Home Streak Laying Strong Foundation For Liberty

LIBERTY 94, STORM 86

When the 2017 WNBA schedule was announced, New York Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer saw a five-game homestand early in the season and smiled.

Home games are gold in pro sports, perhaps the single greatest advantage a team has.

The Liberty had five straight seemingly at the perfect time when players and coaches are starting to familiarize themselves, and the foundation for a season that can be laid.

But the Liberty’s foundation began to lose some integrity.

Starting point Brittany Boyd, off to her best season, tore her left Achilles tendon in the second game.

Epiphanny Prince, fully recovered from a 2015 knee injury, stepped in for Boyd and won Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

[Robbins: Prince Overcame Demons, Now Taking on WNBA]

But she had to leave at the start of June to compete in the FIBA 2017 EuroBasket tournament. Kia Vaughn, the veteran backup center who gives Laimbeer the physical paint presence he relishes, also left for the tournament.

That’s three of the top seven players gone for four of the five home games (they’re expected back in late June). The Liberty (6-3) lost the first game of the homestand, but proceeded to reel off four straight wins.

As it turns out, that homestand did come at the perfect time. It forced this team to take a quantum leap in learning and bonding. The Liberty play six of its next seven on the road and that doesn’t seem overly daunting because of the foundation that has been laid.

“The concentration level is the best thing for this basketball team right now,’’ Laimbeer said Sunday after a 94-86 win over the Seattle Storm at The Garden. “Every position, every player on the team is putting on their concentration cap when they come to work every. And it’s showing.

[Watch: Highlights of the Liberty’s Win Over the Storm]

“The mental part of games is three-quarters of the battle – at least. And we’re now experiencing a good mental stretch of playing basketball. And then the talent takes over. That’s what’s happening right now.”

Here’s a look at how the Liberty, which plays at the Connecticut Sun Wednesday night at Mohegan Sun Arena (7 p.m., MSG+), has improved since opening the season 2-3.

“It showed us what we can do even if we don’t have our full team,’’ center Kiah Stokes said. “We had everybody step up. Everyone did more. Nobody tried to do too much, I think that’s really important.

“We enjoy playing with each other. We have a great time in practice. Always competing. Sometimes we want to fight, but that’s the way basketball is. But as soon as practice is over, we love each other. We’d run through a wall for each other.’’

STOKING THE FIRES

Stokes has shown astonishing improvement. She averaged 4.8 rebounds in the first five games. Then she emerged as one of the league’s best rebounders by averaging 16 boards in the middle three games of the homestand.

Stokes only had six rebounds against Seattle, but she arguably was at the center of the most important sequence of the game.

[Robbins: Stokes’ Stock & Confidence Rising]

With 4:36 left and the Liberty clinging to a 78-76 led, Stokes blocked a 3-point attempt by Storm star Breanna Stewart. Nine seconds later, Stokes got great position in the post and forced Stewart into picking up her sixth foul.

Stewart left the game with 23 points and 10 rebounds, creating a huge void for Seattle.

“Everyone stepped up at a certain point in this game,’’ Stokes said. “That just happened to be my kind of moment you could say.’’

CANADIAN FINE MIST

Rookie Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe had career-highs with 10 points and six rebounds. NR-E, who played at Simon Fraser in Canada and played for the Canadian National team, caught Laimbeer’s eye early in camp. The players quickly caught on.

[Robbins: Raincock-Ekunwe Wrote Her Own Story]

“When I first saw her play, I thought she was a young Nneka Ogwumike,’’ star Tina Charles said.

The 6-foot-2, 174-pound Ogwumike was the 2016 WNBA MVP having led the Los Angeles Sparks to the 2016 title. Raincock-Ekunwe is 6-foot-2, 175. She’s been a post player most of her career, but has vastly improved her outside shooting as she looks to transition to small forward.

“We all said at the start she had the physical tools to be a player in this league,’’ Laimbeer said. “She listens so well and she implements whatever you tell her to. It’s just a matter of her understanding what the league’s about learning more every day.

“Wait ’til you see her start shooting more from the perimeter. You’re going to go, ‘Ooh, look at that.’’’

SUGAR GETS BITTER

Sugar Rodgers established herself last season as one of the league’s top shooters. This season she’s adding a defensive nastiness to her game.

Rodgers was the principle defender on Sami Whitcomb, who made 6-of-8 threes in Seattle’s win against New York earlier this season. On Sunday, Whitcomb scored five points on 1-of-4 shooting on 3s.

She also jumped out on Jewell Loyd with seconds left in the first half and blocked a jumper, allowing the Liberty to take a 43-40 lead to the halftime locker room.

Rodgers tied Tina Charles for the team-high with 21 points and tied Stokes with three blocked shots. She led the Liberty with five assists and four steals.

“Sugar Rodgers is growing right before our eyes,’’ Charles said. “You’ve seen what she can do on the offensive end. Now she’s taking things a lot more personal on the defensive end.’’

QUEENS BEE

Charles is one of the top five players in the league. She posted her 133rd career double-double (21 points; 14 rebounds) against Seattle. She was named the WNBA Player of the Week in the Eastern Conference for a record 23rd time, surpassing Tamika Catchings for the most ever.

In leading the Liberty to a 2-0 week, Charles led the Eastern Conference in rebounding (14.5 rpg), and ranked third in scoring (19.5 ppg). When she won league MVP honors in 2012, Charles averaged 18 points and 10.5 boards. The Queens native is averaging 20.4 points and 9.3 rebounds.

What she’s doing behind the scenes – working with Stokes, creating the team narrative, leading with words and actions – is just as impressive.

[Robbins: Charles Embracing New Leadership Role]

When asked what she saw in this recent home swing that makes her most pleased, Charles gave a glimpse into how the team has made strides. It starts with playing for the next play.

“Knowing the difference between a moment and when something is going to last,’’ Charles said. “When Seattle was going on its run, we said, ‘It’s just a moment. We’re not going to dwell on it. Let’s get a stop and a score.’ And eventually, it turned around for us.’’

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

In the Storm’s 87-81 come-from-behind win over the Liberty on May 26 in Seattle, Whitcomb came off the bench to score a career-high 22 points on 6-of-8 shooting on 3s.

When asked the difference between that loss and Sunday’s win, Laimbeer said: “They didn’t have one player go off on us, making ungodly shots.”