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Paint By Numbers: Are the Liberty a jump shooting team or just settling for jumpers?

Cappie Pondexter and Janel McCarville sporting their new Foxwoods jerseys.
Cappie Pondexter and Janel McCarville sporting their new Foxwoods jerseys.

At the bottom of the final box score given out to the media, there is a list of key statistics for the game. The very first statistic on that list is Points in the Paint. That’s not to say that this is the most important statistic by any means, but it sure is a big one.

Last night, when the New York Liberty hosted the Atlanta Dream, that statistic showed a glaring discrepancy between the two teams. Atlanta scored 50 points in the paint, shooting 25 of 42, while New York scored a measly 18 points on 9 of 21. Interestingly enough, despite scoring one third as many points in the paint, the last-place-in-the-East Liberty managed to pull out a convincing win over the top-ranked Dream, defeating them 91-79.

You might be asking yourself how that’s possible, since generally the team that drives to the basket also gets to the line more, thus having even more opportunities to score. You would probably be right most of the time, except that Atlanta only took two more free throws than New York, and shot a miserable 52.4% from the line. In addition, the Liberty got hot from beyond the arc in the second half, and their 9 three-pointers provided that boost that kept the Dream at bay.

All those issue aside, the real question as the Liberty moves forward becomes whether they are a jump-shooting team, or whether they are simply settling for what they can get. 

Prior to the game, Coach Donovan mentioned that the Liberty "seem to be more perimeter oriented right now than we are into the post…that’s an area I want to do better at." She didn’t mention whether she was intending for the team to be taking outside shots or if they were doing so as a result of being unable to penetrate. Either way, she recognized the pattern and addressed a desire to improve upon it.

Part of the reason for the Liberty being outscored in the paint is that Atlanta has a strong post presence: their starting center, Erika de Souza, is 6’5" of strength. Alison Bales and Yelena Leuchanka, their centers off of the bench, are 6’7" and 6’5" respectively. Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the Liberty’s veteran center, is a mere 6’2", and her back-up, Kia Vaughn, is just 6’4". New York was clearly out-sized in this contest, and it showed on the defensive end.

Conversely, the Liberty's points in the paint were of a different kind. On the offensive end, the scores for the Liberty often resulted from quarterback passes down the length of the court for easy lay-ups. In fact, I was impressed multiple times by the arm strength of tiny little Leilani Mitchell. The few times that the Liberty players penetrated to the basket, their scores came off of beautiful passes threaded through the defense under the hoop. There were really very few hard drives to the bucket, and most of them ended with the missed basket and two free throws. That speaks both to New York’s need for improvement in finishing under the basket, and Atlanta’s powerful inside presence. Both Coach Donovan and McWilliams-Franklin mentioned that Atlanta’s zone defense forced the Liberty to take outside shots more than they may have intended.

Another factor in their low paint production could be that early in the second quarter, one of the Liberty’s strong inside players, post Janel McCarville, had to be helped off the court after what she described as knee-on-knee contact while she was setting a screen. She left the court to have it looked at, and returned later in the game with a deep bruise. She wasn’t as much of a presence after her return to the game, and when I asked if she felt tentative, she responded, "I think I was more in pain than anything. I wasn’t so much tentative as… it hurt." She scored just two points in the third quarter and two points in the fourth, and said she might have been a step slow as a result of the pain. 

Although the injury may have accounted for some of the lacking defensive presence, it still doesn't explain the rest of the team not taking the ball to the hoop. Taj McWilliams-Franklin also had a quiet night offensively, with 10 points and a glaring goose egg in the offensive rebound column. As a matter of fact, there weren’t many New York players crashing the offensive boards. The Liberty had 5 offensive rebounds to Atlanta’s 14. This lead to 15 second-chance points for the Dream and just 8 for New York.

Nevertheless, as much as Donovan and I alike would appreciate the Liberty going hard to the basket, I do believe a win is a win, and this was a good one. That's neither because it was the first game of a back-to-back, nor because it was against an Atlanta team that came into Madison Square Garden 5-1 on the road. What made this game good is that the guards were able to showcase their talents in this game, and boy, are they talented.

For the second game in a row, Cappie Pondexter came up huge. She had 25 points and 7 assists on the night. When she went scoreless in the 4th quarter, Leilani Mitchell (who confessed that she had been "struggling a little" from outside) hit two big three-pointers, which she said were "good for [her] confidence". Both rookie Kalana Greene and Sidney Spencer hit buzzer beaters that sent the arena into a frenzy. With Greene contributing 9 points of her own, the back court of the New York Liberty showed a lot of promise for this season. That being said, everyone recognized that the inside game needs work.

After the game, Coach Donovan told us, "Our goal is to have more than 30 points in the paint, and obviously we had half that tonight. So we’re looking not just to get buckets in the paint but to get to the free throw line… to have more balance in our offense."

Thankfully, the poised and optimistic McWilliams-Franklin remains confident in her team. She told me, "We’ll get into the paint. We have opportunities in the paint, we just have to complete them."