The New York Liberty hadn’t won a playoff game since 2015 before Wednesday’s 98-91 first-round victory over the reigning champion Chicago Sky. Now, they’re going for the sweep. They’re looking to make it two-and-done to advance to the second round for a semifinal matchup against the winner of the series between Connecticut and Dallas.
Even if no one believed they’d win Game 1 in the first place.
The Liberty were heavy underdogs and trailed the Sky by six with 3:32 to go in the fourth quarter before going on a ferocious 13-0 run to steal Game 1 off Chicago’s home floor. If they can do it again, they will advance to the second round, and if they lose, they will host the sudden-death Game 3 at Barclays Center early next week.
“We can try to sit here and be like, ‘We don’t read what the media said about our team matching up with Chicago,’ but we have [read the stories],” said Liberty guard Crystal Dangerfield on a Zoom conference call with reporters on Friday. “We’ve seen people say that we’ll just get swept, or it’ll be in Chicago in three. But we were taking that challenge to heart. You saw it, the fight to come back with three minutes left. And we feel like we have a good shot.”
Marine Johannes kicked off the Liberty run with an over-the-head, no-look pass to a rolling Natasha Howard. The Sky never found their footing after the play, which has already been cemented as one of the most pivotal moments in Liberty history: not only did the pass kickstart the break that brought the New York its first playoff victory in over six years, but Johannes added style points, flinging the ball over her head and in-between two defenders to get to its target.
“That pass,” Dangerfield said, sitting next to Johannes on Friday’s Zoom availability. “She’s over here, smirking at it. It’s really cool. … She made a shot today in practice: We chose to shoot off of a flare off the wrong foot and she threw it up and it just went in. So she’s a special player.”
It’s going to take more than a special play from a special player for the Liberty to pull off the unlikely. The Sky finished first in the Eastern Conference with a 26-10 record. They have a loaded roster featuring hometown hero Candace Parker and five other players who averaged double figures this season, including team scoring leader Kahleah Copper.
They also have the experience factor: Chicago won eight playoff games to only two losses last year en route to winning the championship.
This year, however, is different. In years past, the first and second rounds were sudden-death rounds: Winner advances, loser goes home. This year, Round 1 is a best of three series, and the Liberty just took Game 1.
“(We have to) limit their paint points,” Dangerfield said. “Our ball screen defense wasn’t where it needed to be, and they have a couple of great players that execute their ball screen offense really well. So we’re gonna have to be able to limit them there. I think they said that they had 17 transition points. So we know to limit that we have cut that down. If we cut that down to under 10. We’ll be in pretty good shape.”
The Liberty also want to continue to push the pace, as they know facing a defense that hasn’t fully set yet is key to getting easy, early buckets.
“(That will be) huge,” Dangerfield added. “Whichever team can jump out early, I think it’s gonna set the tone for the game, but that (pace) is something that we feel like we can control. Run them, make sure that we’re limiting them, like I said, in transition, where they just get out and run and sprint the floor. We have some pretty fast players who can pass the ball up the floor. Anybody can bring it up. So I think we’ll be good in that aspect.”
It was less than two months ago that the "Unfinished Business" documentary highlighting the Liberty’s pursuit of a WNBA championship that evaded them in four trips to the Finals in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2002. In 1999, Theresa Weatherspoon hit a bank shot from behind half court to win Game 2 against the Houston Comets.
Fast forward more than two decades, and these Liberty are picking up — or so they hope — where the Liberty of old left off, and Johannes has a one-handed, over-the-top pass some are saying could go down as one of the biggest plays in Liberty history since it sparked the run that ended a long standing playoff victory drought.
The job isn’t close to finished, as another victory only moves the Liberty into another series they’ll be considered underdogs. For now, it seems the Liberty feel they can finish the business their predecessors started.
“The way our season is going, especially after having that documentary come out, it’s kind of poetic,” Dangerfield said. “We haven’t won this franchise hasn’t won a game since 2015. a playoff game since 2015, and then coming out (against the) defending champion (to) win that first game.”