Libs Face Early Season Test Against Defending Champs

It is way too early to label any one game as the most important of the season for the Liberty.

But Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Sparks is the most important to date.

After splitting a two-game West Coast trip, which Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer felt should have been a sweep, the reigning WNBA champs come to The Garden (7 p.m., ESPN2).

There is no better measuring stick than playing the champs.

And this will be the last game the Liberty will play for several weeks without point guard Epiphanny Prince and reserve center Kia Vaughn, both of whom are headed to Europe for the FIBA 2017 EuroBasket tournament.

The Liberty (2-2) already lost starting point guard Brittany Boyd to a torn Achilles tendon, suffered in the second game of the season. Prince stepped into the starting lineup and proved she is fully recovered from a torn right ACL suffered in 2015.

[Robbins: Prince Took on Demons, Now Poised to Take on WNBA]

After LA, it’s no Boyd, no Prince. Lots of question marks at point guard.

“It’s going to be a tough road,’’ Laimbeer said. “We’re a little inexperienced there and we’re going to have to work our way through it.’’

The Liberty can sign replacement players while Prince, who will play for Russia, and Vaughn, who will play for the Czech Republic, are overseas.

The last cut the Liberty made was top draft pick Lindsay Allen, the All-American point guard from Notre Dame. She impressed in training camp and the preseason, but the Liberty are built to win now and almost any rookie was going to have a hard time cracking the roster.

It would make sense for the Liberty to bring back Allen. Replacing Vaughn in the short term will not be easy. There simply aren’t proven, talented post players waiting to be signed.

Bria Hartley, who the Liberty acquired in an offseason deal with the Washington Mystics, can play the point but is more of a combo guard. Hartley is just four months removed from giving birth to her first child and is still regaining her top form. She’s averaging about 10 minutes per game with six assists and three turnovers.

“I think that she’s still getting her basketball game back underneath her now,’’ Laimbeer said. “She’s making progress, but she still has a way to go. She’s working on it every day.’’

[Robbins: New Mom Hartley Balancing Motherhood & Career]

The question Laimbeer and the staff must consider is whether Sugar Rodgers or perhaps Shavonte Zellous can provide some minutes at point guard. It’s not an ideal solution, but losing two of the top seven rotation players for what could be a month is far from ideal.

Rodgers has picked up where she left off last season when she emerged as one of the league’s best shooting guards. She’s averaging 14 points on 40.7-percent shooting (11-of-27) on 3s.

Rodgers is playing with tremendous confidence. Moving her to point might detract from her offensive game.

Zellous, the emotional spark plug of the team, has seven assists and seven turnovers. She is a smart player and a terrific defender, but not a natural point guard.

“All players have to step up and this point,’’ Laimbeer said. “I’m not going to single anybody out. All players have to elevate their game because we’re going to be a little shorthanded.’’

That won’t be the case against Los Angeles (2-2). The Sparks will be playing the final game of a three-game East Coast road swing. That could work in the Liberty’s favor.

What might work against them is that the Sparks, who opened 11-0 last season, have lost the first two games of this swing. No team, especially a champion, wants to fly home – cross country, no less – having been swept on a road trip.

That’s LA’s problem. The Liberty have their own concerns.

Laimbeer said the intensity and physicality have improved with each game. The players have embraced his narrative of seeking to be the hardest working team in the league.

Do that, he says, and talent takes over.

But with the imminent departures of Prince and Vaughn, Laimbeer and Liberty fans might not know exactly what they have until mid-July when the duo return from Europe and have to time to assimilate to the team.

First things first – get over the .500 mark and then face life without two key players. Neither task will be easy.