Breanna Stewart receives the ball from Courtney Vandersloot as she crosses the timeline, a backwards pitch pass more frequently seen on the gridiron than the hardwood. It was imperative to find Stewart—her nickname, Stewie, synonymous with her surname like your other all-greats, your T-Spoons or Mama Syls—the moment she enters the halfcourt. She has been locked in all afternoon, so her gravity is heavy. It’s a wonder, at this point, that players on the Indiana Fever bench are not abandoning their seats to try and slow her down. Upon the catch, she steps one-two, squares towards the basket some thirty feet away, and fires. She drops the gooseneck follow-through and stares the ball down, as it tumbles over and over. It kisses nylon and the sellout crowd erupts. The next trip down, Stewie hears her first MVP chants of the season. It took all of 28 minutes, in her Liberty home debut, to win over the Brooklyn fans.
Stewart finished the game with 45 points, a WNBA career-high, besting the 42 she tallied against the Aces during last year’s postseason. It also toppled Cappie Pondexter’s 40-piece, which had stood as the franchise record since 2010. Throughout the night, Stewart scored with an array of moves: cuts to the basket, kickout threes, one-on-one isolations.
“It’s just really hard to guard her,” Jonquel Jones said postgame. “She has such a high release point. I don’t know what else to say. She’s gonna make tough shots. She’s gonna play through contact, everything like that. She’s just an amazing person on the team.”
In the contest, Stewie’s shot plot looked less like a basketball chart and more like a dominant game of Battleship.
To do this, to announce this new-look team in front of a sold-out lower bowl at Barclays? Sunday’s performance wasn’t so much an introduction as it was an announcement.
Ninety minutes before tip, the first three or four rows are filled, Liberty loyals with early access fill prime seating. Among them are wide-eyed children sitting courtside, trained on Stewart and Jones as they begin their warmup with push shots in the paint, progressing to short jumpers, then widening their orbit until, suddenly, they’re just feet away. The echoing of a mic’d up swish, the squeak of sneakers against the lacquered flooring, the rhythmic dribble drills Kayla Thornton works through along the baseline. Outside, at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic, Barclays is just as welcoming as inside: a halfcourt has been set up in the atrium for fans to showcase their own skills; an Instagrammable Liberty sign sits in the shadow of the ringed oculus; decals of the Liberty players adorn the glass siding beside the box office. Talks of superteam have burst through the W Twitter echo chamber, have brought excitement to a city that breathes basketball and hopes to herald new heroes.
The crowd still files in as the starting five is announced, the pyrotechnics of the giant torch spouting a flare with each player’s name, its heat reaching fans a dozen rows deep. The new era’s introduction is immediate, calculated. The three new members of the starting five—Jones, Stewart, and Vandersloot—notch the first three Liberty buckets, each drawing a roar of approval as they add their first tallies to the jumbotron. It’s a blistering start: 15-4 after just 185 seconds. It’s 36-14 following the first quarter, and Stewie scores 19 across that 10-minute stretch. With the game never in doubt, the vibes are firmly secured.
Did you ever play Would You Rather? growing up, where a friend would present you with two terrible options, and you’d be pressed to pick which was slightly more palatable? Would you rather perpetually have Cheeto dust on your fingers or forever wear wet socks? Bad breath or bad body odor? Be trapped in a romantic comedy with your enemies or a horror movie with your friends?
That’s how I imagine opposing coaches feel trying to draw up defenses against this Liberty team. Like in the example above, when faced with navigating a Sabrina Ionescu/Jonquel Jones pick-and-roll, when Stewart fills in behind as a three-point option on the wing. Do I want to be beat at the basket by one of the strongest finishers in the W, or do I take my chances with a Stewie long ball?
A play like this really shows how dangerous the Liberty are. You get Sabrina & Jonquel moving toward the basket on the pick-and-roll, but then it's like "HAHA JK" & Sabrina kicks it out for the Stewie three. pic.twitter.com/O17YHj9Eck
— Justin Carter (@juscarts) May 22, 2023
To Ionescu, the context of Stewart’s performance added to its spectacle. “For her to be able to do that on our home court, in front of her New York fans, and kind of leave a footprint in what we’re building here—that was really special.”
Han Xu was much more economical in her praise. “I mean, we have Stewie!”
Honestly, that about covers it. Per Across the Timeline, Stewart’s game was just the tenth in WNBA history where a player made 15+ shots while making at least 70 percent of their attempts.
While, appropriately, Stewie was the headliner, accounting for half of New York’s 90-point output, the team also showed glimpses of growth, following their opening night loss to the Washington Mystics. Betnijah Laney drew the primary assignment on All-Star guard Kelsey Mitchell, spearheading a group effort that held her scoreless in the first half and set the tone defensively. Jones looked much more comfortable than she had two days prior, scoring 14 points on an efficient six-of-10 shooting. Vandersloot and Ionescu alternated as lead guard, and their combined 16:4 turnover-to-assist ratio is a blueprint for success on a nightly basis. The reserves are still working to find their roles, but measurable progress is being made, the chemistry developing with each passing day.
All throughout (an injury-ravaged) camp, the veteran-heavy squad has preached patience. It’s not that there hasn’t been a sense of urgency to improve, but instead it’s been an understanding of the process. That poise exudes confidence and, when you look at the names lining the box score, you can understand it. Everyone in that huddle is aware of the lofty expectations, but until this team accomplishes something, they’re just that: expectations.
A few weeks back, on her first day in Liberty camp, Stewart addressed that perspective. “We’ve got a long way to go,” she said. “Nothing is happening tonight, tomorrow, this month. But we want to make sure that every day when we come in, we’re getting better.”
After the final buzzer sounds, Meghan Triplett waits for Stewart for an instant on-court reaction to the performance. It seems, from my vantage, like the entire crowd remains, standing in their seats. As Stewie begins to answer, a swell of M-V-P, repeats over and over, drowns out her response. She cracks a smile but works to compose herself, as she’s done all afternoon long. “I can’t hear you over the MVP chants,” Triplett says. “I can’t either,” Stewie replies, before raising both arms high and saluting the Brooklyn faithful.
Following a full year of seafoam speculation, seeing Stewart wear the home threads and deliver dominance made this new era finally feel real. Now, they can move onto the business of winning.