07 Jan

Three key areas the Liberty can improve in Game 2 against the Aces

The New York Liberty fell apart in the second half of Game 1 of the 2023 WNBA Finals, en route to a 17-point defeat at the hands of the defending champion Las Vegas Aces. Now, the Liberty are essentially facing a must-win Game 2 if they want to claim their first title in franchise history; their chances of coming back from 0-2 down against the defending champs are slim to none.

Ahead of Wednesday night’s showdown, here’s a look at areas of improvement for the Liberty heading into Game 2, as they try to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time all season.

  1. Make open shots
    As has been discussed ad nauseam, the 2023 Liberty were the best 3-point shooting team the WNBA has ever seen. They led the league in attempts per game (29.7) and percentage (37.4), and set all-time records for attempts and makes per game (11.1), as well as total attempts (1,187) and total makes (444).

In the playoffs, however, they have not been able to find their range. As expected, they’ve taken far more 3s than anyone else, but are shooting just 33.2%, which has them fifth among all playoff teams and would have ranked 10th in the regular season. Game 1 against the Aces was a perfect example of their struggles.

They shot 9-of-29 (31.0%) from downtown despite creating plenty of good looks. In fact, they were a shocking 0-of-11 on unguarded 3-point attempts per Synergy. That is, of course, a points per possession of 0.000; during the regular season the Liberty scored 1.165 points per possession on such opportunities.

“Make shots instead of missing them” isn’t exactly an adjustment, because no one is trying to do the former, but the Liberty simply must hit 3s to win this series. On that front, the data would suggest a regression to the mean is coming. While they didn’t score a single point on unguarded jumpers in Game 1, the Aces scored 1.875 ppp on their guarded jumpers.

Sometimes, it really is a make or miss league.

  1. Keep the Aces out of the paint and off the free throw line
    During the final four meetings between these teams in August, the Liberty went 3-1 in part because they were able to keep the Aces’ paint attack in check. Over those contests, the Liberty held the Aces to 32 of 53 (60.4%) in the restricted area, and 29 of 67 (43.3%) on non-restricted area shots in the paint — marks that were both well below their season averages.

In Game 1, though, the Aces largely did whatever they wanted around the basket. They shot 21-of-32 (65.5%) overall in the paint, to outscore the Liberty 42-30 in that department, and also got to the free throw line for 23 free throws, which were their most in a game against the Liberty this season.

Though A’ja Wilson scored 19 points on 7-of-11 from the field, it was the Aces guards who proved to be the biggest problem for the Liberty. Time and again they were able to beat their defender off the dribble, with Kelsey Plum, in particular, doing a lot of damage.

The Aces had an advantage in the backcourt coming into this series, and their trio of Plum, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray combined for 72 points. If they continue to outplay the Liberty’s group to the extent they did in Game 1, they are going to win the title.

It’s easier said than done, of course, but the Liberty’s guards have to do a better job keeping their mark in front of them. Among they many issues with getting blown by is it means the likes of Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones are not in position to help at the rim.

  1. Crash the glass
    Coming into this series, offensive rebounding was one of the key advantages for the Liberty. During the regular season, they ranked third in offensive rebounding rate (30.8%) and third in second-chance points per game (11.5), while the Aces were 12th and ninth, respectively, in those categories. Over their final four matchups, the Liberty grabbed 39 offensive rebounds, which they turned into 50 second-chance points, compared to 18 offensive boards and 31 second-chance points for the Aces.

But in Game 1, it was the Aces who controlled the glass, winning the rebounding battle 34-30 overall. Even more impressive was that Las Vegas held New York to six offensive boards and four second-chance points — the latter being tied for the third-fewest New York has had in a game this season.

A’ja Wilson led the way, but it was a true team effort on the glass, with all six players who played significant minutes grabbing at least four rebounds. Whether the Aces can continue rebounding as a group, especially when they play their small lineup, will be a key factor over the rest of this series. When the Liberty can dominate the glass, it not only allows them to create extra possessions and opportunities to score, but prevents the Aces from pushing the pace.

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