Saturday’s loss to Seattle may be a sign of things to come for the modern New York Liberty, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The WNBA has had to make a lot of adjustments as they go through a season unlike any other in the Bradenton bubble at IMG Academy. In the midst of the alterations, however, moral victories still don’t count in the official standings. If the concept did lead to tallies on the left side of the standings, the New York Liberty would probably have a dynasty going.
The past three seasons have seen the Liberty endure and face numerous calamities that entire franchises never encounter. Separation from an NBA brother and a de facto eviction from an arena like Madison Square Garden is often a death sentence in the W, but the league’s remaining original Eastern Conference franchise rolls on.
“The Liberty got their ducks in a row this season, drafting college standout Sabrina Ionescu just as a world-altering pandemic moved the delayed 2020 season to Florida.” The team opted for an entirely new era on both the roster and the bench. Only two players that suited up for the Liberty’s 2019 season closer, Amanda Zahui B and All-Star Kia Nurse, appeared in the Floridian debut. Eight rookies populate the current New York ledger including the recovered Megan Walker (who entered the bubble last week after a battle with COVID-19) and head coach Walt Hopkins, whose apprenticeship under Cheryl Reeve led to his opportunity in New York.
After so many changes, so much turnover, the same result awaited. After earning 17 wins over the last two seasons, the Liberty fell by an 87-71 margin to the Seattle Storm in the bubble’s highly anticipated debut.
Get used to it…such a phrase may inspire fear, especially amongst the Liberty’s well-traveled fanbase. But, for now, it’s all part of the plan.
The schedule maker, be it manual or automatically generated, didn’t do the Liberty any favors with the bubble christening, forcing them to face a Seattle team that was reverting to its status as a fully armed and operational battle station. Frankly, the fact it was “merely” a 17-point final deficit could be enough for a “game ball”. The loss came in the wake of not only a visually garish numerical debut from the touted Ionescu (4-for-17 shooting including 0-for-8 from three-point range) but also the potentially crippling loss of Nurse, who left the game with an ankle sprain in the early stages of the second quarter.
Positives, though, reign beyond a mere glimpse of the box score.
Inspiring as some of last season’s developments at the Westchester County Center were (several of which, like Rebecca Allen and Marine Johannes, went for the understandable 2020 opt-out clause), good news often came when all was lost. As much as fans enjoyed the sight of Han Xu (another opt-out) holding Liz Cambage scoreless, it’d often come in a 30-point blowout that was never particularly close.
This time, it was a solid team effort on Saturday that should have New Yorkers and youngsters everywhere inspired.
“Seattle’s in midseason form, they don’t look at all rusty, they look like they haven’t skipped a beat,” head coach Walt Hopkins noted in a Monday afternoon conference call. “One of the takeaways was that we, in spite of not shooting the ball as well as I think we will, we still found ways to hang around. We were aggressive, we got to the free throw line a lot.”
The performance was headlined by the efforts of a rare veteran, but yet another newcomer, Layshia Clarendon. Long seen as a vocal leader in matters far beyond basketball, Clarendon was an appropriate choice to reiterate the WNBA’s dedication to social justice. They proved themselves equally effective when it was time to focus on basketball matters.
Clarendon completed the first stage of the New York rebuild at the end of the first ten-minute stage. Seattle went up 24-12, and the blowout was set to commence. Through a dominant final minute, the Liberty earned two points by dishing a savvy pass to Kiah Stokes on the interior before going to the foul line in a display of physicality. Two successful freebies later, the Liberty trimmed Seattle’s lead to single-digits at the quarter break.
The mini-showcase of Clarendon was part of a game-best 20 points and opened a run of 12 straight New York points. Such efforts even gave rise to a brief Liberty lead and New York kept things at single-digits until the recharged Storm finally pulled away in the fourth.
It served as a strong return performance for Clarendon, who missed almost the entirety of last season with injuries.
Even on such a dismal shooting session, Ionescu was able to provide not only some traditional highlights that have become her trademark brand (entering double figures in scoring by crossing over reigning Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard) but inspiration in the face of what’s likely the first on-court adversity she’s faced in a long-time.
On paper, it was cruel of the schedule generator to assign the Liberty a Seattle surprise in their first Floridian go-around. Ionescu, however, opted to look at things in seafoam colored glasses.
“I’m really happy that I was able to go through that struggle,” Ionescu admitted about a 12-point performance to go with six rebounds and four assists. “I’ll live with 12, 6, and 4 in my first game in the league…I think I’m continuing to put myself in uncomfortable positions. That’s how I’m going to continue to grow.”
Leaonna Odom also made an impression, sinking four of her six shot attempts filling in for the injured Nurse. It was a strong debut for the Duke alumna, especially considering that some second-round picks never get to see opening night. Jocelyn Willoughby also displayed some of her trademark physicality with nine points in the second half.
The Liberty have a prime opportunity in their second contest, taking on a Dallas Wings team with similar growing pains on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, CBSSN). They got plenty of firsts out of the way in the showdown with Seattle and the tilt with the equally infantile Wings could be an opportunity to get an elusive win. The team is ready to not only find the positives whenever they arise but to keep them flowing, have that success carry-over and make this transition of power as smooth as possible.
If this is what rebuilding looks like, things can certainly be worse.
“One of the things we celebrated after the game was that it’s uncomfortable to not hit shots and to continue to shoot them anyway. That’s a growth point for some of the players on our team.” Hopkins said in the postgame. “The (ideal) end result is that they learn how to play basketball because they’re getting to fight through these moments. It’s nothing that surprised. All-in-all, we’re proud of the shots we did generate.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags