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 clinch final spot in 2021 WNBA playoffs

The New York Liberty are playoff-bound for the first time since 2017 thanks to Sunday losses in Washington and Los Angeles.

The New York Liberty’s 25th anniversary celebration isn’t over just yet.

For the first time since 2017, the Liberty (12-20) will partake in the WNBA Playoffs. Placed in the eighth and final slot of the tournament, New York will take on the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury in the opening round’s single-game elimination on Thursday night (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The game will be held at Grand Canyon University Arena as the Mercury’s regular home of Footprint Center is occupied for a concert.

Though the Liberty’s season wrapped on Friday night, Sunday’s results allowed the team to punch its ticket. The wearers of seafoam needed losses from both the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks to extend their season. Fortunately for New York, the Minnesota Lynx and Dallas Wings were happy to provide an assist.

Minnesota topped Washington 83-77 in the nation’s capital (allowing them to move past defending champion Seattle for the No. 3 seed) while Dallas narrowly defeated Los Angeles by an 87-84 margin to finish things off. The Liberty set up the Sunday scenarios with a 91-80 win over Washington on Friday night at Barclays Center, a win that snapped an eight-game losing streak.

New York now returns to the playoffs after enduring a two-win showing in the Bradenton bubble, one that forced the team to rely on the services of seven rookies, including touted top overall pick Sabrina Ionescu. The Oregon alumna partook in only three games before an injury erased most of her freshman campaign. She returned to a revamped Liberty squad that brought in Bradenton’s Most Improved Player and Rutgers Betnijah Laney, as well as WNBA champions Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb through a trade.

This Liberty season, their first as full-time tenants in Barclays Center, began with wins in five of its first six games, the first of which ended in a game-winning buzzer-beater from Ionescu. Though things cooled down in terms of wins and losses, the Liberty made several proud strides throughout the season.

Laney was invited to her first WNBA All-Star Game while Ionescu earned the 10th triple-double in WNBA history in a May victory over Minnesota. Paced by Whitcomb’s 76 (second-best in the league behind Arike Ogunbowale of Dallas), the Liberty also set a new WNBA record with 321 successful three-point attempts. Bec Allen finished third in the league in steals (1.6 per game) while Michaela Onyenwere (8.6 points, 2.9 rebounds per game) is considered a front-runner for the league’s Rookie of the Year Award.

The Liberty and Mercury, two of the WNBA’s three remaining original franchises that remain situated in their original markets (Los Angeles is the other) have met twice in the WNBA Playoffs. New York took the first matchup to advance to the inaugural WNBA Finals in 1997 while Phoenix upset the Liberty as an eighth seed in 2016. Phoenix won two of the three matchups between the teams this season, the most recent being an 80-64 triumph on August 27 in Brooklyn. Two members of the Liberty’s bubble squad, Kia Nurse and Megan Walker, currently reside on the Mercury roster as they were dealt out west in the Howard/Whitcomb deal that also involved the Seattle Storm.

Full WNBA Playoff Schedule

Date Game Time (ET) TV
September 23 No. 7 Dallas @ No. 6 Chicago 8 p.m. ESPN2
September 23 No. 8 LIBERTY @ No. 5 Phoenix 10 p.m. ESPN2
September 26 TBD @ No. 3 Minnesota TBD ABC or ESPN2
September 26 TBD @ No. 4 Seattle TBD ABC or ESPN2
September 28 TBD @ No. 1 Connecticut (Game 1) 8 p.m. ESPN2
September 28 TBD @ No. 2 Las Vegas (Game 1) 10 p.m. ESPN2
September 30 TBD @ Connecticut (Game 2) 8 p.m. ESPN2
September 30 TBD @ Las Vegas (Game 2) 10 p.m. ESPN2
October 3 Connecticut @ TBD (Game 3) TBD TBD
October 3 Las Vegas @ TBD (Game 3) TBD TBD
October 6 Connecticut @ TBD (Game 4)* TBD TBD
October 6 Las Vegas @ TBD (Game 4)* TBD TBD
October 8 TBD @ Connecticut (Game 5)* TBD ESPN2
October 8 TBD @ Las Vegas (Game 5) TBD ESPN2
October 10 WNBA Finals (Game 1) 3 p.m. ABC
October 13 WNBA Finals (Game 2) 9 p.m. ESPN
October 15 WNBA Finals (Game 3) 9 p.m. ESPN2
October 17 WNBA Finals (Game 4)* 3 p.m. ESPN
October 19 WNBA Finals (Game 5)* 9 p.m. ESPN2
*-If Necessary

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: Three stars from Sunday’s win at Phoenix

The New York Liberty earned a huge win sans Sabrina Ionescu, topping the Phoenix Mercury in a gutsy road performance.

The New York Liberty earned a gutsy win without the services of Sabrina Ionescu on Sunday night.

Betnijah Laney took over in a performance that left her three rebounds away from a triple-double, while Jazmine Jones came through big in the fourth quarter to steal an 85-83 win over the Phoenix Mercury at Phoenix Suns Arena. The Liberty (6-4) ended a three-game losing streak and overcame a combined 50-point effort from Brittney Griner (27) and Skylar Diggins-Smith. New York jumped out to a 17-point lead despite losing Ionescu to an ankle injury, though head coach Walt Hopkins claimed the top pick of the 2020 draft “just needed a rest”.

ESM awards the game balls from Sunday’s big win…

3rd Star: Kylee Shook

10 points, 5 rebounds

Shook’s trial by fire in the defensive paint, as she was tasked with posting up on Griner. She was praised for making things difficult for the fearsome interior threat and Shook also started to capitalize on her open three-point looks. A pair of early triples allowed her to come one point short of her infantile career-best.

“There’s no question in my mind Kylee can knock down threes at a really high rate,” Hopkins said of Shook. “She’s one of our best shooters, every day in practice. She’s been like that since the preseason, but for her to get a couple to go down and get that confidence was great. I think that the growth for her is continuing to understand how to be physical without fouling, and how to use her strength and her size.”

2nd Star: Jazmine Jones

16 points, 7 rebounds

Sunday was deja vu all over again for Jones, who previously rose to the occasion for an Ionescu-less Liberty in the Bradenton bubble last season. Having earned extra minutes, Jones overcame a first half where she struggled to cash in on open looks (shooting 1-of-7 from the field) to come up huge in the final frame, tallying all but two of her points in the last ten minutes, hitting five of her six attempts. The biggest bucket came in the game’s penultimate minute, when a triple gave the Liberty a two-possession lead that made things that more difficult for the Mercury on their final possessions.

“Jaz really put us on her back in the fourth quarter,” Hopkins said of Jones. “She kept the offense going, played some great defense. The spark that she is is really remarkable.”

1st Star: Betnijah Laney

23 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds

After a one-game pause, Laney’s 20-point endeavors carried on in the desert on Sunday. With the Liberty citing their starts as a major area of concern, Laney made sure that wasn’t an issue, earning 17 points in the first half to help New York build its lead. While the Mercury mostly held her in check in the latter frames, Laney came up with some clutch baskets in the dying stages, including the de facto game-winning jumper with 34 seconds to go.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags