Sunday, August 20, 2017

Defensive lockdown and strong second half helps Liberty clinch playoff berth, defeat Minnesota

Madison Square Garden scoreboard tells story as Liberty clinched playoff berth win 70-61 victory over Minnesota on Sunday. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- As the final buzzer sounded, signifying the New York Liberty having put win No. 17 in the books; with the team on the short end one of the league elite in the Minnesota Lynx, the Madison Square Garden public address announcer proclaimed the 70-61 victory as one that clinched a playoff spot for the Liberty. In the giddiness of the moment the promise of champagne was mentioned.

Getting there is job one. The Liberty, though a 17-12 team in the midst of a five-game win streak, are not along for the ride or mention of the postseason on their website. They have bigger things in mind. The first order of the day was withstanding the challenge of the 22-5 Lynx.

In the early going, Minnesota; not concerned about being on the road, was the aggressor. Their transition and perimeter game staked them to an eight-point lead after a quarter. Defensively, they were shutting down the Liberty’s primary option, Tina Charles. The second quarter saw the Liberty step it up a bit on the offensive end, albeit not enough to please Bill Laimbeer. The coach thought his team was fortunate to be in a two-possession game only trailing by five. He spent the better part of halftime not on play calling, but a simple challenge.

“We lacked energy,” Laimbeer said, “like we were here to play a game instead of trying to win one.”

The second half was the turnaround. The Liberty held Minnesota to eleven third quarter points. New York took the lead late in the third quarter and never looked back. It was the best of both defense, a Liberty trademark, and offense. Laimbeer went with a three-guard offense, receiving favorable results. The backcourt opened things up for Charles, who finished with a team-high 19 points.

“Tina is our horse, we know that,” Laimbeer said. “Tonight, I got to play three guards and it gave more opportunity. The extra time helped both (Epiphanny) Prince and Sugar (Rodgers).” Prince scored 15 points, Rodgers added 10, and Bria Hartley; the third of the triumvirate, had nine points while handing out six assists. The defense limited Sylvia Fowles, a 20 point-per-game scorer, to a quiet seven on the afternoon.

“Our defense locked in, especially the second half,” Shavonte Zellous said. Maya Moore of the Lynx was the game-high scorer with 22 points, but as Zellous said, “Maya is Maya. You will not completely shut her down, but we made her work for what she got.” Now the focus is on the playoffs, using the final five regular season games as a springboard.  

“We hope to improve on everything, which is standard coach-speak,” said Laimbeer. “We know who we are. We are solid across the board, have offensive weapons and play good defense. Now, it is mental toughness. We are expected to make the playoffs, now there are bigger things out there. We want to not just make it, but do things in the playoffs. We are in a good spot knowing we can compete home or away. Now, we need to understand how to win mentally. I’ve been down the roads as a player and coach. It becomes a whole ’nother animal. Minnesota wins games due to mental toughness. We are learning.”

“It is a long season,” Rodgers said in the Liberty locker room. “Now, you must keep your focus,” she added in reference to what Laimbeer said. “The playoffs, you have your opponent, you focus on that only. Everything else is blocked out. You are just concentrating on basketball and moving on in the playoffs.”

Zellous also noted about the long season that for many, it starts prior to the WNBA opener.

“For many of us, we compete overseas,” she said. ‘Then you have the WNBA season. It can be very demanding.” She, too, reiterated a lot of the mental gymnastics Laimbeer mentioned. The veteran guard sees a difference this season.

“Last season, we kind of coasted to finish the year,” she said. The Liberty were then eliminated at home by Phoenix in a single-elimination playoff game. “This is a new season. We have a group that is together, and we are competing and getting better every time out.”

An ideal situation for a team with championship aspirations.

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