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Liberty in tough spot, but possess capable stars and supporting cast

Can Marine Johannès be the X factor for the New York Liberty as they play all eight of their remaining games against teams fighting for the playoffs?

New York Liberty v Chicago Sky
Marine Johannès
Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

One could have looked at the New York Liberty’s 83-80 win over the Chicago Sky last Saturday as a bonus. The Liberty knew that after two games against the Sky they would face an easy remaining schedule against teams also fighting for the playoffs. Taking one of the games against the Sky put them in a better position than they thought they’d be entering a final eight-game stretch.

But after losing the second of the games against the Sky (six days later because of the Commissioner’s Cup break), it’s easy to see why that was never a bonus win — it was a must-win and so was the second game.

Not must-win in the sense the the Liberty are now eliminated from playoff contention, because they're not. But New York is two games out of the eighth and final playoff spot with eight games to go. Time is running out and the Liberty have been in must-win mode for some time.

The Liberty failed to take advantage of the fact that Candace Parker did not play in the second game against the Sky. They allowed Courtney Vandersloot to flirt with a triple-double (23 points, six rebounds, nine assists) and let a one-point lead with 3:14 to go slip away because of three-straight turnovers.

“A game we had obviously right there, but we’ve got to execute down the stretch where we need to,” head coach Sandy Brondello said after the 89-81 loss. “They did that better than us.”

The Liberty turned the ball over 18 times in total and allowed the Sky to take 27 free throw attempts, 22 of which went in.

Sabrina Ionescu led the team in scoring and distributing with 16 points and six assists, while Natasha Howard added 15 points, 10 boards, four helpers, three steals and two blocks. The third member of New York’s big three, Betnijah Laney, did not dress despite it being the originally projected date she would return from her knee injury. Marine Johannès (13 points, five assists) had a solid game to support Ionescu and Howard.

New York Liberty v Chicago Sky
Natasha Howard (with ball) stuffed the stat sheet on Friday, but also had seven turnovers.
Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Brondello has a great supporting cast surrounding her stars. Stefanie Dolson, Sami Whitcomb and Rebecca Allen all received votes for Swish Appeal’s Top 30 players list entering the 2022 season. Han Xu is in the Most Improved Player discussion and is a potential future star who accompanies Dolson in the frontcourt. Whitcomb and Allen both provide a lot of scoring pop on the perimeter. Then you’ve got two former rookies of the year in Michaela Onyenwere and Crystal Dangerfield who have taken on lesser roles than they had in their rookie years, but still have star potential. Jocelyn Willoughby has missed most of the season but looked really good in this season’s opener. And DiDi Richards provides great defense and intangibles even if she’s not much of a threat offensively. It would be a shame if this talented roster isn’t able to make the playoffs.

There are really no weak links on the Liberty, but the most important member of the supporting cast behind the big three is Johannès. The French phenom who didn’t appear for the Liberty until June 10 has the ability to take this team to the next level. Brondello understands how much Johannès means to the team.

“We need Marine. I think everyone’s putting so much pressure on Sab, so you need another playmaker out there than can not only score, but also facilitate. That’s what we’ve talked about all season long.”

We’ll see if Johannès can help get the Liberty into the playoffs and hopefully Laney will be back soon so that she can also make an impact.

Brondello said the win over Chicago “shows that we can play with anybody in the league.

“But we need a little bit more consistency. I think any time we turn the ball over too much, that’s an Achilles heel. Or we’re fouling too much, that’s usually an Achilles heel. There’s no blaming or anything now, we just gotta stay together in these moments here and be disruptive as we can and stay on the same page and stay confident in not just themselves, but each other and let’s see what we can do to close out the season. It’s exciting, that’s why we play this game, these moments. Let’s see what we got. It’s all on us now, so let’s see.”