NEW YORK CITY, NY - For the better part of the season the 'company' line has been, 'one game at a time and improve daily.' It has been echoed by the coaches and players throughout the New York Liberty organization. The wins added, but the mantra remained the same.
After defeating the Atlanta Dream in overtime (win number 21, best in the WNBA) on Tuesday, coach Bill Laimbeer finally relented and allowed himself to discuss the idea of a championship.
"If we win our remaining home games we clinch the top seed in the playoffs," Laimbeer said. "If we do that and win every home game after we win the championship." A basic but useful concept for a team valuing their home floor.
A month ago this idea of securing the franchise's first title seemed a bit of a stretch. In the Spring, there were observers who sincerely doubted this was a postseason team, period! On Tuesday, Laimbeer reflected how this all came about.
"We assembled a squad with the idea of building good chemistry," he said. "We had solid acquisitions in (Tanisha) Wright, Swin (Cash) and (Candace) Wiggins, who have really helped us."
Laimbeer also pointed out the Cappie Pondexter for Epiphanny Prince trade was significant. "People were sorry to see Cappie (Pondexter) go but that trade was one we really got lucky with," Laimbeer added. "Epiphanny (Prince) is not only talented, but she came in knowing a lot of our players and what they could do."
That proved very significant in adding to the team chemistry. Finally, the draft. "We chose (Rebecca) Allen, who has been hurt," Laimbeer said and got Brittany Boyd and Kiah Stokes." Boyd has been a spark plug of a performer infusing energy off the bench.
Stokes has made a strong case for WNBA Rookie of the Year. Her defense, especially in the shot blocking and shot altering areas, is outstanding, the offense with some work on post moves, is getting better on a daily basis. Stokes also brings a huge intangible into the picture, experience in a winning culture.
A UCONN product, she is well versed in winning championships and the commitment needed to do the job. She has brought that mindset to New York and is a primary reason the Liberty are lauded for their outstanding team chemistry.
Laimbeer went on to complement the coaching and training staff. "Excluding myself in this our staff has done a great job from day one," he said. "Our training staff has been wonderful keeping players healthy and ready to play at their best. That part of the game is vital yet often overlooked."
Still, the cautious side is in Laimbeer who knows what you face winning a championship from his days as both a player and a coach: "You keep playing but have no clue what will happen. A key player can turn an ankle, you could get a bad call or two in a close game an opponent could get hot on you."
That latter point was made regarding the short series format of the WNBA. A best of three in early rounds and best of five final leaves little room for error: "You take things day by day and appreciate what you have going."
For now, the Liberty mentor realizes he has not only the top team in he Eastern Conference but one that has captivated the local fan base. "We are a fun team to watch," Laimbeer said. "James Dolan (Executive Chairman of MSG) was here tonight. He's been to a few of our games and enjoys what he sees. We have a brand of basketball that seems to have excited and captured the fans."
An excellent and winning brand at that.
A final note on Sugar Rodgers. After her 23-point outburst against Atlanta on Tuesday, Laimbeer said how Rodger's minutes were decreased due to a lack of effort. A heart to heart between Rodgers and Laimbeer saw her come out rededicated.
"She (Rodgers) works out three times a day,' Laimbeer said. "After that performance tonight (against Atlanta) the entire locker room was thrilled for her."
Rodgers was asked after the win if she would relax and enjoy the victory or work out (which consists of shooting and ball handling drills). "Work out," she responded without a trace of hesitation. "Definitely, going to put some time in at the gym."
Dedication, something this Liberty team thrives on.