June 22, 2024

NEW YORK — The Liberty trailed by two points with 12.6 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 2 of their first-round playoff matchup versus the Washington Mystics. Sabrina Ionescu went to the free throw line with a chance to tie the score, but missed her first attempt. A groan emanated from the Barclays Center crowd, but the Liberty remained confident. Jonquel Jones was on the floor.

Ionescu intentionally missed the second foul shot, putting into action a play the team had practiced all season: Jones, New York’s best offensive rebounder, darted across the paint to the right block to corral the ball after it bounced off the front of the rim. She went up for a putback and was fouled.

As she stepped to the line, Jones believed she had to make the free throws, especially after committing a costly turnover a few possessions before. Two-time MVP Breanna Stewart had no doubt Jones would sink them. “I knew we were going into overtime,” Stewart said, “and that was really it.”

Jones hit both free throws to force overtime, where the Liberty sealed a sweep and advanced to their first WNBA semifinals since 2015. It’s what Jones came to New York to do — help the Liberty win the franchise’s first WNBA championship, even after the season’s beginning didn’t go as she hoped.

For the No. 2 seed Liberty to get past the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun — including Friday’s Game 3 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) in Uncasville — New York needs an active, assertive Jones on both ends of the floor. The same goes should the Liberty — tied 1-1 in the best-of-five semifinals — advance to the WNBA Finals, where they will likely face the defending champion Las Vegas Aces. Jones is ready to deliver.

A year ago, Jones would have been on the other side of this matchup. This past offseason, with one year left on her contract, the 2021 MVP requested a trade from the Sun — with whom she’d appeared in two Finals over the previous four years — to New York. A three-team deal in January brought her and Kayla Thornton to Brooklyn, making waves in the league before free agency had officially opened.

Jones knew something special could happen in New York, especially once her former UMMC Ekaterinburg teammates Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot followed her as free agent signees.

Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said it took time for New York to figure out how all its new pieces fit together. But Jones, a 6-foot-6 Bahamian center, also struggled early to find her footing due in large part to, well, her foot.

Jones suffered a stress reaction in her left foot during last year’s Finals and was still nursing the injury in training camp this spring. She was sidelined for most of camp and then started the regular season on a minutes restriction. Her conditioning wasn’t where she wanted early on, all while incorporating herself into a new team and system.

Before the All-Star break, Jones averaged 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds in 22.6 minutes per game, all much lower numbers than she typically puts up.

“Getting up and down the court, I just didn’t feel like myself,” Jones told ESPN this week. “I didn’t feel like I was conditioned properly and ready to just get up and down the court and be able to do the things that I normally do.”

The physical limitations started to impact the mental. Jones wanted to play well so badly that “I kind of took myself out of the game mentally,” she said. She said she fell into negative self-talk, didn’t look like herself on the floor and wasn’t happy. “You could definitely see it out there,” she said.

Helping her stay afloat, Jones’ new teammates embraced her through the ups and downs. Brondello and her staff kept believing in her and told her she’d be fine.

“We’ve all believed that she was able to have this role and this big of a role on this team,” said Ionescu, adding that Jones was a great teammate even while she was finding her way. “That’s why we really wanted her here and she really wanted to be here.”

Things started to change for Jones after the All-Star break in mid-July, when she finally felt “everything came together: the mindset, my physical conditioning and just being able to do the things that I wanted to do on the court.”

When Jones won MVP, it was in large part because she was able to reclaim her joy on the court; this season, her mid-summer transformation held a familiar tenor: She shifted to “finding the joy in the game versus looking at the stats or worrying about the numbers that I was putting up.”

Jones focused on other ways to impact the game other than scoring. Her self-talk became “way more positive” and grounded in taking one play at a time. She celebrated and enjoyed time with teammates, whether it was dancing in warmups with Thornton or getting meals with Nyara Sabally and Jocelyn Willoughby, which reminded her why she plays the game.

“I was just telling my mom: When I was younger, I had to choose between soccer, basketball and track and field, and I hated track because I just hated being out there by myself; I always liked team sports so much more,” Jones said. “It just comes back to that joy of being out there with people that you love playing with, and now we get paid to do it, so it’s even more amazing.”

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Jonquel Jones goes to work in the paint to score

Jonquel Jones fights off a defender for an impressive layup for the Liberty.

Jones’ mental shift and physical readiness have been undeniable over the past two-plus months: Her scoring post-All-Star saw an uptick, and her minutes increased as well, but the most noticeable difference has been her rebounding, where she recorded 10.3 boards per game in the second half.

Brondello challenged Jones to get a double-double every night; she only had two before the All-Star break. Since then, Jones has nine, and as the coach says, “the stats don’t lie.” The Liberty went 11-0 in the regular season when Jones registered a double-double. Her interior defense alongside Stewart has also helped New York become one of the better defenses in the league.

Jones’ return to form was solidified during the Commissioner’s Cup championship game, where she was named MVP after recording 16 points and 15 rebounds against the Aces.

Amid so much attention on the budding rivalry between Las Vegas and New York, Jones has been critical in controlling the paint in the series and in slowing two-time MVP A’ja Wilson. In New York’s three wins against Las Vegas (the Commissioner’s Cup final and two regular-season games), Jones has recorded double figures in rebounds. In its two losses, she has single digits. In the two early August matchups the Liberty won over the Aces, Jones helped hold Wilson to nine points in each.

But aside from that specific matchup, the Liberty consistently pointed to Jones’ emergence when asked why they improved significantly over the second half of the season (the Liberty had the best winning percentage after the All-Star break).

In addition to hitting the free throws that forced overtime, Jones was crucial to New York taking down a tough Washington team in the first round, where she averaged 19.5 points and 13 rebounds. She’s hit the double-double threshold in each game of the postseason, where the Liberty are 3-1.

Now amid the most important stretch, Jones’ confidence is brimming. But she’s learned to remain on an even keel.

“I think it’s easy to say that,” she said, “but then you go into the season, and you have such high expectations coming into a new environment, you kind of forget it. It’s good to have those things as your personal foundation. … When things go astray a little bit, you can pull yourself back in and recenter yourself.”

The lesson will be one to remember within the roller coaster of any game or series as the Liberty look to get by the Sun and whichever team awaits in the Finals. Jones will look to secure her first WNBA title.

“We’re really proud of the way that she’s come into her own on this team,” Ionescu said.

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