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Guts and Determination: Can the Liberty Really Take First Place in the East?

At the beginning of the season I didn’t know one player on the Liberty although I had some vague recollection of Janel McCarville’s name.

So forgive me if I’m shocked that in beating the Sparks 69-68 in a heart stopping thriller, the Liberty are within one game of first place in the Eastern Conference.

There’s nothing like a gritty New York-Los Angeles competition to help a league move past a week filled with distraction. In fact, it addressed some of the things that critics think the WNBA needs – it was the perfect example of how competitive, passionate, and physical women’s basketball players can be…even without starting a melee.

So while people spent most of the week talking about how a Detroit-LA rematch would make for an exciting (and highly rated) finals series, why not talk up the possibility of a New York-LA matchup?

With Connecticut and Detroit floundering could the Liberty really take first place and make a run at the WNBA finals? If they keep playing with the energy and toughness they displayed last night against LA, then why not?

A New York - LA finals would be great for the league: major media markets, competitive games, and match of the pre-season favorite vs. the consummate underdog. It might not create quite the buzz a Detroit-LA rematch would, but the basketball could be just as good.

Now of course I’m biased – I like the Liberty. And the world certainly doesn’t need another biased New York sports team fan (though I think I might help bolster the Californian Liberty fan demographic). But if you put aside the Outdoor Calamity from last week, the Liberty have won 6 straight home games and 7 of 9 in July, beating LA twice.

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, it’s the Sparks who might ruin this intriguing scenario because their ever elusive team chemistry might keep them from even making the playoffs. Nevertheless, the depth and toughness that the Liberty showed last night might be enough to make them a legitimate contender and give them a shot at the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

J-Mac’s Toughness

I really cannot say enough about Janel McCarville’s game. She’s a fearless and well rounded player who doesn’t really put up gaudy statistics, but just gets the job done. And she does it with attitude.

What people will remember about the game is Janel McCarville’s driving layup over the outstretched arms of Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker that ended up being the game winner. What may be forgotten is McCarville’s tough play on both ends of the floor throughout the game that prevented the Sparks from finding their ever-elusive offensive rhythm.

Although it seemed to be a bizarre strategy at first, the Liberty repeatedly looked to McCarville in the post not only to score, but also create opportunities for others. Defensively, McCarville and whoever else was around collapsed on Leslie and Parker whenever they got the ball and contesting almost every shot. They made life difficult for an LA team that has already been consistently inconsistent on offense his year.

She didn’t have a perfect game, but I thought it was a gutsy and effective strategy that demonstrated how much faith Pat Coyle has in McCarville. LA has the ability to completely neutralize interior players so to go right at their strength seemed counter-intuitive. But McCarville has such a high basketball IQ that she picked her spots perfectly. She played an effective inside and out game punctuated by the driving layup at the end.

However, she doesn’t deserve all the credit.

The bench should get the game ball for this one

Another interesting storyline was the outstanding play of the Liberty bench, which outscored the Sparks’ bench 24-12. In fact, it was a lineup of bench players late in the third quarter and early in the fourth that built the lead for the Liberty. They entered the game up 5 points and exited up 9 to an ovation from the crowd and tons of momentum.

That five minute stretch brought up an interesting coaching dilemma: if your bench players have found a rhythm and extended the lead, do you stick with them or put the starters back in to bring home the victory?

Pat Coyle chose to return to her starters with 7:53 left in the fourth while the bench was one a role. As might be obvious now, they looked completely out of sync, and started settling for three pointers instead of moving the ball for good shots. The lead eventually evaporated, which set up McCarville’s game winning shot. Their synergy score dropped from 106 in the third quarter to 54 in the 4th -- they stopped moving the ball and shot only 33% from the field.

If I were to pinpoint one thing that shifted when the starters came back in, it was the difference between Leilani Mitchell and Loree Moore, the same thing that beat LA the first time. Mitchell’s quickness helped her make plays defensively and offensively that kept the energy level high and established a great rhythm. When she left the game they just seemed deflated and settling for threes is a reliable indicator of problems on offense.

Something else I thought about is whether the wholesale substitutions that Coyle tends to make are effective. In this case, putting 3 fresh players in the game may have disrupted the chemistry as much if not more than the change at point guard. Had she staggered the substitutions might they have kept the momentum going?

The view from hindsight is still hazy…

It’s hard to say whether it was Coyle’s decision to replace the bench players or LA’s increased intensity down the stretch that lost the lead. But given how effective Leilani Mitchell has been in her two games against the Sparks, it’s reasonable to say that Coyle should have left her in a little bit longer while she was driving the momentum.

Sometimes a coach makes the decision to go with the bench and the team falls apart under the pressure of closing out a game. Other times, things just seem to be clicking on all cylinders and the starters disrupt the chemistry. But it does call into question the effectiveness of whole sale substitutions.

Regardless, this team is built for a playoff run because of their depth and the fact that you cannot really key in on one player to shut them down. They just seem to keep coming at their opponents with different pieces and if one person isn’t playing well, there seems to be someone else to pick up the slack (as long as they play indoors). On paper, they may not strike anyone as a championship contender, but this may be a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Transition Points:

The Liberty's next five games give them a real chance to make up some ground -- they have Atlanta twice, Chicago at home, and Detroit on the road. At this point, every game is important, but this seems to work in their favor.

Loree Moore didn't seem to have a good game statistically, but if you watched closely, she had a huge impact (before the fourth quarter). I often take notes on a few players while watching games and keep track of things like early shot attempts, contested shots, and lost assists (where she would have gotten an assist had her teammate made the shot). Moore was credited with only 2 assists for the game, but I recorded 8 lost assists. This is why judging the performance of point guards is so difficult -- Moore is an outstanding distributor in terms of finding her teammates in position to score...they just don't make the shots.

There's not much more to say about the Sparks strategy-wise
, but I think they really missed Bobbitt's energy last night. Although she's a rookie and makes plenty of mistakes, she seems to be the glue that holds their offense together at times.

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July 25th, 2008: Los Angeles at New York