The New York Liberty defeated the Las Vegas Aces 87-73 in a dire game 3 of the WNBA Finals. In front of a record-breaking sellout crowd of 17,143, the Liberty handled business on both sides of the ball.
New York avoids elimination at home
Down 0-2 in the WNBA Finals, the New York Liberty knew they had one task on Sunday, and that was to win game 3. In front of their home crowd, they did so with grit, determination, and preposterous defense. With a 87-73 victory over the Aces, New York earned their first Finals win since September 1999, which was 24 years ago. Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello expressed the importance of not putting too much pressure on themselves, and letting emotions get the best of her team.
"It's all about action now," Brondello told the press. "It's not about emotions, and making sure we stay connected and committed---It's just us taking some pride, just go out there and play as hard as you can. Leave everything on the table, don't look back and say what if."
And with confidence, the Liberty did just that. New York started on a 11-2 run, in which Betnijah Laney tipped the ball in off a Breanna Stewart missed three. With the Barclays Center as loud as I've ever heard it, the Liberty were playing with poise. Unlike the first two games, New York were hitting their shots, including three-pointers made from Jonquel Jones. With the season on the line, New York switched up matchups, and improved vastly on transition defense.
The Liberty found their shot again
In the first ten minutes, the Liberty forced the Aces to turn the ball over 4 times, in which they responded with 6 fast break points. Spacing, along with fluid ball movement, and shot selection were all determinants in game 3. Their 13 made three-pointers tie a franchise post season record.
All five Liberty starters finished positive +/- on the floor, compared to the Aces, all negative. With the shots falling, Betnijah Laney finished with 12 points (5-8), Breanna Stewart with 20 points (8-16), and Courtney Vandersloot with 12 points (5-10). Less hesitant to shoot this game, Vandersloot started to acquire her confidence back. New York finished the game with 87 points on 33-63 (52.4 percent) field goal shooting, and 8-16 (50 percent) from three-point range. The leading team in three-point percentage, the Liberty have struggled greatly beyond the perimeter in the playoffs.
Sabrina Ionescu was the ultimate facilitator
Sab with the no-look dime to Stewie 😮💨 pic.twitter.com/N74pVHkEG5— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) October 15, 2023
Admitting the Liberty felt "defeated" after the first two games, Sabrina Ionescu simply stated her team "believes in one another."
"It's really easy after those first two games in Vegas to be defeated," Ionescu continued. "To come out tonight, and not play for anything in particular. To be able to see our response, us come together, believe in one another."
No team has ever come back from a 0-2 deficit to win a Championship in WNBA history.
With their backs against the wall, Ionescu admitted the Liberty have that "understanding that no team has ever done what they are trying to do now." "Why not us? " said Ionescu. "We believe in one another, we continue to put one foot in front of another, and understand it's all part of the process. We gotta come and protect home court on Wednesday as well."
Aggressive early on the offensive end, Ionescu was a key factor in distributing the ball. Her no look dimes were crisp and No.20 passed up several shots, instead creating easier baskets for her teammates. Both Ionescu and Jones connected on several occasions, especially with the pick and roll. In 35 minutes, Ionescu finished with 9 points, 11 assists, and 2 blocks, on 3-9 (33 percent) field goal shooting. Having struggled on both ends of the ball, Sabrina played as efficient as we've ever seen her defensively, especially on Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young. In this series, New York's backcourt has vastly struggled against Aces guards Jackie Young, Chelsea Gray, and Kelsey Plum in the series.
Chelsea Gray suffered a foot injury
With Plum consistent on offensive this series, #10 had another 20 + point night. New York's defensive shift played a monumental role in the decrease in production between Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young. Two players who torched the Liberty through games one and two, combined for 19 points, on 6-21 (28 percent) field goal shooting. Even worse, the two guards shot a total 1-6 from three-point range. Halfway through the fourth quarter, Chelsea Gray suffered a foot injury, which will keep her out of contention for game four. You never like to see injuries, especially when it comes to the big stage.
New York changed their defensive approach
The New York Liberty have been here before. Their defense has cranked it up, especially in game two of the regular season, and the Commissioners Cup. The defensive scheme New York used against Connecticut and Washington simply wasn't working against Vegas.
With the Aces having high production on both the weak and strong side of the ball, New York's zone defense created opportunities for the opposition. This time around, New York created traps, and constantly picked up around the perimeter and screens. The Liberty held the Aces to just 33.3 percent field goal, and 31.8 percent three point shooting. They had a game high 23 free-throw attempts, in which the Aces made 20.
Typically, we've seen Breanna Stewart matched up with A'ja Wilson and Alysha Clark off the bench. Games one and two, Kiah Stokes was responsible for guarding Jonquel Jones, and is an anchor defensively for Vegas. In this matchup, New York came out with a much different defensive scheme, often pairing Breanna Stewart on Chelsea Gray, and Jonquel Jones on A'ja Wilson. With two stretch bigs, both Stewart and Jones were able to keep up on the perimeter, as well as on the inside.
The Liberty held the Aces to 10 third point quarters, which is a post season low.
The Block party
Buckets didn't come easy for Vegas in game 3. Knowing this was a "do or die" situation, New York essentially shut down their passing lanes, limiting the Aces to just 13 assists on 23 shot attempts. Defensively, New York had 8 blocks-- 3 from Jonquel Jones, 2 from Breanna Stewart, 2 from Sabrina Ionescu, and 1 from Courtney Vandersloot. Stewart on Gray forced her to take tough shots, many in which didn't fall. The Liberty knew how to trap Wilson on several occasions, which was their intent. Aside from Plum, the Aces had trouble generating their offense. New York limited A'ja Wilson to 16 points on 4-16 (25 percent) free-throw shooting, which is highly uncharacteristic for Wilson.
The Liberty's true x-factor
When Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb acquired Jonquel Jones, he knew she had extensive playoff experience. Yes, Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, and Stefanie Dolson all have Championships. Jonquel Jones is in her second consecutive finals, and has more experience than any player on the team. Through the backend of the season and the playoffs, Jones has easily been the most reliable, dominant player for New York. She was the Commissioner's Cup MVP, and lately has shown how valuable she really is.
"Her teammates trust her, I trust her," said Coach Brondello.
"We pride ourselves on screening as post players," Jonquel Jones told the media. "That's one of the things that we talked about coming into these games that we can do better. Just making sure to hit them, make sure they felt us with the screens, and then rolling and getting open. "
I noticed Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones were setting much stronger screens for both Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu. This opened up the flow of offensive, and the ability to drive to the basket and facilitate.
Jonquel Jones has been ELITE
JJ put on show for the city with her 27 PT performance in game 3 🔥💪 pic.twitter.com/IHLTMVei2p— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) October 15, 2023
Through playoff 9 games, Jones is averaging 18.2 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks, on 57.3 percent field goal shooting. In the postseason, Jones leads in total rebounds (105), and Blocks (21). She's third in total points (162), behind A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. In three playoff matchups against the Aces, No. 35 is averaging 21 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks. A player that can stretch the floor, Jones is shooting an incredible 63.2 percent from the field, and nearly 40 percent from long-range. For an Aces lineup that plays small (three guards), Jones has been able to take advantage of the mismatches below. Jonquel finished with a team high 27 points 10-15 (66.7) percent shooting from the field. Just short of a another double-double, Jones had 3 blocks, 8 rebounds, and 2 assists.
Jonquel Jones is playing on an elite level, and the duo of Jones and Stewart was spectacular defensively. Only averaging over just 1 made three-pointer a game, Jones found her stride, and was locked in last matchup.
If there's anyone I trust in the playoffs, It's Jonquel Jones. At 6 foot 7, Jones has been the glue that's kept the Liberty's season alive. Both Jones and Stewart will be the keys to protecting the rebounds, and dominating inside the paint.
The New York Liberty will matchup against the Las Vegas Aces for game 4 of the WNBA Finals on Wednesday. Again, the Liberty will be facing another elimination game.
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Sara Jane Gamelli is a full-time Sportswriter at Ballislife, and Sports Content Creator on Twitch and TikTok. She has a focus on the NBA, WNBA, NCAA Basketball, and the NFL. Sara Jane currently resides in Connecticut/NYC area with her Cat and Dog. SJ has her undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut in Economics, with a minor in business administration.