The Washington Mystics play the New York Liberty in the first game of a best-of-three first round playoff series in the 2023 WNBA postseason. The game will be at Barclays Center at 7:30 p.m. ET which you can watch on ESPN2.
To help us get a better feel for the playoffs, we had a chance to talk to Brian Fleurantin, who covers much of the Liberty’s coverage on the site. Our Q&A is below.
BF: The Liberty have added three superstars in Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot this season. How have their arrivals accelerated NY’s offense?
Brian Fleurantin: I think having the new additions allowed the Liberty to become an even more diverse offense. Early on in the season, a lot of the offense was Breanna Stewart having to save the day and make something happen. However, as the season progressed, they were able to find those driving lanes, work the ball into the paint for Jonquel Jones, and make extra passes to go from good shots to great shots.
With Sabrina Ionescu being able to shoot from anywhere on the court, it stretches defenses to its absolute limit and thus makes it really hard for opponents to double players in the post. And staying with Ionescu for a bit, when she drives to the basket, she’s been more decisive and intentional about getting to her spots and working off of that. She would overthink earlier in the season and that led to turnovers and rushed attempts at the rim. Now, she’s been more assertive and is a lot better at finishing in traffic.
What’s also helped the Liberty offense is that they’ve gotten a LOT better at incorporating Betnijah Laney into their attack. Of all the players who had to adapt and make changes, Laney had the most to do as she became more of a spot up shooter in the early part of the season. Sandy Brondello has made it a point to find her when teams try to hide their weakest defenders on her, and Laney’s ability to post up and score in the midrange keeps defenses honest.
BF: The Liberty wasn’t particularly strong on defense in 2022, but Jones certainly seems to have helped boost their defense from 7th in 2022 to 3rd this year. How has NY become a better defensive team beyond Jones’ addition?
Brian: A lot of it is a result of increased communication. They do a lot of switching and are able to make sure everybody is where they need to be. The starters have been able to iron things out early when they played a bunch of close games, and as they got stronger and more comfortable, we saw the results shine through.
They’ve also played with a lot more physicality throughout the season. When they lost to the Dallas Wings at home after the All Star break, Dallas pushed them around and the team vowed to not let something like that happen again. Since then, they’ve been tougher, more assertive on the glass, and intentional with their coverages. A lot of that is due to the work Betnijah Laney does when she starts and when Kayla Thornton comes in off the bench. KT in particular allows them to play all sorts of lineups because she can credibly guard three positions on the court.
This possession from their last matchup against the Connecticut Sun really highlighted just how awesome they’ve been on that side of the ball.
Forgot to tweet this earlier, but here's how the Liberty have decided to defend tonight: pic.twitter.com/1F0gQZnaF3— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) September 2, 2023
Back in August, I asked Sabrina Ionescu about the improved defense and she cited the team chemistry continuing to get better and also added:
I feel like now, just as in sync as we are offensively, is where we’re at defensively as well, and just understanding where we need to be, how we can help one another, and kind of being able to do it without communicating. Before, we had to really talk through everything on defense because we didn’t know tendencies. We didn’t know what the coaches wanted us in and what defensive schemes we were in and our principles. But now, we’re just so locked in on both ends of the floor. And if we can do that for 40 minutes, we’re just a really tough team to beat and I think we’ve shown that in spurts.
And so that’s really what’s been exciting is we haven’t even reached the potential that we know we can play out every single night because we’re still ironing through some of that stuff. But, I think we’ve been able to show glimpses of what it’s like when we’re locked in defensively and it’s been really exciting to be able to come in and like stop teams, not only outscore them.
And it also helps to have Stewie who can guard everybody on the court!
BF: Which individual matchups will the Liberty have the most trouble with in this playoff series?
Brian: Hmm, that’s a good question. I think Brittney Sykes will create a lot of trouble for whoever she’s guarding. When the Liberty aren’t going well, they get a bit turnover happy and that could be trouble when Sykes is on the court.
BF: Who wins the playoff series?
Brian: Liberty in three. I think the Mystics are going to be tough, but the Liberty’s success on the glass will do them wonders in this matchup. Jonquel Jones gave the Mystics a ton of trouble in the past two meetings and if Shakira Austin is less than 100 percent or out injured, I don’t see Washington having enough size to challenge her in the interior.