Team Meeting Helps Get The Liberty Back On Track

Six games into a WNBA season is not the time to panic.

But if you’re a Liberty team with championship aspirations playing in the hot pot known as New York, and through five games the record was 2-3 with warning signs popping up like construction sites in midtown, it can be a time for concern.

Warning Sign 1: Starting point guard Brittany Boyd was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon suffered in the second game.

Warning Sign 2: Epiphanny Prince and Kia Vaughn are playing in the 2017 FIBA EuroBasket tournament in the Czech Republic. Both will miss most of June.

Warning Sign 3: In the last two losses, the Liberty managed a meager 11 points in the fourth quarter. At the first sign of adversity in both games, the Liberty failed to respond.

After a 90-75 loss to the L.A. Sparks last Tuesday, coach Bill Laimbeer held a team meeting Wednesday that lasted for almost two hours. Every player spoke.

If New York does advance to the WNBA Finals, Liberty fans should circle May 31 as the day that turned the season.

“I started the conversation and the players picked up on the conversation,’’ Laimbeer said. “We’re all in this together. It’s a collective thing for all of us. There’s no, coaches over here and players over here. Or this group of players over here and this group of players over there.’’

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The session was cathartic. Players took ownership of their roles and vowed to hold each other accountable.

Since that meeting, the Liberty have won back-to-back games for the first time since July of last season.

The response to the meeting has carried over in grander fashion than Laimbeer or any player could have envisioned.

“Everybody got a chance to speak,’’ said guard Sugar Rodgers. “‘What do you need me to do? What is it that the team wants from me? What is it that you see that I bring?’ Then I say what I bring to the table.

“And we hold you accountable.”

[Watch: Season of Hope & Optimism For Liberty]

The back-to-back wins are the most obvious rewards from the meeting but the improvement in almost every player’s game, the intensity with which each is playing, has been nothing short of remarkable.

Kiah Stokes, who Laimbeer blasted as being out of shape after the season opener and has ridden her hard even since, posted back-to-back double-doubles for the first time in her career as the Liberty defeated the Dallas Wings, 93-89, and the Phoenix Mercury, 88-72.

In the Dallas win, Stokes posted a career-high 15 rebounds. In the blowout of Phoenix, she had a career-high 23 points. Stokes might have gotten more out of the meeting than anyone.

“I think it helped a lot,’’ Stokes said. “Some people had a lot of stuff to get off their chest. They just put it out there, ‘This is what we expect of you. This is what we need you to do What do you need from us?’

“It was just a very open environment. And I think it helped.’’

Shavonte Zellous, who had a total of 22 points in the first five games, scored 48 (27 and 21) in the last two. It marks the first time in her nine-year WNBA career that Zellous had back-to-back 20-point games.

“The team depends on what I can do,’’ Zellous said. “The coaching staff depends on me. So, just continue to play my game and continue to do the things I’ve been doing and hopefully it can lead to wins.”

Bria Hartley, who gave birth to her son four months ago, had scored a total of two points and played an average of 11.5 minutes in the first five games, with a high of 18 minutes.

With Boyd lost for the season and Prince in Europe, Hartley moved into the starting lineup two games ago. She’s averaged 31 minutes, scoring 17 points.

[Robbins: Hartley Balancing Motherhood & Career]

“We’re all in it together,’’ said Laimbeer. “We knew we were having two people go away and with losing Brittany Boyd it’s even more imperative that we all stick together and listen to each other both on and off the court.

“It was a very good, positive environment and it’s carried over.’’

After the LA loss, Laimbeer expressed his disappointment in how the team had failed to respond to adversity. In the Phoenix win, the Liberty led 21-7 before the Mercury cut it to 43-41 with 1:28 left in the first half.

This time New York (4-3) responded to the adversity and methodically broke open the game. Adversity arrived and the Liberty didn’t leave the building.

“To be able to handle adversity, exactly,’’ Tina Charles said. “Like I said, just to know that there are moments (in a game) not for us to dwell on it, not for us to get frustrated with each other, but just to always think about the next possession.

“And I think you saw a little bit of it in the last game versus Dallas. Dallas was up five or six and we stayed within ourselves. We stayed poised.’’

Charles has been at the center of this improvement. Her career-high 36 points in the Dallas win was huge. But she’s been working with Stokes in practice, building up her teammate’s confidence.

[Robbins: Charles Embracing New Leadership Role]

The Liberty was on the verge of becoming overly dependent on Charles on the offensive end. Against Phoenix, she finished with 16 points, third on the team. Stokes led with 23 followed by 21 by Zellous.

It wasn’t an accident.

“Our best player, Tina Charles, said, ‘I want you to shoot the ball. Don’t just rely on me,’’’ Stokes said. “When you’ve got your best player telling you to shoot the ball, I mean that should give you confidence right there.’’

Stokes was quick to point out that the season is young. Winning two straight is nice but if the Liberty think they have it all figured out, she cautioned they are wrong.

What is clear is that Laimbeer’s feel to hold such a meeting was spot on.

“And then our next couple of practices before our last game were great,’’ Stokes said. “We went back to having fun. Everyone had a newfound energy, a desire to get better. The meeting was just what we needed.’’