With one minute and 32 seconds left in what would turn out to be the Liberty’s most impressive win of the season, a 96-80 knockout of the Eastern Conference-leading Connecticut Sun on July 19th at The Garden, all five New York starters were on the bench, a smile on their faces.
Such a sight seemed improbable after the Liberty returned from a 12-day road trip and proceeded to drop a 78-68 home decision to the last place Chicago Sky on July 14th.
That loss dropped New York to 8-9. Those preseason expectations of playing for the franchise’s first-ever WNBA title seemed as far fetched as a Congressional agreement on a new healthcare insurance plan.
“That was the low point,’’ acknowledged Shavonte Zellous. “We weren’t having any fun on the court.”
After that game, team president Isiah Thomas visited the locker room and told the players to remember to have fun.
Sugar Rodgers, a first-time All Star, made those moves seamless by accepting a new role as the sixth man. Rodgers isn’t the first Liberty player to sacrifice for the good of the team but when one of the league’s top 3-point shooters doesn’t make waves, it sends a message.
After the victory over Connecticut, Tina Charles, who scored 28 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, was asked what message she had for her teammates before they went their separate ways for the WNBA All-Star break.
“I just told them to be safe and enjoy themselves.’’ said Charles, a Queens native and former Christ the King star.
From ‘No Fun,’ to ‘Enjoy Themselves,’ in five days.
Tina Charles speaks with Rosalyn Gold-Onwude after recording 28 points and 17 rebounds in the Liberty's win over the Sun.
“We know we’re a good team,’’ Charles said. “At times it’s just we still have to figure it out.
“A lot of teams are able to figure it out at the beginning of the season, they have experience like in Minnesota and L.A. and then you have teams that are still figuring it out along the way and that’s where we are.
“I think everybody’s being very professional. Everybody’s getting better in their position and their role for this team. We’re just starting to click.
“So for me the position where we’re at, I’m happy we were able to handle that adversity. I’m happy we were able to respond. We didn’t kick ourselves. We’re moving.’’
Charles and Rodgers moved on to the All Star game were both acquitted themselves very well.
Charles scored eight points on 2-of-4 shooting on 3’s and had two rebounds and two assists in just 14-plus minutes. Rodgers scored 10 points and had three rebounds in 19 minutes in her inaugural All-Star game. She also took 2nd in the 3-point shooting contest.
Bottom line: Charles got some much-needed rest and Rodgers got the affirmation that she’s one of the new wave WNBA stars, a far cry from when she averaged 1.9 points and played just 7.6 minutes as a rookie with the Minnesota Lynx.
“I’ve always believed that I was a star,’’ Rodgers said. “I told Bill and people that I’m a star. Now I’m really a star.’’
The Liberty (10-9) resume play Tuesday night with a huge test at the 1st-place Minnesota Lynx. The team arrived in the Twin Cities on Sunday and practiced Monday.
Laimbeer had some concern about how the break would affect the team. The last two games, an 85-55 blowout of Washington and the rout of the Sun, saw New York post its best back-to-back performances of the season.
“The structure that we have right now is good for us,’’ Laimbeer said. “We’re pushing the pace better. We’re getting easier baskets. We have good role definition.
“We’re not fully there. I think they enjoy what we have right now and it’s been showing in the way we’ve been playing.”
With 15 games remaining in the season, here’s a look at what would help the Liberty, currently sixth in the overall standings, move into a Top 4 playoff slot and receive a first-round bye.
1. Get the Queens Bee Some Rest
The competition for league MVP has been whittled down to Charles, Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles and reigning MVP Nneka Ogwumike.
Charles is second in scoring (20.5) and rebounding (9.9). Ogwumike is third in scoring (20.3). Fowles (20.1) is fourth. Fowles is third in rebounding (9.8) while Ogwumike (7.9) is 10th.
Here’s the rub. Charles is playing 33.2 minutes per game, second in the league. Fowles is at 29.9 and Ogwumike is at 31.6.
That might not seem like a significant number but look at this way. Over a 34-game schedule, Charles will play 112.2 more minutes than Fowles, or almost three more games.
As well conditioned as Charles is, the Liberty need to reduce her minutes. The game plan can’t change. Establishing Charles early is the first order of offensive business. The season goes through her. It will go better if she’s rested.
2. Dynamic Trio
Epiphanny Prince and Shavonte Zellous are the two best players on the team at creating their own shot and attacking the paint from the perimeter.
Rodgers is the best shooter as evidenced by her taking second in the WNBA All Star 3-point shooting contest.
When two of the three score in double figures, the Liberty is 5-4. Prince and Zellous are developing a feel for when each player is hot and in attack mode. Rodgers is adjusting to her new role off the bench.
Come playoff time, it would be a great advantage to have at least two of the three scoring in double figures on a consistent basis. It takes the load off Charles and makes the Liberty harder to defend.
3. Bench Marks
The loss of starting point guard Brittany Boyd in the second game of the season sent ripple effects throughout the first half of the season.
As Laimbeer tried different combinations it not only altered the starting lineup but the bench composition. Assuming there are no significant injuries, the rotation should stabilize in the second half of the season, which means the players coming off the bench should know their roles and develop some consistency. They’ll have to.
In seven of the nine Liberty losses, the bench failed to outscore the opponent. Six times the bench was outscored and in one loss bench scoring was equal.
Laimbeer’s decision to bring Rodgers off the bench could be the difference maker. With her 3-point shooting and overall offensive game, she can be the Jamal Crawford of the WNBA.
4. Get the Point
Boyd’s injury might have derailed some other teams. But the Liberty’s depth – a credit to Thomas and Laimbeer – is why the team was able to overcome the loss of its starting point guard.
Laimbeer first turned to Bria Hartley, who was four months removed from the birth of her son and some nine months since she last played in a regular-season game. Naturally, there was an acclimation period.
Laimbeer turned to Prince when she returned from Europe after playing in the 2017 FIBA EuroBasket Tournament. Prince, however, is more of a shooting guard than a point guard and the Liberty went 1-4 with her as the lead guard.
Laimbeer then went back to Hartley. The team looked the best it has in the first half of the season, beating the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun by an average of 23 points.
“For me, it was more of a confidence thing,’’ said Hartley. “Physically I felt good, but when you don’t play in a game in such a long time, you lose a little of that confidence. I feel like I’ve got that back.’’
In addition to Hartley, the Liberty caught a huge break. They waived top draft choice Lindsay Allen after training camp and shockingly, no WNBA team picked up the former Notre Dame All-American.
New York resigned her and ‘L.A. Cruisen’ gets better with every game. Her plus/minus rating of +34 is fourth best on the team and the Liberty is 7-0 when she has a plus rating. If Hartley and Allen continue their solid play, the Liberty get the point.
5. Garden of Dreams
The Liberty is 7-4 at home and 3-5 on the road. They begin the second half of the season on a five-game road trip in which they will face the two best teams in the league – Minnesota and L.A. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the Liberty will play six of their final 10 games at the World’s Most Famous Arena. The Liberty is averaging 82.5 points at home and 74.1 away. They’re allowing 78 points per game at home and 81.3 on the road.
In between starting the road trip in Minnesota and ending it in L.A., the Liberty face the three worst teams in the WNBA. The Indiana Fever, Chicago Sky and San Antonio Stars have a combined record of 19-44.
If the Liberty go 3-2 on the trip and take care of business at home, they have a good chance of seizing one of the top four seeds in the playoffs.
That would make the dream of winning the franchise’s first ever WNBA title a little more attainable.