The playoffs rare out of the question for the New York Liberty. But there’s plenty of time to build Brooklyn momentum and make 2019 a win.
Fictional New York City resident Ben Parker perhaps described New York City sports when he told his nephew “With great power comes great responsibility”.
Everyone dreams of the influence New York sports yields. All it takes is one game for you to gown in the history books (Just ask Aaron Boone, David Tyree, and Stephane Matteau). At the same time though, a season that’s seen as successful in, say, Milwaukee, Orlando, Phoenix can be viewed as catastrophic failure in the Big Apple.
The New York Liberty are in the midst of a stretch that really wouldn’t be successful anywhere. The team has a mere 16 wins over the past two seasons, a far cry from the previous three seasons, which ended with them atop the Eastern Conference standings. Their passionate, vocal fanbase has gotten impatient, tiring of this fall from grace.
At first glance, the Liberty’s final 2019 stand seems pointless. They earned a win last week in Indiana, but that only served to snap an eight-game losing streak. The defeats have begun afresh since, including a brutal 90-87 loss to the lowly Atlanta Dream last week. Two more losses officially erased the Liberty from the 2019 playoff picture.
Don’t you dare tell the ladies in aquamarine about the supposed irrelevancy, though. 2019 has been a win in several senses, and they’re looking to truly prove that in only place it matters: the win column.
The cumulative losses over the past two seasons have at have the Liberty sitting pretty in the WNBA Draft Lottery race. A recent to streak from the Fever has New York slight “ahead” in the odds. The lottery does provide hope…a member of a deep draft class joining the likes of young talent like Asia Durr and Kia Nurse could be just the jolt this New York reboot needs.
But the Liberty don’t care about the lottery. The already ludicrous concept of tanking hasn’t even entered the New York locker room.
“We’re going out there, we’re representing ourselves as basketball players and we’re still representing the New York Liberty,” Bria Hartley said after elimination. “So, no matter what, even if our season isn’t a playoff season, at least you know we’re going to go out there, battle, and give you a game.”
The future is exciting. After drawing 7,715 at Barclays Center earlier this month (a number that would be fifth-best amongst 2018 attendance averages) and new owner Joseph Tsai purchasing the entirety of the Brooklyn Nets and their arena assets, there is legitimate hope the Liberty could return to the city that adores the roundball. Liberty assimilation has begun in the Borough of Churches. The team practices on the campus of St. Joseph’s College. Players’ Instagram stories are typically filled with Brooklyn adventures.
A city that loves basketball came out to support it’s long-running, successful women’s squad. Who could’ve saw it coming?
These final games will provide the players a chance to prove why they get to stay for the potential good times ahead. No players will admit it, but giving Brooklyn a reason to be excited could be the antidote this franchise is looking for.
This final stretch could provide an opportunity for those who want to prove they can stay, especially with star forward Tina Charles resting for their next contest against Connecticut on Friday night. At the top of everyone’s list in Han Xu.
The 19-year-old rookie from China has struggled to develop a consistent role in the Liberty lineup. The letters “DNP-CD” frequent appear in her box score. It’s a far cry from the hope and excitement previously generated in Brooklyn. Back in May, Han was in the starting lineup and scored a game-high 19 points as the Liberty topped Han’s former comrades from China in an exhibition.
Han has been as professional as one can be throughout this process. The New York resiliency was perhaps best personified by her quote in July after she was inserted into an ugly loss against Las Vegas.
“I didn’t think that much (of the score) at all. If I’m on the court, I’ll play hard. That’s it,” she said through translator Xiaoxue Chang. In that game, Han was given the assignment of covering the fearsome Liz Cambage. While Han covered her, the Vegas superstar scored no points.
Han has admitted her flaws and insisted her WNBA journey will be a process. But her confidence in going up against one of the league’s faces is just part of the reason her name is constantly chanted by the Westchester County Center faithful.
“As a rookie, I’m not afraid of anything,” she said through Chang. “Doesn’t matter how big Cambage is. I’m tall too. I have the confidence to defend her.”
According to Smith, it’s possible Han’s training and testament could pay off.
“We definitely want to give Han more time, want to see what she can do against these bigs, what she can pick up in this last stretch, go into the offseason and think ‘I can do that better’,” she said. “She’s trying to put a little weight on her. Working on her strength, conditioning. She’s 19, so it’s developing. She’s developing as a player, as a person. Just trying to make her understand the regime and what it takes to play.”
Han’s resiliency is only one of at least 12 parts of New York resiliency and determination. These traits make these last games essential viewing for the basketball fan and analyst alike.
With all the calamities the Liberty have gone through, one could view the nine wins as a mini-miracle as is. The touted rookie Durr has appeared in just 7 games since July 1, hampered by a groin strain. Smith’s top assistant, Charmin Smith, left in the middle of the year to go back to the west coast. In the midst of her first year in the starting five, Amanda Zahui B endured a concussion in Chicago. EuroBasket festivities absorbed almost half the roster. One such participant, veteran paint prescience Kiah Stokes, announced she was taking the WNBA year off for personal reasons. Injuries and European departures forced them to apply for an injury exemption. Even officiating may be working against the Liberty’s cause. Asked about a 20-9 discrepancy in foul shots in Tuesday’s Phoenix loss, Smith only grinned and remarked “I’m gonna lose my money again”.
To top it all off, the team continues to play outside city limits in White Plains, strangers in their own home.
The Liberty won’t hear any of it. This is an angry and determined team going into their final quartet. Mentions of “trusting the process” and “believing in each other” have been commonplace.
“It’s been really good to show (resiliency),” Allen said after a 20-point second quarter against Minnesota on August 13. “Sometimes when we go down, it’s when we can roll over. It’s good to know we can fight back.”
After the brutal Atlanta loss on August 23, Allen would go on to completely wipe out notions of tanking without the saying the dreaded term. She “absolutely” agreed that there was still plenty on the line, despite the standings not stacking their way.
“You’re playing for the names on the front of the jersey and for the name on the back. Have some personal pride. Everyone is playing for that, too. You have to have a lot of pride to finish the season strong personally and as a team.”
“Right now, I’m just focused on what’s happening in the moment. I’m not even think about 2020.”
Signs of resiliency and stubbornness are all over the Liberty stat sheet. Allen shook off a June hand injury and became one of the league’s best three-point shooters. Bria Hartley, along with Nurse, has created a newfound scoring prowess (seven of her past eight games have ended in double figures). Reshanda Gray hadn’t seen a WNBA regular season game since 2016. Now, she’s a valuable sixth woman and a Most Improved Player dark horse.
As a team, 10 of the 21 losses have come via single digits. If even half of those games went the other way, we’d be discussing a playoff push few predicted as is. For now, the Liberty are going to make due with what they have: these final hours.
“Compete, compete every night, every single person that’s out there. People that are in the ball game l have to try and go out there lay it all on the line,” said Smith. “We just want to go out and see people continue to get better. Hopefully finish this bad boy off strong.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490