June 13, 2024

LAS VEGAS — The New York Liberty pride themselves on never getting too high or too low. Coach Sandy Brondello “never hits the panic button,” Courtney Vandersloot told ESPN on Wednesday morning, a big reason why the Liberty hadn’t dropped consecutive games all season entering the WNBA Finals, the point guard said.

Brondello wasn’t exactly hitting the panic button later that day after her team’s 104-76 blowout Game 2 loss to the Las Vegas Aces, putting them one defeat from elimination. But her bewilderment and disappointment were clear in her postgame remarks to media.

“We didn’t have any toughness.”

“Everything was too easy.”

“We had no resistance … There was no grit.”

“We’ve got to take some pride in playing better than what we did.”

Brondello’s sentiments were echoed by the players to her left and right, 2018 and 2023 MVP Breanna Stewart and 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones.

“We have to dig deeper,” Jones said.

“We need to take a look from within and figure it out,” added Stewart, a two-time WNBA champion whose losses this series are her first in a championship setting across the NCAA and WNBA.

The Liberty will fight to keep alive their championship aspirations Sunday when they host Game (3 p.m. ET, ABC) at Barclays Center. Teams that trail 0-2 in a best-of-five WNBA playoff series have never managed to overcome the deficit to win the series, and in Finals history have been swept in seven of eight instances.

The possibility of a sweep, by either team, seemed far-fetched a week ago. Las Vegas and New York split the regular-season series 2-2, with the Liberty winning the Commissioner’s Cup championship game in August. The Aces swept the Chicago Sky in the first round and the Dallas Wings in the semifinals. New York had to grind out first-round wins over a Washington Mystics squad that was far better than its No. 7 seed indicated, as well as a tough third-seeded Connecticut Sun team that handed New York a home loss in Game 1 of the semifinals.

The Liberty — who feature three players with extensive Finals experience in Jones, Stewart and Vandersloot, their three big offseason additions — seemed to deepen their grit and chemistry in real time as the playoffs proceeded. They bounced back from a 15-point Game 1 loss to the Sun by beating them three straight times, including twice on the road.

But the team that took the floor this week in Las Vegas looked like a shell of the one that had defeated the Aces three times in August, or the one that had overcome a tough road to the Finals.

“I know we’re way better than that. We have to prove to ourselves that we’re a better team than what we showed these last two.”

Liberty coach Sandy Brondello

Brondello, in her second year in New York after head-coaching stints in San Antonio and with the Phoenix Mercury, credited the way the defending champion Aces are playing. But she feels her team hasn’t met the occasion, either.

“Vegas is playing their best basketball at the moment. They’re playing with all the confidence. You see the chemistry that they have,” Brondello said about the differences between their August meetings and the Finals. “And for us, we haven’t taken steps forward. We haven’t shown it. We’re disappointed, very disappointed because we’re a way better team than what we showed.”

After allowing 99 points in Game 1, 72 of which came from Las Vegas’ trio of guards, New York needed to execute defensively, to be more disruptive, to get back in transition defense in Game 2. They fell short in every area from the get-go Wednesday, falling behind 19-2 four minutes into the game. Following a barrage of 3-pointers, the Aces scored a WNBA Finals-record 38 first-quarter points on 70% shooting (6-for-10 from beyond the arc).

Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum combined for 8-for-15 shooting from 3 and 47 points overall, while A’ja Wilson couldn’t be denied down low, finishing with 26 points and 15 rebounds. The Aces became the first team in WNBA history to have three 20-point scorers multiple times in the Finals and to do so in consecutive postseason games.

Everything the Aces did looked effortless, systematic and smooth, a product of that core having played together for years, and of having won a championship together last season. Outside of when the Liberty could get the ball to Jones in the second quarter, it was the opposite for them.

Even the plays where New York did a lot right, things broke the Aces’ way. On one possession with about four minutes left in first quarter, both Vandersloot and Stewart nearly corralled the ball after knocking it away from Wilson, before Plum recovered it in the corner. Stewart and Vandersloot then appeared to stop her beneath the basket, but she kicked it out, and the ball swung from Young to Wilson to Young, who drove and hit Alysha Clark in the corner. Clark then quickly got it off to Gray, who drilled a 3 over a closing-out Vandersloot with the shot clock expiring.

“They do things really sharply,” Brondello said. “They know where they’re going to be, where they’re going to be open and who’s coming off and extra screening. And the pace that they played at just had us in circles really.”

It wasn’t much better on the offensive end for New York, which shot worse from the floor (36.1%) and from 3 (22.9%) than it did in Game 1. Vandersloot and Ionescu struggled once more on that end, combining for 19 points on 5-for-19 shooting (3-for-11 from 3) and currently sit at 8-for-25 on open shots in the series. Stewart made only six field goals, while — similar to Game 1 — Jones was neutralized in the second half following a dominant second period. Even a more aggressive Betnijah Laney or a helpful Marine Johannes off the bench could not save them.

“I think their defense really took a step up too,” Brondello said. “Their physicality bothered us. We have to be smarter too where we need to make strong cuts, not just soft cuts, violent cuts so we can actually draw people, setting better screens, just the little details to help us get open.”

The Liberty will sit with the embarrassment of the loss — and the apprehension of being on the brink ending the season short of a championship — for four days. Brondello said she wants them to be “pissed off with this effort” as they search for answers. She has challenged them to come out with fight, believing they can bounce back as the series heads back east.

Who will bring the grit and toughness Brondello wants to see? Laney often sets the tone on the defensive end, and she hasn’t played spectacularly during these Finals, but it’ll take a team effort to slow Las Vegas.

The Liberty defense must find ways to make things more uncomfortable for the Aces guards, something they were more successful with in August. There is no way to beat Las Vegas if its guards are hitting shots like they have, and that confidence is something they’ll surely bring to Brooklyn.

On the offensive end, can Stewart find her shot? Can Jones be impactful for the full 40 minutes and take advantage of mismatches inside? Vandersloot and Ionescu must do better defensively, but they have to be factors on offense, too. The Liberty need to play through the paint, either in getting Jones the ball or in getting their guards going downhill, anything that would help open the floor for players on the perimeter. Unlocking Johannes — perhaps even playing her more — could be critical in that effort.

For the second game in a row, Brondello noted her team needs to set better screens, and on the other end not allow so many open shots — which should be givens in the WNBA Finals.

Even amid their profound disappointment on Wednesday, the focus for the Liberty shifted to what’s immediately in front of them: not overcoming an 0-2 deficit per se, but winning Game 3 on Sunday, and playing how they know they’re capable.

“I know we’re way better than that,” Brondello said. “We have to prove to ourselves that we’re a better team than what we showed these last two.”

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