't? They were the toughest and most determined men I could imagine. It felt like a feat just to score 70 against them. They toppled the overstuffed Lakers. They consistently contended for a decade. And—this has continued to be what attracts me to any given team—they had a starting lineup in which nobody ranked above everyone else, and each player had a chance to be the most critical piece at the start of any game.

I didn't quite notice this as it was happening, but over the past 15 years or so the Pistons franchise has pretty much murdered my pro basketball fandom. They've been to the playoffs twice since I started high school, both times getting swept as an eight-seed. Any pokes of excitement they've mustered, like kidnapping Blake Griffin or falling into Cade Cunningham, have to this point been suffocated by pointless loss after pointless loss. Their most recent season, at 17-65, was somehow a new low, and they only got the fifth pick in the lottery to show for it. Like most fans of this team who once packed their arena, my enthusiasm has not survived.

The WNBA's Detroit Shock left right as the Pistons' time as winners ended, moving to Tulsa and then Dallas. I cannot claim any connection to them. Michigan Wolverines basketball was an outlet for my fandom, especially as the men's program enjoyed a resurgence under John Beilein. But I'm 28 now and only getting farther away from college. As of a few months ago, I had nothing to contribute in our work conversations about basketball, and nothing to write about the sport, and nothing to watch that could draw me away from other interests.

I haven't changed overnight. But I've gone to four Liberty games this year, after just one in my life prior. Though there's probably a bunch of people getting paid six figures across all sports leagues working up solutions to How do we bring in new fans?, there's no better answer than sign the biggest stars you can and then win. This Liberty team is instantly magnetic and increasingly assured, and, unlike a certain franchise in Detroit, won't make you feel like you got scammed if you buy a ticket to a game late in the year. (Oddly, their win last night also secured more money for what happens to be my health care provider. I can't wait for that sweet, sweet Vandersloot Discount on my prescriptions.)

So, yes, I'm bandwagoning. I'm still in the process of getting to know the Liberty and their history, but my knowledge and my emotional investment are growing with every game. I'm understanding more of their quirks, like how Johannès shooting on the run off one foot isn't always a bad idea. I have a favorite, Stefanie Dolson, because she's tall and gay and seemed really supportive of her teammates while she was sidelined by injury. I found myself on Friday, god forgive me, even getting a little annoyed by their play when they surrendered a 11-3 run to Chicago in the second quarter. In short, I'm becoming a fan again, both of a team and of a sport. And if it's bandwagoning, at least I'm not abandoning any direct competition to hop on.

I'm not the only one catching Lib Fever. In a small area with millions of sports fans, they're the best team you can go see right now. And yes, I know, sorry to the commenters currently loading up to tell me to go chase rats down my trash-strewn street because poor little NYC finally caught a break with one of its teams. I'll just have to live with the knowledge that constant jealousy from the haters is part of Liberty fandom. So if you're one of the lucky locals: Hi! This is fun! If you're not: Maybe you can find as much joy in rooting against them.

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