This New York Liberty high-rise wasn't quite finished in nine months

ByAlexa Philippou ESPN logo
Thursday, October 19, 2023

NEW YORK -- A desolate Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot sat beside coach Sandy Brondello on the podium following the New York Liberty's 70-69 Game 4 loss to the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals, ending their season short of fulfilling their championship aspirations.

They didn't offer profound insights.

Then Stewart and Vandersloot were asked to describe their level of disappointment.

"High," Stewart said, before raising her eyebrows and shrugging a little.

Vandersloot nodded, her gaze drifting away from the person asking the question, before responding softly, "Yeah, it's very high."

For most teams bringing in three new starters, a Finals appearance would be considered a successful year. Especially considering the Liberty had not been to the championship series in over two decades, nor had won a Finals game since the 20th century.

But Stewart, Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones arrived to Brooklyn in February, and the Liberty never backed away from explicitly stating their ultimate goal for the 2023 campaign: winning a championship.

By that standard, New York fell short in 2023. But what might sting the most for the Liberty is that they didn't play their best basketball in the Finals. For the majority of the series, they looked like a shell of the team that had beaten the Aces three times in August and was the league's best squad after the All-Star break.

When asked about her team's discrepancy in play from August to the present, Brondello said after Game 2, "We haven't taken steps forward. We haven't shown it." While the Liberty did play more like themselves in a 14-point Game 3 win, Game 4's crushing defeat only reinforced Brondello's earlier notion.

Fast-forward to Wednesday: "Credit to Vegas. They were down, they found a way and we fought, but it wasn't our best game today," Brondello said.

Game 4 -- on their home court at Barclays Center, no less -- seemed like a prime opportunity for New York to even the series and force a Game 5, given the absences of Las Vegas starting point guard Chelsea Gray and starting center Kiah Stokes because of injury. The Aces had to turn to reserves Cayla George and Sydney Colson, who saw limited time in the regular season and postseason, for extended minutes

And the Liberty looked like they were well on their way to sending this series back to Las Vegas after the first 10 minutes, when they outscored the Aces 23-13.

But Las Vegas stayed within striking distance before winning the second and third quarters by a combined 13 points. It led by two going into the fourth, and did just enough in the fourth to ward off a Liberty comeback attempt. It wasn't a pretty style of play (the Aces "junking it up" defensively, said Stewart), but it sure was effective. Wednesday marked New York's first loss this season when leading by double digits after the first quarter.

After being outscored by 45 points across Games 1 and 2, Brondello and the team spoke about needing to play with pride, stay aggressive, compete harder and stick together. The coach stressed that the breakdowns of those games -- in which they allowed the Aces to score 203 combined points -- had more to do with mentality and mindset than anything, and that the team had to respond with actions rather than feelings.

"I think they were just throwing whatever defense they had at us and try and make sure it was ugly," said Stewart, a two-time Finals MVP with Seattle. "Sometimes we lost our flow and our ball movement but confident behind all the shots that we got, and they just didn't go in."

No Finals run is complete without the best players stepping up in the biggest moments. And while Stewart, the 2023 league MVP, has made a career of stepping up, she didn't Wednesday, extending what was a difficult postseason stretch for her. Her 38% effective field goal percentage in the playoffs was the lowest of any 10-game stretch of her WNBA career. She went 3-for-17 Wednesday, the worst field goal percentage in a playoff game in her career and the worst clip by a former MVP in an elimination loss in playoff history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Between Stewart and 2021 MVP winner Jones (3-for-8 from the field), New York's MVPs went a combined 6-for-25 (0-for-4 from 3) in Game 4. The latter, playing in her third Finals series, had been key to the Liberty being as competitive as they were in the series up to that point.

The Liberty's starting lineup -- Stewart, Vandersloot, Jones, Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney -- finished the Finals minus-14 on court together, whereas they were a league-best plus-207 during the regular season. New York was one shot away from forcing a Game 5, but all series long, it was clear which team had more poise and knew how to keep their foot on the gas, and which was still working to develop those traits.

As well as New York came together in a short amount of time, it was difficult not to compare the team that was freshly assembled in the offseason to the one hoisting the trophy. Las Vegas had already spent several seasons battling, winning a championship, together. Wilson, Young, Plum and Gray had all played together in Las Vegas since at least 2021 (the first three even longer) and had even suffered crushing playoff disappointments before breaking through in 2022 under Becky Hammon.

Perhaps that is the silver lining for New York. They made the Finals despite having so many new players. They revitalized a Liberty fan base to a level not seen since the turn of the century. Now they have a year under their belts.

"I think the more time we spend together, the more chemistry we get, the more feel for each other and know how each other plays -- I think that that's one of [the areas of growth]," Brondello said.

Where does New York go from here? Vandersloot, Ionescu, Laney and Kayla Thornton are under contract for 2024, while Jones and Stewart are not. Neither has given the impression they were looking for a one-and-done situation in New York, but they are free agents nonetheless. Brondello spoke Wednesday of adding "the right pieces" around their core, but not knowing exactly what they need right now.

And even amid the angst in Stewart's and Vandersloot's voices following such a disappointing finish to an otherwise remarkable season, the end goal for New York will undoubtedly remain the same, the pursuit of franchise history still ever-clear.

"We're trying to build a championship team," said Vandersloot, who won her first championship with Chicago in 2021. "We'll try to do it again next year."

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