07 Jan

How the Liberty’s defense helped fix their offense in Game 3 to keep their season alive

In the middle of the first quarter on Sunday afternoon, Jonquel Jones’ gamble for a steal did not pay off, which left A’ja Wilson with the ball at the top of the key and a chance to play 5-on-4. In the first two games of the 2023 WNBA Finals, that would have been a certain bucket. Not in Game 3.

Betnijah Laney rotated over to shut off Wilson’s drive, then shut off Jackie Young’s drive as well after Wilson kicked it out. A few moments later, the ball was in Kelsey Plum’s hands, and as she drove to the basket, Jones, who had gotten back into the play, arrived to force a miss. Down on the other end, Jones was rewarded with a wide open layup in transition that put the New York Liberty ahead.

Save for a brief 13 second period later on where the game was tied, the Liberty would lead the rest of the way en route to a season-saving 87-73 win over the Las Vegas Aces.

“We had a fight,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said. “We got back to our identity. We’re a way better team than what we’ve showed the last two games. I’m just proud of the effort and the commitment and the connection that we had, but now we’ve got to do it again.”

During the regular season, the Liberty posted a 109.6 offensive rating, which was the third-best in league history, and set new WNBA records for 3-pointers made per game (11.1) and total makes (444). They are, at their core, an offense-first team, but they haven’t shown it for much of the postseason.

That changed on Sunday, as they shot 52.4% from the field, tied a franchise playoff record with 13 3-pointers and assisted on 28 of their 33 field goals. Their turnaround was sparked not by making shots that they had been missing, but by their work on the other side of the ball.

After a 28-point defeat in Game 2 — their largest of the entire season — Brondello called her team out.

“We were f—ing s—,” Brondello said. “What I hadn’t seen is where we didn’t stick together. We usually stick together. Just be f—ing aggressive. It’s not that hard. Have some pride.”

They certainly did in Game 3. Their work rate and level of physicality were the highest they’ve been all series. They held the Aces to 33.3% shooting from the field — their third-worst shooting performance of the whole season — and forced 11 turnovers.

That in turn allowed the Liberty to push the pace and attack an unsettled Aces defense. They won the fastbreak points battle 11-2, but even when they didn’t get pure breakaways, their ability to get up the floor quickly created easier shots. Per Synergy, the Liberty had 25 possessions where they pushed the ball after a shot attempt, and scored 1.478 points per possession on those opportunities.

“They played harder, for one,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said. “I felt like we were on our heels from the jump.”

Here’s an example where Plum appears to have a step on Vandersloot, but Jones arrives from the weakside, which forces Plum to veer back into Vandersloot’s path. The veteran point guard is there waiting and rips the ball out of her hands, then walks into an open 3-pointer on the other end.

Early in the third quarter it’s Vandersloot involved again because the Aces like to pick on her. This time she nearly gets crossed up, but makes a terrific second effort to get a good contest on Chelsea Gray to help influence the miss. Jones secures the rebound and pushes it herself to create a one-on-one against Kiah Stokes in semi-transition. That’s a win every time for the Liberty as Jones delivers a sweet dish to Betnijah Laney.

Speaking of Laney, here she is in the fourth quarter sprinting the entire length of the floor to make Jackie Young alter a layup, which she then misses. Down on the other end, the Liberty take advantage of the Aces being cross-matched to get the ball to Jones in the post, and she draws a foul.

“We knew that our fans were going to be behind us and New York was going to be watching and supporting,” Jones said. “And that’s what we wanted to do, go out there and play with a lot of pride and a lot of heart.”

If the Liberty want to send the series back to Las Vegas and force a winner-take-all Game 5, they’ll need all of that and more on Wednesday night.

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