Where do the New York Liberty go from here?

Evaluating what went wrong against Phoenix, adapting to a Ionescu-less existence

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Kia Nurse #5 of the New York Liberty shoots the ball against the Phoenix Mercury on August 2, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Sunday’s 96-67 loss to the Phoenix Mercury was a tale of two quarters for the New York Liberty.

After a third quarter where the Liberty only turned the ball over twice, hit 50 percent of their three-point shots and held the Mercury to 21 points, the fourth led to more turnovers even more frustration. New York allowed Phoenix to shoot over 73 percent from the field, putting up 34 points.

The Liberty went from being within reach in the third, to losing by their largest deficit of the season. Head coach Walt Hopkins was visibly frustrated postgame as he explained how his rookie-laden squad needs to grow. He didn’t see enough “effort, pride and toughness” in the fourth quarter.

“It's about consistency, it's about playing to our identity and executing our principles,” he said. “We had moments where we did that really well. We had moments where we looked like the team that we want to be. Unfortunately, we had more moments where we didn’t.”

Brittney Griner had five fouls by the middle of third. She sat out the rest of the quarter and New York took advantage of a floor without her presence. But in the fourth, she came back with a purpose and Mercury coach Sandy Brondello ran sets that put Griner in position to score, and she did, 10 of her 16 total points to be exact.

“We didn’t execute our coverages on Griner the whole game,” Hopkins said. “We didn’t have a lot of practice time. It was a new coverage for them. Part of it is Griner is really, really good. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do against her.”

The only silver lining for the Liberty had to be the return of Kia Nurse, who scored 17 points. While her field goal percentage was down, she hit her first three long balls of the season and hit all of her free throws. An inconsistent jumper is due to a “gross” looking ankle that is still healing, but healing well according to Nurse.

“Yeah, ankles are annoying,” she told reporters after the game. “At this point, I've been very very fortunate to have Miss Terry Acosta, our trainer here who's done an incredible job with me. She's been my best friend over the last couple days, spending a lot of time with her.”

But Nurse is moving much more swiftly on the court and appeared more comfortable moving her feet, charging the lane to get to the line and getting into her defensive spots. She noted that while there’s still a “little bit” of pain, Acosta has worked with her to establish comfort, limiting her fear and hesitation while out on the court.

Jocelyn Willoughby #13 of the New York Liberty plays defense against Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury on August 2, 2020 atFeld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE viaGetty Images)

The downfalls of the ‘New Era’ system

On Sunday, the Liberty and Hopkins saw the downfalls of their new approach to playing New York basketball, their ‘New Era’ system that was designed to maximize three-point shooting and twos close to the basket. The system is supposed to counter the true bigs in the league. The curtain was pulled back, and the tale of two different types of quarters revealed both of how it’s supposed to work, but also how Hopkins’ brand of basketball beat the Liberty.

He was asked pregame if New York was going to present itself with bigger lineups without Sabrina Ionescu and with someone like Griner on the floor. Before the loss, Hopkins explained that the system works when the Liberty play to their identity, which is spreading and running the floor, and exhibiting more athleticism and quickness than opponents.

“Trying to play to their identity is doing our group a disservice,” Hopkins told reporters before the loss.

After Sunday’s loss, Hopkins believed that New York got some open looks, and for the most part, employed proper decision-making to execute the long ball. But the shots didn’t fall. While there were some moments where the Liberty threw up some three balls when the shot clock was dwindling, for the most part, the team executed the pick and roll offense that drew the Mercury defense so that the Liberty could find the open shooter. The shooter, however, just couldn’t make the shot.

The numbers were dismal, as in the first, second and fourth quarters, New York went 1 -for-17 from the three-point range. For the ‘New Era’ system to function as planned, the Liberty need to make their open looks, and when they don’t it can get ugly.

“The way that these games have to work against big teams is we have to hit threes,” Hopkins said. Our advantage is that we can space the floor and force [Griner] to come out and guard us, we didn’t make the threes.”

For the defense to function, New York’s athleticism also has to translate to the other side of the floor. The limits of that approach were evident in some possessions when Kylee Shook went to close out and contest Griner’s shot.

“It’s all about finding out in this first matchup against a true big, one of the best ever,” Hopkins said pregame. “How do we guard it, and what are the weaknesses and then we go back to practice and we address it and that’s every practice and every game this year.”

Without Sabrina, New York lost some of its toughness

Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the New York Liberty celebrates during the game against the Phoenix Mercury on August 2, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

On Sunday morning, Hopkins told reporters that the Liberty aren’t a team reliant on one person. “It’s a team offense,” he said.

While that’s the idea that Hopkins and his team must accept, it’s difficult not to question what the team would be like without their superstar bench-ridden with crutches.

Hopkins has called the loss of Ionescu “devastating,” even equating her loss to being down a veteran rather than a rookie. But while Sabrina is gone from the floor, she’s not missing a beat on the bench. Holly Rowe reported during the game against Phoenix, Ionescu was talking in the Liberty’s huddles during timeouts. Hopkins gave Sabrina the microphone, and she told her teammates that they needed to do a much better job running the floor. She wanted them to rebound and run, an on-court aesthetic that right now is still just Sabrina’s.

“I think Sab has a really good mind for the game, and she's able to kind of see things differently from the vantage point of where she is right now on the bench,” Nurse said postgame. “But I think it was just a lot of keeping us going keeping us together, little tidbits of what she sees what they were doing defensively, to allow us to have as much success as possible.”

