It wasn't supposed to be like this. Maybe a first WNBA title was a stretch, but going into the season even the most hardened and skeptical pundits figured at least another playoff berth was within reach for the New York Liberty.
It was not to be.
The Liberty dropped their final home game on Sunday to the Atlanta Dream, putting them — already mathematically eliminated from postseason — at 7-23 for the season.
It was their ninth-straight loss, on Fan Appreciation Day of all things. Liberty Head Coach Katie Smith spent a good part of the postgame presser summarizing the season that closes out on a Western swing. play
So, what went wrong for the Liberty?
Kia Nurse blames “the little things”
In postgame interviews all season, Nurse has discussed the missed defensive closeout, the costly turnover, failure to box out on a key possession.
Interesting that Nurse's spot-on assessment came after a home loss to Phoenix — in early June. You could simply alter the time and date while keeping Nurse's observations in tact. The Liberty spent a season burned by those little things, something Smith pointed out on a number of occasions as the campaign progressed.
Tina Charles: Always a warrior
The veteran All-Star came to play every night and gave a 100 percent effort. But the same problem that has plagued past Liberty teams was Charles not having a consistent second option to help her out.
Charles has paced the Liberty at 19.9 points per game. Next in scoring? Nurse, with 8.7 points per game. Amanda Zahui B had her moments and was emerging as a contender for that role. But she did not really get into a comfortable flow until midseason and was inured down the stretch. Once again, it was Charles logging 32 minutes an outing while carrying the bulk of the inside load and opposing defenses wore her down with double teams and by substituting fresh bodies.
A conundrum of close games
Maybe an early season heartbreaking loss to defending champion Minnesota set the tone.
A number of times the Liberty put together three solid periods but, unfortunately, this is not hockey and the absence of a full four-period effort often resulted in a tough loss.
Just last week, New York battled gamely against Los Angeles, Seattle and Atlanta — all contenders to unseat Minnesota for the crown. But each time, the Liberty came up short.
As Smith said following the loss to Los Angeles: “We played as well as we did all season. A few more efforts like that would have put us in the playoffs.”
Following Sunday’s game, Atlanta Dream Head Coach Nicki Collen said: “When a team gets in a losing streak and someone makes a run at them there is a chance to say ‘here we go again’” — something that the Liberty have undoubtedly experienced.
In this relatively wide-open season, the margin between haves and have-nots was very thin and the Liberty unfortunately proved to be the latter.
The first-year head coach was a player of such magnitude that she will be enshrined in Springfield in a few weeks. Following her playing days, she assisted Bill Laimbeer for several years. By all accounts she was ready to take the reins when Laimbeer left New York heading west to Las Vegas. This season, you can chalk Smith’s lackluster coaching to a longer learning curve than some might have hoped.
Smith said following the game against Atlanta on Sunday she feels comfortable calling the job she did this year “decent.” She spoke of practice, preparation and game-planning as three areas she definitely had no problem handling.
“It will be learning more of how to play and who to play in certain situations,” Smith admitted. “A lot of it will deal with teaching how to win.”
Rotations were easy for the defensive-oriented Laimbeer. Don’t defend, you don’t play. Simple. With Smith, however, some rotations were difficult to figure. She had injuries to the likes of Shavonte Zellous and Epiphanny Prince at certain times. This is pro basketball and injuries go with the game, but what was hard to fathom was keeping someone like Rebecca Allen — a scorer — on the bench for extended periods of time.
Credit Smith for never calling out a player for a mistake. In fact, her sharpest criticism against players came after a midseason loss when she said, “We as coaches put the effort in and prepare, [but] players have to self-motivate and do the same.”
Give Katie Smith a pass on this season. As former FDU men’s coach Tom Green once said, “The longest distance in basketball is the ten inches from the assistant’s to head coach’s chair.”
All her basketball life, Smith has competed and never backed down. Expect that same effort in engineering a Liberty reversal of fortune next season. Until then, the Liberty have a chance to throw a wrench into the Sparks’ seeding if they can play four quarters — maybe for pride — and hold on to a win.