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WNBA Playoff Preview Guide NY Liberty vs. Chicago Sky: Can Ionescu and Howard lead an upset?

The Liberty have a tough road ahead, facing off against the Chicago Sky in the first round. Will Sabrina Ionescu and Natasha Howard be enough to beat the defending champs?

Connecticut Sun v New York Liberty Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Liberty are returning to the playoffs once again and will face off against the Chicago Sky in the first round starting Wednesday in Chicago. The Liberty had to finish strong; the WNBA playoff race was as tight and competitive as ever. They responded to the challenge and won seven of their last 10 games to earn the seventh seed.

The celebrations were joyous in the locker room and Stefanie Dolson gave an impassioned speech post-game. Still, the turnaround between playoff berth and playoff play is less than 48 hours away, and the Liberty have to come up with a game plan to beat Chicago twice in a best-of-three series. Here’s how the Liberty fared against the Sky during the regular season.

Regular season matchup (Sky 3-1)

May 11th: Liberty 50, Sky 83 (Sabrina Ionescu had an awful game going 0-5 from the field. Everything went well for the Sky as Dana Evans scored 15 points off the bench in this blowout win.)

June 12th: Sky 88, Liberty 86 (This game was tight throughout and came down to the final possession. It ended with a Courtney Vandersloot game-winner as the Sky edged out the victory in New York. The Liberty played well but were outrebounded 41-26. Ionescu had a triple-double and Dolson scored 12 points against her former team.

July 23rd: Liberty 83, Sky 80 (The only Liberty victory against the Sky this season, and it was a glorious one. Natasha Howard had a huge game, scoring 16 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, Ionescu led the team with 17 points and the team outrebounded the Sky 41-36. Important to note that Courtney Vandersloot did not play; she was out due to concussion protocol.

July 29th: Liberty 81, Sky 89 (This game was both teams at just about 100 percent health and playing each other to the best of their ability. The Liberty got good games from Ionescu, Howard, and Marine Johannès, while the Sky had five players in double figures. This was a good win for the Sky, especially considering the absence of Candace Parker; she was not with the team.

Keys to victory

The good news is we have a lot of data from this season regarding a New York versus Chicago matchup. The bad news is the data sides with Chicago heavily. The Sky had a phenomenal season, and the defending champs somehow improved with their balanced attack of dominant bigs and dynamic guards. So how can the Liberty pull off the upset and win this series?

Well, it starts with the All-Stars. Sabrina Ionescu and Natasha Howard must be the best versions of themselves if they want to win. Howard has to put up a double-double and hold her own defensively, and Ionescu has to be flirting with a triple-double and igniting the offense. In the playoffs, teams only go as far as their stars can take them, and if the Liberty want to pull off an upset, Ionescu and Howard will have to be on their A-game to help accomplish that.

It’s not just about stars; everyone will have to rise up and pull more weight than usual. Can Han Xu give you a good 15 minutes plus off the bench? Be offensively productive and hold her own against the Sky bigs? Dolson is another player who I believe will be critical in this matchup. Dolson played with the Sky last season, so she knows the team and their schemes as well as anyone. She’s also a big-game player. She’s been in these scenarios dozens of times with Uconn, the Sky and Team USA and has proven time and time again that when the pressure is the highest, her play is the best. If the Liberty win even a game or the series, I expect the Dolson stat line to be above her season average.

This is the first time the WNBA tries out this best-of-three format. The top seed plays two home games, and the win-or-go-home Game 3 will occur at the lower seed’s house (if necessary). I find that to be very peculiar given that in most sports, the team with the better record gets home court as a reward. Can we possibly see an upset because of this new method and can the Liberty benefit from this?

Here’s the schedule for the series.

New York vs. Chicago, Wednesday, at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN 2)

New York vs. Chicago, Saturday at 12 p.m. ET (ESPN)

*Chicago vs. New York, Tuesday (TBD)

*If necessary