But that’s the problem: the Liberty didn’t only lose a floor general, an elite rebounder and a shot creator, they lost someone who can will a team to compete. And that’s truly what New York was without on Sunday.

“Sabrina just brings a tenacity to her and a fire and a competitiveness that you could really tell we were missing especially towards the end of that game,” Layshia Clarendon said. “We just kind of lost the fight and quit, and it was embarrassing to see and something we just addressed in the locker room that it doesn't matter if shots don't go in at the end of the day, we won't quit, and that's a character thing that we have to continue to grow in.”

Hopkins said older players like Clarendon expressed frustration in the locker room. The messaging was centered around consistency, and the lack of it the Liberty currently have.

The veteran point guard expressed that their team is struggling with its identity. She doesn’t believe that at this moment the Liberty are tough enough mentally and physically to win games. It cannot come from a few people, it must come from all.

Dallas doesn't have the star power that Phoenix has but they're tough as nails and you have to have toughness to win in this league and that's something right now we're just aren't tough enough 1 through 12. We're not snatching the ball, we're not fighting back. We're fouling. We're kind of hacking in our frustration, but we're not just tough enough but you just, you have to find a way to win this league there's no way around. There's no team that wins in this league that's successful that isn't tough and so that was my big message and that's our message for the rest of the season and even the games we just the last four games we played it's just, we've got to be tougher.

Speaking of team dynamics, Griner was asked about Ioenscu’s injury following her team’s win. “It changes the dynamic on the team a little bit,” she said. “When you have someone like that goes down, the next person has to step up. They are a team full of rookies and the spotlight and the shine and the opportunity is going to be there for somebody. And the next couple of games we’ll see who steps it up and takes that responsibility.”

To Sabrina specifically, Griner’s advice was simple. Firstly, Griner reminded reporters that ankle injuries are the worst. But she also said these types of injuries are a part of the game. “You just got to get in there and get strong, get in there and get strong, take it a day a time, and get stronger.”

Scouting familiar faces with the hot hand

Guard Bria Hartley scored 27 points against her former team on Sunday afternoon. After Hartley scored her final points of the game, Rebeca Lobo said: “give the girl a ball and a screen and [a score] is more often than not is the result.”

In the Mercury’s postgame presser, Hartley reflected about matching up against the team who let her walk into free agency. Hartley was frank and said that it was on her mind to play “really well” and aggressively against New York.

Hartley’s success against the Liberty revealed exactly how she wasn’t used while playing in seafoam. In 2019, Katie Smith used Hartley as a combo guard who needed to pass first into main scoring threat Tina Charles. And on Sunday, Hartley mentioned that the aforementioned style of play didn’t fit her game.

So how exactly did the New York defense allow Hartley to go off? It was a combination of what we saw against Dallas, in conjunction with just getting their hands up. Yeah, that’s right, the Liberty were slow to cloud Hartley’s vision.

But it was also 100 percent Lobo’s analysis.

“With New York a lot of times they were going under screens and I’m a shooter, so I’m going to come off looking to shoot that every time regardless of whether I’m making it or missing,” Hartley said.

Once again, a lack of hard hedging and switching coverage on screens has made the Liberty pay. If the Liberty continue to go under screens, they need to be switching. New York can’t be fighting for the strongest close out possible from afar.

What can they also do? Deny the screen. And Kia Nurse found a way to execute this successfully. But the issue was the other defenders around her.

When New York was down two points with less than two minutes left in the third quarter, Hartley got a pass on the left wing from Alanna Smith. Nurse closed Hartley out, putting both arms up and forcing Hartley to dribble to her right. Nurse denied the screen from Smith, preventing Hartley from taking another jumper from long.

But, that defense can’t just come from Nurse, because as Hartley drove through the lane, Kiah Stokes just stood there. She didn’t even try to contest Hartley’s floater, and she just watched the ball slide into the hole.

Uncasville, Connecticut/USA - Aug. 17, 2018: Minnesota Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve during a WNBA basketball game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Connecticut Sun defeated the Minnesota Lynx 96-79. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Coach Hopkins has been a bit of a broken record when he’s asked about opponents. His response is usually: “we need to focus on us primarily.” His philosophy is that the Liberty need to develop, realize, embrace and execute their identity.

But, when does it become about the opponent? And what if the opponent is familiar? Hartley was familiar to GM Jonathan Kolb, Kia Nurse and Amanda Zahui B. But, enough with dwelling on the past, a lot of familiarity is in the Liberty’s future.

Hopkins and assistant Shelley Patterson know the tendencies and the screen actions of their former team the Lynx. New York has an advantage in understanding how to approach top scorers, Sylvia Fowles and Napheesa Collier.

But, the Liberty must also be cognizant of Minnesota’s top three-point shooter in Damiris Dantas. New York can’t let her sit without a defender on the wing or come easily off a screen without a hard hedge or a switch, which ultimately remained the Liberty’s defensive downfall when trying to contain Hartley on Sunday and Betnijah Laney on Friday evening against the Dream.

While there might a bit of a leg up for going into playing the Lynx, Nurse reiterated the common ideology about the W itself: there are no easy games.

“This is a tough league to play in every single night,” she said. “It's going to be a grind, every game was going to be a grind and I think there's going to be a ton of opportunities for us to really grind out some wins here. And that's just going to be a matter of battling and continuing to punch first.”

And Hopkins acknowledged the giant elephant in the room on Sunday afternoon: “losing is a tough thing.” According to the New York head coach, when a team is losing, every frustration is magnified. But he and Patterson go back to the drawing board— but this time it’s a familiar one— to try to pick up a first victory against their former team.