When the New York Liberty were at their lowest point of the season, it took a statement of affirmation from one of the greatest players in NBA history to help bring about a stunning turnaround.
Team president Isiah Thomas paid a visit to the Liberty locker room following Friday night’s loss to the Chicago Sky in The Garden.
It was the team’s first home game since a grueling 12-day road swing that saw the Liberty drop 3-of-4 games. The expectation was that New York would get back on track playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Instead, the Liberty lost, 78-68, to drop to 8-9 on the season. It was their fifth loss in six games. Enter Thomas.
“He said we need to learn to have fun when we’re playing,’’ swingman Rebecca Allen. “It’s a simple thing but it’s amazing how that changes the energy and the vibe among the group.
“So I guess that’s what we did [Sunday]. We played fast. We played team ball and it was exciting and it was good to watch.’’
The Liberty, from start to finish, dismantled a depleted Washington Mystics team, 85-55, at The Garden for its largest margin of victory this season. The Liberty scored 30 points in the first quarter, its highest of the season.
All 11 Liberty players scored and all had a positive plus/minus rating as New York held Washington to 27.7 percent shooting (18-of-65). Washington (11-9) played without star Elena Delle Donne (ankle) and guard Taylor Hill (knee).
The win moved the Liberty (9-9) back to .500 with their last game before the All-Star break on Wednesday (11 a.m.; MSG Network) against the Connecticut Sun (12-8) in The Garden. The Sun is in first place in the Eastern Conference.
Putting together back-to-back home wins would be huge for the Liberty, which embarks on a five-game road trip after the break. Two of those games are against the two best teams in the WNBA, the Minnesota Lynx and L.A. Sparks.
Since the Liberty lost Brittany Boyd (torn Achilles tendon) in the second game of the season, Laimbeer has been trying to find the best starting five. He might have found it with Hartley, Tina Charles, Kia Vaughn, Shavonte Zellous and Epiphanny Prince.
Prince was playing the point, but is better at shooting guard. Rodgers is one of those consummate pros willing to play any role to help the team win. She scored 14 points on 3-of-6 shooting on 3’s.
Hartley was the catalyst. She continued to push the pace, finishing with a team-high 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting with four rebounds, and one assist, steal and a blocked shot.
“During the losing streak we were kind of stressed and pressing and everything,’’ said Hartley. “I think our mentality was just to go out there, have fun and play free, play like the little kid in you that’s playing in your backyard.’’
Bria Hartley speaks with Rosalyn Gold-Onwude after scoring a game-high 15 points in the Liberty's 85-55 win over the Mystics.
A 30-point win produces a lot of positives but these two aspects stand out:
The Liberty got just six points from Charles, who is averaging 20.9 points per game, third in the WNBA, and won going away. Charles, who was plus 21, also had six boards, three assists and a blocked shot.
She did not have to carry the offense, which has been the case all season. In the loss to the Sky, she had 23 points and a season-high 19 rebounds. It wasn’t enough.
“Everyone in this locker room got into the WNBA for a reason,’’ Charles said. “They just have to keep that in their mind, that they’re here for a reason. They made the team for a reason. They went through training camp.
“And we all trust in them, myself and the coaching staff. So I’m happy to see everybody elevating their game.’’
After jumping out to a 30-14 first-quarter lead, the Liberty never allowed the Mystics to threaten. Laimbeer, who said after Friday night’s loss it felt like the staff were pulling teeth, found no cavities today.
“I’m more pleased with the fact that a lot of players got some time, got a chance to play and gained some confidence,’’ Laimbeer said. “We talk about we need all 11 players, and even Brittany on the bench spying on me all game long.
“We need everybody. And the more confidence builders you can get them, it’s great.’’