Stokes’ Stock, Confidence Rising

Liberty 76, Dream 61

After getting bludgeoned in the first two games of the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers had gone into last night’s Game 3 with horrific odds of 41-to-4 in rallying to win it all.

Those might be slightly better odds than Vegas would have given New York Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer uttering these words about center Kiah Stokes after her play in the season-opener:

“My suspicion is that we’re going to see a double-double almost every game,’’ Laimbeer said after Stokes grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds in a 76-61 win over the Atlanta Dream Wednesday afternoon. Stokes did so in front of a thunderous Garden crowd where 14,816 fans rocked the building on School Day.

A double-double almost every game?

Laimbeer had criticized Stokes after she grabbed just four rebounds and converted two points in 18 minutes during a 73-64 win over the San Antonio Stars back on May 13th.

Less than one month later, Stokes has emerged as one of the most dominant rebounders in the WNBA and the Liberty are following her lead.

Stokes and Tina Charles, who posted the 132nd double-double of her career (17 points, 15 rebounds) led the Liberty to a 48-35 rebounding advantage. The Liberty (5-3) now lead the league in rebounding with 38.3 boards per game.

“We came in here with one objective and I’ve always told our players the old Pat Riley thing, ‘No rebounds … no ring!’’’ said Atlanta coach Michael Cooper. “When you let two players get 32 rebounds it makes it difficult for you.’’

The 61 points are the fewest the Liberty have allowed this season and the fewest Atlanta has scored. The Liberty held Atlanta to 27.6-percent shooting (21-of-76) from the floor, including a woeful 1-of-13 from behind the arc.

The final game of a five-game homestand will be a rematch with the Seattle Storm on Sunday (3 p.m.; MSGNetwork) and the Liberty have a chance to go 4-1 over that stretch.

After opening the homestand with a 90-75 loss to the L.A. Sparks, the last game with guard Epiphanny Prince and reserve center Kia Vaughn, a 4-1 mark on the homestand seemed like a pipe dream. Both Prince and Vaughn are currently away from the team playing in the 2017 FIBA EuroBasket tournament.

But in the last three games, Stokes has all but taken a brush and stroked Kiah’s Kourt in the paint.

She tallied a then career-high 15 rebounds in the 93-89 win over the Dallas Wings. Stokes followed that with 14 boards in the 88-72 win over the Phoenix Mercury and 17 against Atlanta.

Kiah posted the first back-to-back double-doubles of her career against Dallas and Phoenix when she scored 13 and a career-high 23, respectively.

She scored seven points to go along with three assists and two blocked shots on Wednesday. Sugar Rodgers added 16 points on 3-of-8 shooting on threes.

“Kiah Stokes is making good progress and she has a long way to go, and she’ll tell you the same thing,” Laimbeer said.

Stokes will also tell you she would not have put together these three games without the constant encouragement she got from Charles. Both are accustomed to tough love from their college days playing for Geno Auriemma at Connecticut.

While Laimbeer was publicly challenging Stokes, Charles was privately building her teammate’s confidence with one-on-one workouts.

Stokes had 24 rebounds in the first five games. She’s had 46 in the last three. The Liberty have won three straight. Hmmm…

“The confidence level, going into the first couple of games, I just was down on myself for whatever reason,’’ Stokes said. “But my teammates did a great job pulling me up. They never gave up on me. They told me to my face, ‘Kiah, we need you. Knock this off. Get back to how you used to play.’’’

And she has.

Down is now up. Laimbeer pushed; Charles pulled.

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The result is Charles, in her eighth season, and Stokes, in her fourth, have forged a bond.

“She just says, ‘Well, I guess Kiah’s going to get all the rebounds lately,’’’ Stokes joked. “We jus’ talk a lot of crap and mess with each other. As long as we’re rebounding, making sure the other team don’t get it, we’re all good.’’

The way Stokes’ season began, what were the odds of that?