New York Liberty playoffs: 3 stars from Thursday’s loss at Phoenix

A valiant effort by the New York Liberty fell just short on Thursday night, as they dropped a heartbreaking postseason decision in Phoenix.

The New York Liberty’s Cinderella story surprisingly began at midnight. Alas, it came to an end shortly after.

Brianna Turner’s free throw with 0.4 seconds remaining gave the Phoenix Mercury just enough of a margin to escape Grand Canyon University with an 83-82 win over the Liberty in the opening round of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs. It was New York’s first playoff contest since 2017.

Facing the heavily-favored Mercury, the Liberty fell behind 17-8 in the early going, but fought their way back in a game that featured 13 lead changes. Betnijah Laney tied the game with a triple with 2.4 ticks remaining before a foul sent Turner to the foul line, where she hit one of two.

Skylar Diggins-Smith led the way with 22 for Phoenix while Sophie Cunningham had 21 off the bench for the victorious Mercury. They’ll now face the fourth-seeded defending champions from Seattle on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, ABC).

ESM has metropolitan game balls to bestow from a respectable final effort…

Honorable Mentions

  • Natasha Howard: 16 points, 10 rebounds
  • Bec Allen: 11 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks

3rd Star: Reshanda Gray

8 points, 2 rebounds

The Liberty’s modern fortunes have been defined by their youngsters, but the veteran Gray came up huge for the Liberty in the fourth quarter, helping them keep pace on the inside as Phoenix tried to pull away, forcing the opponents to rely on outside endeavors. Gray set new playoff career-bests after missing the last two games with a non-COVID illness. Through four different tenures this season, Gray became a relied-upon leader and spark off the bench as she seeks to establish a permanent WNBA residency.

2nd Star: Sabrina Ionescu

14 points, 11 assists, 5 rebounds

The Liberty’s brief playoff appearance carries a special weight and reward in the sense that they made their postseason return after enduring a two-win season in the Bradenton bubble. Her first “playoff” action since 2020’s Pac-12 tournament proved she has what it takes to lead at the WNBA level.

She believes the chemistry and camaraderie, particularly such contents built during a final stretch that included a vital win over Washington in Brooklyn, will allow the Liberty to get a head start in 2022 as their “hybrid rebuild” continues.

“We’re going to start training camp at this level,” Ionescu said. “Everything’s going to change drastically. We know each other a lot more.”

1st Star: Betnijah Laney

25 points, 4 rebounds

Laney wouldn’t let the Liberty’s season end without one more double-decalogue, taking full advantage of her first major playoff minutes, having spent two minutes on Chicago’s playoff run in 2015. The Rutgers alumna missed her first two shots as the Liberty fell behind early, but she hit 10 of her final 20, including a jaw-dropping triple that tied the game with 2.7 seconds left.

Laney’s postseason ascension further drives home her status as a leader and vital part of what’s to come. She left a dire warning for those willing to discount the Liberty after a single nationally postseason loss.

“It gives us momentum. Even if things didn’t go our way, the way we played as a group, there is a sign that we belong,” Laney said. “So we’re going to this offseason to continue to be better…come back mature next year. We’re here to stay.”

“I think there was a lot of questions in how we were going to come out, what kind of team we (were),” Laney said. “But I think that throughout the season, especially in our last game against the Mystics…I think it says a lot about this New York Liberty team. We’ll be back and we’re going to be really good.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: Three stars from Thursday’s loss at Seattle

The New York Liberty controlled Thursday’s game for three quarters, but they still couldn’t steal one from the defending champions.

Facing an increasingly dire situation in the WNBA’s playoff standings, the New York Liberty needed to steal one from the defending champion Seattle Storm on Thursday night at Angel of the Winds Arena.

For three quarters, they seemed well on their way. But Breanna Stewart unleashed her personal brand of Seattle storm on the reeling New Yorkers.

The MVP candidate tallied a game-best 33 points, helping the Storm fully reverse a 10-point deficit against the Liberty en route to an 85-75 triumph at home. New York (11-18) has now lost six in a row as they’ve fallen out of the WNBA’s current playoff bracket. The idle Washington Mystics now hold the eighth and final seed as the WNBA season enters its final stages.

New York has three games remaining as they’ll next play on Sept. 11 in Dallas (8 p.m. ET, WNBA League Pass).

ESM has three stars from this latest defeat…

3rd Star: Natasha Howard

15 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals

A vital piece from the Storm’s victorious endeavor in the Bradenton bubble, Howard made her return to her former Seattle stomping grounds and was bestowed a championship ring alongside Sami Whitcomb (who played 12 minutes in her second game back from injury). She shot a season-best 64 percent from the field (7-of-11). Making Thursday’s loss even tougher to bear was the fact the Liberty were unable to secure Howard a special birthday gift: the three-time champion’s return to the Pacific Northwest coincided with her 30th celebration.

2nd Star: Bec Allen

17 points, 2 steals

Allen’s streak of earning at least eight rebounds stopped at three games, but she fell just two points short of her season-best in scoring. The Australian Opal has become one of the most productive New Yorkers since returning from Tokyo, averaging 12.7 points and 5.3 rebounds over the past seven games. Thursday marked the fifth time in that span that she has reached double figures in scoring. Head coach Walt Hopkins referred to Allen’s contributions as “tremendous” in the aftermath.

“Her energy has been so consistent,” Hopkins said. “Bec somebody who has a tendency to be hard on herself. She has not let herself get out of the game in a long time. She’s not let herself get frustrated and take herself out. She’s been really resilient and really proud of the way that she’s grown in terms of her emotional and mental approach to what she’s doing.”

1st Star: Sabrina Ionescu

20 points, 7 assists

In the midst of some tough New York efforts, Ionescu is starting to put up Ionescu-esque numbers against. A return to the PNW area did the ex-Oregon Duck some good. With former collegiate head coach Kelly Graves in attendance, Ionescu helped the Liberty build a consistent lead in the first half. She was mostly held in check in the second half, but she still managed to facilitate and set up metropolitan opportunities. Ionescu has reached double-figures in scoring in all eight post-Olympic games and has averaged just over six assists in that span.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: 3 stars from Friday’s loss vs. Phoenix

Sabrina Ionescu nearly earned another triple-double but it wasn’t enough to put the New York Liberty back on the right track.

Sabrina Ionescu is starting to reach familiar, historic heights again. Alas, even that doesn’t appear to be enough for the New York Liberty to get back on the right track.

Skylar Diggins-Smith tallied 27 points en route to an 80-64 victory for the Phoenix Mercury at Barclays Center on Friday night. Another sterling performance from Diggins-Smith, who also had seven assists, allowed the Mercury to sweep a crucial two-game set on the road from New York (11-16). She also had 27 in the prior victory on Wednesday night.

Diggins-Smith’s showing overshadowed what was nearly another historic outing for Ionescu, who fell one assist short of her second career triple-double. She previously earned the 10th such showing in WNBA history on May 18 against Minnesota.

Phoenix (15-10) has won a WNBA-best six in a row while the Liberty have dropped their last four. New York is currently tied with the Los Angeles Sparks for the Association’s final playoff spot, though the latter has two games in hand. The Liberty suffered a bit of a big blow as Jazmine Jones returned to the lineup after four games off with a right foot injury but had to leave with another lower-body ailment in the second half.

ESM has three game balls from Friday’s defeat…

3rd Star: Bec Allen

8 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks

Allen’s streak of double-figure showings in scoring ended at a career-best four games in a row. But she continued to provide an interior prescience, matching her eight-board showing from Wednesday in her second game subbing for Sami Whitcomb in the starting five. That tally allowed her to set a new career-best in rebounding (75) breaking past the 67 she picked up in 2017.

2nd Star: Natasha Howard

18 points, 7 rebounds

Another poor shooting night doomed the Liberty, who sank only 37 percent of their attempts from the field. Howard was the lone exception to the carnage. She slowly began to resemble her old dominant self with an 8-of-14 output, her first night in the black since the first game in the post-Olympic slate on August 15. Head coach Walt Hopkins noted that Howard looked “poised in the post” in Friday’s output, which saw the Liberty force a tie in the third quarter after falling behind by as much as 19 in the first half. Howard herself gained some clarity on what she and the Liberty need as they prepare for the final push over the next five games.

“The little things we can control are rebounding, turnovers, and communication…I need to be more of a leader on the floor and not get frustrated,” she said. “We did really well pushing the ball and screening…we’ll need to build on that when we play Minnesota (on Tuesday).”

1st Star: Sabrina Ionescu

12 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists

Not everything is perfect for Ionescu, even though she nearly became the first player in WNBA history to earn multiple triple-doubles in the regular season (Sheryl Swoopes had one in both the regular season and the postseason). She shot 5-of-16 from the field on Friday and turned the ball over three times. As injuries and calamities continue to pile up for a Liberty franchise in desperate need of on-court stability, a big opportunity lies at the end of her de facto rookie season: if she can somehow push the Liberty into the playoffs over these final hours, it would be a solid boost of momentum in what’s been a roller-coaster WNBA career thus far.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: Three stars from Wednesday’s loss vs. Phoenix

Despite further energy from DiDi Richards, the New York Liberty couldn’t overcome a garish first quarter on Wednesday night against Phoenix.

On a night where the New York Liberty honored one of the most accomplished sharpshooters in franchise history, their visitors came ready for the occasion.

Three members of the Phoenix Mercury cross the 20-point plateau (paced by 27 from Skylar Diggins-Smith) while Brianna Turner (10 points, 12 rebounds) earned her third double-double over the last four games. Their antics paced a 35-19 first quarter advantage, which was enough to power the Mercury to a 106-79 victory over the Liberty on Wednesday night at Barclays Center. Their visit coincided with the Liberty’s induction of Crystal Robinson, the franchise’s all-time leader in three-pointers (400), into their Ring of Honor.

Phoenix (14-10) has now won five in a row to move into fifth place on the WNBA playoff bracket. The Liberty (11-15) have dropped four of their first five in the post-Olympic slate. A chance for redemption awaits on Friday night in a rematch with the Mercury (8 p.m. ET, CBSSN).

Brittney Griner had 26 points for the Mercury but left the game with a late injury that required assistance from trainers to leave the floor. Wednesday also marked a homecoming showcase for Kia Nurse, the Liberty first-round pick from 2018. Nurse earned six points after being dealt from New York to the desert in the multi-team deal that brought Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb to Brooklyn.

ESM has three silver linings from this latest defeat.

3rd Star: Bec Allen

12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals

2nd Star: Betnijah Laney

20 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists

1st Star: DiDi Richards

14 points, 3 rebounds

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

New York Liberty: 3 stars from Friday’s loss vs. Seattle

A respectable rematch effort against the reloaded defending champs wasn’t enough for the New York Liberty to steal a sweep.

The New York Liberty needed an impossible perfect game to topple a Seattle Storm team welcoming back Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird from load management. They nearly got in the first half before the visitors from the Pacific Northwest did what they did best.

Jewell Loyd followed up a career-best in scoring on Wednesday night with 29 points, while Stewart put up a double-double with 19 points and 14 rebounds. Through their efforts, Seattle turned a 47-46 halftime deficit into a 99-83 win on Friday night at Barclays Center. The Liberty (11-13) previously earned an 83-79 win over the defending champion Storm on Thursday night, erasing a 15-point deficit en route to victory. They’ll visit Seattle (18-6) on September 2 at Angel of the Winds Arena.

Samit Whitcomb (26 points) and Sabrina Ionescu (16) led the way in scoring for the Liberty. New York will return to action on Sunday afternoon against the Los Angeles Sparks (2 p.m. ET, YES). Liberty legend Crystal Robinson, the team’s all-time leader in successful three-pointers, will enter the Liberty’s Ring of Honor in a pregame ceremony.

ESM has three stars from Friday’s game in Brooklyn…

3rd Star: Bec Allen

13 points, 2 rebounds

Allen reached double-figures in scoring for the first time since June. A triple in the second half allowed her to join a vaunted New York club, as it was the 100th three-pointer in a Liberty career that began in 2015. She becomes the 16th player in franchise history to reach such a milestone.

2nd Star: Natasha Howard

11 points, 13 rebounds

Forced into a three-games-in-six-days stretch after returning from injury, Howard’s rust was apparent through a 4-of-19 shooting night from the field. Nevertheless, she was able to earn her first double-double as a member of the Liberty and first overall since last season’s bubble deflated. Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins was pleased that Howard was able to contribute despite her shots failing to fall.

“She didn’t shoot it well, but she did a ton of things well defensively,” Hopkins said. “Her footwork’s a little rusty. She’s rusty around the rim. She just needs to get her balance, her feet back. She’s going to be just fine.”

1st Star: Sami Whitcomb

26 points, 8 assists

Whitcomb might as well have still been in Seattle when she gave the Liberty the lead with a deep triple, one that brought a surprisingly bipartisan Barclays Center crowd to its feet. It was part of a strong return to form for the three-point contest bronze medalist, as Whitcomb’s five triples were her most since she had six in a July win over Dallas.

“Splitting, I think, was probably our mentality,” Whitcomb, the two-time champion with the Storm said. The loss hurts, but it doesn’t hurt (as much) if we learn something from it…I did like our looks. We just weren’t hitting them as  we were in that first half.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags