Let’s get this out of the way to start, Breanna Stewart is not having the best postseason from an offensive standpoint. The 2023 MVP is shooting a career playoff low 20.7 percent from behind the arc and her lowest per game scoring since 2016. Through six postseason games, Stewart hasn’t looked close to her regular-season form that saw her score a career-best 23 points per game (PPG) with shooting splits 46.5/35.5/85.1.
Deep breath. I’m glad we got that out of the way and that seafoam nation hasn’t completely come after me for putting these words out into the universe. While true, they don’t mention that Stewie is having a completely dominant postseason defensively.
In fact, the two-time Finals MVP may be having one of the best playoff runs in her career and it has everything to do with a skill that she rarely gets a lot of credit for.
In the absence of her steadfast shooting, Stewart is still finding ways to have an impact each time the Liberty takes the court. In the team’s first playoff game against the Washington Mystics, she shot a pedestrian 3-16 in field-goal percentage but led all players with three blocks and was second in rebounds during the double-digit win for New York.
In the second game of the first-round, best-of-three series, Stewart saw a little return to her regular offensive form, putting up 27 points in a series-clinching overtime win. But even with her shots going in at a better clip, the defense remained stellar as she racked up nine rebounds, two steals and three blocks.
The Semifinals series against the Connecticut Sun is where the true prowess of Stewart’s defensive force became clear. The Sun took an early 1-0 lead in the series by winning game one in Barclays Center, thanks to Alyssa Thomas. Thomas’ ability to use screens and her patented spin move to the basket for a bucket or pass to an open shooter on the perimeter stunned the Liberty.
In game two of the series, Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello opted to throw in a zone defense to disrupt drives to the basket and force the Sun into outside shots. The plan worked to near perfection and aided New York as the team rattled off three straight wins to clinch a spot in the WNBA Finals. The team defense the Liberty played was absurd, leading to an astounding 0.879 points per possession.
Individually, however, it was Breanna Stewart who shined in this scheme. Playing as a wing defender in this zone allowed her to use her vast wingspan as a deterrent to outside shooters It worked to such resounding success in Game 2 of the Connecticut series that Stewie ended up with five blocks by the time the final buzzer sounded.
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) September 27, 2023
At the conclusion of the Semifinals series, Breanna Stewart led the WNBA playoffs in blocks. When she wasn’t blocking shots, Stewart was a menace to opponents around her trying to shoot. Opponents taking shots less than five feet away from the basket are only shooting 55.8 percent against her. From five to nine feet away, that percentage dips down to 27.7. These numbers are better than some of the premier shot blockers and rim protectors in the game, including A’Ja Wilson and Alyssa Thomas.
Providing great defense isn’t anything new to Stewart, who has been named to the WNBA’s All-Defensive team a total of five times in her career (three times on the second team, twice on the first). What’s different about this year’s honors is just how much her defense is key to her contribution on the court. With buckets not coming in an easy fashion for her this postseason, Stewart has found ways to translate her defense into a rhythmic offense.
For example, this close out defense from Stewart on Dijonai Carrington provides an easy opportunity for two points at the other end of the court.
The defense and scrappiness demonstrated by Stewart in this series is a prime example of the team culture this Liberty squad has rallied around. In the post-game press conference after clinching a trip to the WNBA Finals, a first for the Liberty since 2002, several members of the team, including Breanna, brought up trusting their teammates as part of their success.
“We talked as players prior to [the playoffs]that this is like a roller coaster…it’s going to be really difficult,” Stewart said. “That’s why we talked about staying together”
Stewarts shooting splits may have looked like the ups and downs of a roller coaster, but the greatness she’s provided New York in other areas has been enough to get the organization out of their long drought of WNBA Finals appearances.