New York Liberty Burned by Sun, Fall Below .500 to Close Out First Half

On Sunday afternoon, the New York Liberty (10-11) finished out the pre-Olympics portion of their schedule with a 71-54 loss to the Connecticut Sun (14-6). They land at the break in sixth place in the standings, though just a game clear of ninth (which would put them on the outside looking in, come playoff time). The return trip home from Indiana was only slightly less stressful than the journey out there, which Geoff Magliocchetti chronicled in detail in the postmortem of the Indiana Fever loss. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

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Lockdown Defense

In their pair of matchups so far this season, the Sun’s stifling defense has held the Liberty to their two lowest scoring outputs. Sunday’s 54 points were 10 points lower than the previous game. New York reached that mark shooting just 30.9 percent from the field, significantly lower than their 42.9 percent average on the season, which ranks fifth in the W. They also made just nine of 29 threes, and six of those makes came from Kylee Shook (4/5) and Reshanda Gray (2/2). Before the game, Connecticut head coach Curt Miller talked about the importance of dictating which shots they allowed New York to take, especially on the perimeter.

“We’ve got to defend the arc. [The Liberty are] first in makes, second in attempts, they’re taking 28 attempts a game. You know they’re gonna take some, you know they’re gonna make them. [They’re] number one in percentage of points coming from the arc. The three ball is so important to them, trying to make them go two-by-two-by-two. Can you contest them, can you make them shoot under their average of 37? What helps that is good one-on-one defense. Do you get the right people taking threes? Obviously, Sami [Whitcomb] and Sabrina [Ionescu] can get really hot. Can you get the players you want taking their threes?”

Their disruptive defense hinged on its physicality, and this was most evident when you looked at New York’s top three scorers. Coming into the night, Betnijah Laney (19.8 points per game [PPG]), Sami Whitcomb (12.5 PPG), and Sabrina Ionescu (10.5 PPG) averaged 42.8 PPG. In Sunday’s matinee, the Sun held the trio to eight points on three-of-20 shooting. 

“They pressured, the same stuff they did last game,” said Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins in his postgame presser. “They played their defense and they executed their identity far better than we countered it. We had a game plan to attack the pressure, and we just didn’t execute it.”

Shook Not Stirred

Kylee Shook was one of just two Liberty players to make more than half her shots (the other being Gray, who was 3/4). For the fifth time this season (and in the second consecutive game), Shook reset her career-high in scoring. She scored a team-high 16 points on six-of-eight shooting, while hitting four of five from deep.

NR’s Magliocchetti asked Shook how she continues to improve offensively. “Stay being aggressive. It doesn’t do much if I pass up open shots from my teammates. Not rushing and being aggressive. Before every game, I just speak to myself and be confident.”

Lib vs CT Sun 7-11-21

After making just 17.6 percent of her three-pointers in 2020, Shook hits the break making 37.7 percent on 2.5 attempts from deep. “She worked on it a lot in the offseason,” Hopkins said. “We got some good time together. A big thing for her is confidence.” Thrust into a starting role due to roster injury and circumstance, Shook has done everything the Liberty have asked of her this season. 

In the Hunt

The Liberty hit the midway point in the middle of the pack. Despite losing their last two contests to fall under .500, they remain in sixth place, thanks to the top-heavy nature of the standings. Four teams — the Seattle Storm, Las Vegas Aces, Sun, and Minnesota Lynx — have separated themselves. The other eight teams are all at even or worse. 

New York has little relief waiting for them upon the return from the Olympics. They start with a road game against the Lynx (12-7), who are on a seven-game win streak and are likely frustrated with the timing of this break. Then they’ve got a pair of home games against the top-seeded Seattle Storm (16-5).

Working in New York’s favor? Hopefully, they will return as a much healthier team. Natasha Howard couldn’t get into game action before the break, but briefly teased the Barclays crowd when she got shots up in warmup on Sunday.

Bec Allen, who hasn’t played since June 24 due to plantar fasciitis, is the only Liberty player suiting up for the Olympics. Everyone else will hopefully come back refreshed. “I think everyone needs to take some mental days, because mental health is a big thing,” Jaz Jones said. “We need to focus on our bodies and getting our mental and physical right.”

That is especially true, of course, for Sabrina Ionescu, who has flashed her potential, but hasn’t looked aggressive for a majority of the season. Hopefully, upon return, she’ll shed the 25-minute limit for the stretch run and look like her old self. If she, Allen, and Howard return at full-strength, this team can not only make it to the postseason, but also make some noise once they get them.

Myles Ehrlich is on Twitter @MylesEhrlich