Fueled on 2015's shortcomings, Liberty get another shot at Lynx
Last year, it looked as if New York and Minnesota were on their way to meeting in the WNBA Finals. They had the best records -- the Liberty were 23-11 in 2015, and the Lynx 22-12 -- and the matchup would have pitted two MVPs (and former UConn teammates who were No. 1 draft picks), Tina Charles and Maya Moore. And, of course, two coaches who'd worked together to win three championships in Detroit.
But the Liberty's tank went dry in the Eastern Conference finals, denying coach Bill Laimbeer the chance to attempt to stop Cheryl Reeve's Lynx from winning a third title.
What might have been still lingers a bit with the Liberty, who will try to hand the 5-0 Lynx their first defeat of 2016 when the teams face off Tuesday at Madison Square Garden (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).
The Liberty aren't dwelling on last year in a bad way; rather, it's motivation for what they know they'll need to do to go further in 2016. The Lynx didn't take any steps back this year. If anything, they seem to be a little stronger.
So the task for New York -- and every other challenger to Minnesota -- remains daunting.
"One free throw here, one free throw there, and we're 4-0 instead of 2-2," Laimbeer said. "But we put ourselves in that position by not executing offensively. It's something we really have to work on getting better at."
The Liberty lost by seven points to still-unbeaten Los Angeles on May 21, and then by six points on May 24 to Atlanta, which has surprised most people with its 5-1 record.
The Liberty have not played since facing the Dream, so they've had a week to practice. Since Epiphanny Prince is out with a knee injury, Sugar Rodgers has filled in as a consistent big scorer at guard. At 16.5 PPG, she has doubled her scoring average from last season and become more efficient.
But that still leaves the Liberty with just two reliable double-digit scorers: Charles (league-high 23.5 PPG) and Rodgers. Laimbeer wants someone else to emerge as a bigger third threat. There are multiple possibilities, including Shavonte Zellous or fellow guard Lindsay Harding, both of whom signed with New York as free agents.
Laimbeer even said that Amanda Zahui B, who New York obtained in a trade with Dallas, could potentially blossom into a higher-volume scorer if she earns more playing time. Thus far, the second-year center is averaging just 3.0 points in 7.5 minutes per game.
Laimbeer sounds a little more confident about the answers on defense, and that's one of the things the Lynx are most concerned about, too.
"Anytime you have Tina Charles on a roster, I would point to that as one of the most challenging things we'll face," Reeve said. "And always, when you're talking about the Liberty, you're talking about the challenges of solving their defense."
The Lynx have four veterans all averaging double figures in scoring: Moore (21.8), Sylvia Fowles (14.8), Seimone Augustus (12.0) and Lindsay Whalen (10.2). The Lynx went to their bench and then had some trouble putting away Indiana on Friday, winning 74-71 after leading by 23 at halftime. But those are the kinds of "First World" problems Minnesota has: not winning by a comfortable enough margin.
The Lynx have won three of the last five WNBA titles, yet they still seem to have maintained their hunger.
"For us, each season we just want to be great," said Reeve, who is in her seventh year in Minnesota. "This team in particular. We're looking at an opportunity to have the best team on paper since we've been here.
"That's what we said to our group: 'We've been really good, but it looks like we got better. So how do we capitalize on that?' We have this really good team, and we want to make the most of it."
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