Five months after the term was coined, no one can fully define a “hybrid rebuild.” But the New York Liberty provided a strong visual aid in their 2021 opener on Friday night.
From Fight Club to Paper Towns, we’ll perhaps never settle the argument over whether the book or the movie is better. The New York Liberty’s latest authored pieces will only serve to exacerbate the argument. General manager Jonathan Kolb penned the tome in question in December, a story entitled “hybrid rebuild.” Kolb wasn’t interested in formally defining the term, mentioning only “we can be super competitive right now while bringing along the future of the Liberty down the road.”
This time, though, the movie might win out, considering the show the Liberty put on during their 2021 debut on Friday night in Brooklyn.
If one were to adapt the story of Friday’s 90-87 win over the Indiana Fever for the screen, their script would probably be rejected by major studios for being too predictable. Sabrina Ionescu kicking off the WNBA’s 25th-anniversary celebration by hitting the game-winning shot at not only the Liberty’s first game as full-time tenants of Barclays Center but her first game from an ankle injury suffered in the Bradenton bubble…all on the day before her late mentor Kobe Bryant was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame?
The scenario sounds like it was pulled from the dreams of a shooter at rest. According to Ionescu, that’s exactly the case.
Ionescu claims not to dream about basketball often, especially on the night before a game. But the wee hours of Friday morning apparently proved to be an exception. Thus, when the Liberty got the ball back with just over five regulation seconds to work within a game knotted at 87, a smile from Ionescu broke through the tense surface.
“I 100 percent had envisioned hitting a game-winner. When we were tied and walking into the huddle, I was just smiling because it was almost too good to be true,” Ionescu, clad in a Bryant jersey, told reporters in her postgame statements. “I was like, I’m going to hit this if the coaches drop a play for me to get the ball. my coaches, you know, believed in me, my team believed in me.”
“I was just ready for the moment. I’ve been waiting a while to get back on the court, and so I’m so happy that we were able to get this win.”
The Liberty (1-0) own a winning record during a regular season in progress for the first time since September 3, 2017. The effort to obtain it was the perfect, most ideal way to show what the leadership triumvirate of Kolb, head coach Walt Hopkins, and CEO Keia Clarke is trying to accomplish this season.
The second half of Kolb’s label… that of rebuild… is one that understandably has Liberty fans concerned. If the past three seasons, campaigns staged in front of minuscule crowds in Westchester County and Bradenton and yielding only 19 wins weren’t a rebuild, what could a “hybrid” one possibly create? How high were expectations raised when Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb, and their five championship rings along with the bubble’s Most Improved Player, Betnijah Laney?
Friday answered those questions, or at least gave a highly entertaining opening chapter.
The Liberty may own a perfect record, but Friday’s triumph was anything but spotless. It was a game where the Liberty were horribly outrebounded, particularly on the offensive glass. Los Angeles-bound Amanda Zahui B was sorely missed, as were Howard and Kiah Stokes. Newly minted starter Kylee Shook showed heart in her first promotion to the opening five but was no match for Teaira McCowan, who proved the scorching hot take that she could change the course of a game if she’s given adequate minutes (22 points, 16 rebounds in 31).
The team’s Timeless Torches dance team returned, but so did its concerning turnover problem. In some ways, the Liberty looked so strong that Ionescu miracles would not be necessary. They jumped out to an early 23-12 lead but lost it through turnovers. A particularly troubling 101-second stretch to open the second quarter officially erased the Liberty lead. The issues resurfaced when an opportunity to put the game away was on the table. Leading 75-68 past the midway mark of the final frame, a pair of bad passes put the Fever back in the ball game and even allowed them to take a brief lead in the penultimate minute.
Surely the upcoming bolstering of the interior, particularly the undated New York debut of Howard, should at least start to shore up the rebounding problem. But it’s not fair to place the erasure of a -17 offensive rebound margin solely on the back of one player.
But the strong, more jovial aspects of the process revealed themselves. Amid the brutal rebounding disparity, the Liberty took solace in the fact that Indiana’s 87 points were earned not through the poor defense but through second-chance points.
“I think I think we’re pretty good defensively, you know, we stayed aggressive, we got them to take shots that they (didn’t) want,” Laney said after her debut. “The main thing is just to make sure that we’re boxing out. “I think a lot of their stuff came off second-chance points after you… long-contested we’ve been really good, and I just try and give them my energy defensively.”
“It’s hard, I think, in those moments to understand how good the defense really was, in terms of forcing the types of shots that we wanted to force,” Hopkins analyzed, noting that the Fever shot 41 percent from the field. “From a defensive perspective in terms of team execution, I thought it was pretty darn good. We forced a lot of long-contested twos and didn’t give up a lot of open looks from three.”
Laney was one of those who assured the basketball public that the team is headed in the right direction. She tallied a game-best 30 points, replicating her breakout performance that ironically came against the Liberty last summer. It would’ve been easy for Michaela Onyenwere to disappear in the crowd amidst the other new additions and the sophomores, but she instead set a team rookie record by scoring 18 points in her first contest, opening things with the first official points of the 2021 season via triple. Ironically, Onyenwere’s heroics broke a record held by Kia Nurse, whose trade Phoenix indirectly put the former UCLA Bruin on a metropolitan path. Their early showcase allowed the Liberty to stay in a game where Ionescu was putting up very non-Ionescu numbers, going scoreless in the first quarter and shooting 1-of-6 from the field in the first half.
Restrictions put in through the late stages of the ongoing health crisis compacted the size of Barclays supporters, but it did nothing to curtail the passion from the Liberty fanbase. DiDi Richards, a high-character, high-caliber athlete who partly helps the Liberty fulfill their eternal quest for character. Conventional wisdom from last fall suggested that the energetic Richards wouldn’t be able to even dress for such an occasion after a freak accident in practice left her paralyzed. Instead, her first WNBA entrance and points garnered the loudest cheers of the evening before Ionescu sent everyone home happy.
Barclays Center is a palace compared to the cozy Art Deco relic that was Westchester County Center. Even something as mundane as the plethora of celebrities taking in the game…including Lily Allen, Nia Long, Naturi Naughton, and David Harbour…shows just how far the Liberty have come, a reward and a potential sign of things to come for surviving the trials of the post-Madison Square Garden era that, for all intents and purposes, should’ve served as a death sentence.
The Liberty insisted at several points during their cursed season in Bradenton that moral victories were plentiful in a 2-20 season. But starting 1-0 has its advantages too, and the players were happy to revel in the temporary success.
“The belief that this organization and the coaches have in us shows we’re playing for them. We’re playing for each other, not only ourselves,” Ionescu said. “I think you can talk and talk, and once you get a win, and you see that stuff’s working. There’s a lot more confidence that you have going into the next game and going into the season. So this was huge for us to get at home. We needed this. I think more than anyone, and we’re excited.”
The win over the Fever wasn’t flawless. But not one person in their basketball mind couldn’t admit that it was fun.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags