In Friday night’s Game 3, the No. 2 seed New York Liberty’s offense came alive, finally looking the whirring machine it was for much of the second half of the 2023 WNBA season. New York defeated the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun 92-81 to take a 2-1 semifinals lead.
With another offensive outburst in Sunday’s Game 4 (3 p.m. ET, ABC), the Liberty likely are to earn their first trip to the WNBA Finals since 2002, setting up the much-anticipated superteam showdown against the awaiting No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces. To extend the series to a Game 5, the Sun must find a way to contain and counter New York’s offensive prowess.
Here’s three things that will determine if the Sun force a Game 5 or if the Liberty will be Finals-bound:
Can the Sun defense again dictate the tempo?
Through the first two games in New York, the Sun, even in their Game 2 defeat, dictated the terms and tempo of the contests, using their athleticism, physicality and intensity on the defensive end to disrupt the Liberty’s offensive flow. The ball did not ping around the half court and eventually land in the hands of an open 3-point shooter or streaking cutter. Instead, the New York offense often stagnated, resulting in tough isolation attempts by Breanna Stewart or Sabrina Ionescu, who were worn down by Connecticut’s relentlessness.
In Game 3, the Sun’s defense was not dialed in, allowing the Liberty offense to pour in a playoff-record 37 first-quarter points. Connecticut’s lagging effort and inattention to detail frustrated Alyssa Thomas, who implored to her teammates, “I need help. I am tired out here,” during an early timeout.
Holly Rowe reports Alyssa Thomas was saying something like "I need help. I am tired out here," here: pic.twitter.com/LZdi1nxklu— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) September 30, 2023
While several members of the Sun have found themselves in quick foul trouble in the first three games of the series, Connecticut again must to force the refs to blow their whistles in Game 4, playing with as much physicality allowable to drag the series back into the muck.
Will the Liberty get loose from 3?
When at their best, the Liberty fully weaponize the 3 ball. It’s not just about the ability of Ionescu, in particular, to curl around a screen, receive a hand off or pull up off the dribble for a quick-trigger 3; it’s also the opportunities created by the threat she poses as the league’s most prolific 3-point shooter. By occupying opposing defenders and requiring them cover extra space, her activity opens up easier scoring opportunities for teammates.
If the Sun defense fails to dictate the game’s tempo, then expect the 3s to be flying for the Liberty. If they’re falling, the Sun are in trouble. While Connecticut has enjoyed a few outlier shooting performances in the playoffs, they cannot count on the kind of offensive explosion needed to keep up with a fully-functional, 3-point-happy Liberty offense.
Will Betnijah or Bec be the bellwether?
Thus far in the playoffs, things go well for the Liberty when Betnijah Laney gets buckets.
In his Game 2 preview, Edwin Garcia criticized Laney’s Game 1 no-show. Well, she since has responded, posting a pair of 20-point performances that have been crucial to the Liberty claiming the 2-1 series lead. A capable shooter, smart cutter and strong driver who can take advantage of a mismatch in the post, Laney has exploited the Sun’s preoccupation with Stewart and Ionescu in Games 2 and 3. Another such performance in Game 4 should have the Liberty on their way to the Finals.
Liberty are 18-2 this season when Betnijah Laney scores at least 15 points. https://t.co/c1Oxb47NuM— Dano Mataya (@drmataya) September 30, 2023
On the Sun side, Rebecca Allen is the x-factor. She was excellent in Game 1, subpar in Game 2 and absent in Game 3 due to an illness. Considering she was dressed and available for Game 3, Allen should be good to go in Game 4.
Rebecca Allen was a +36 net on/off across the first two games of this series. Sun were down 21 after the first quarter without her tonight— Em ️ (@em_adler) September 29, 2023
The Sun certainly need her, as she gives Connecticut a long, perimeter presence that is valuable on both ends of the floor. On offense, her height allows her to more easily fire shots from behind the arc or take a few dribbles and rise for a midranger, especially compared to the smaller Natisha Hiedeman or Ty Harris. On defense, Allen can envelop opponents with her spider-like length, as she did to Ionescu in Game 1. While the Sun have seen the likes of Tiffany Hayes and Olivia Nelson-Ododa step up in the semis, Allen’s two-way versatility is most likely to provide the Sun with the extra punch needed to force a Game 5.
No. 2 seed New York Liberty (2-1) vs. No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun (1-2)
When: Sunday, Oct. 1 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT
How to watch: ABC
Liberty injury report: Han Xu (out; not with team)
Sun injury report: Brionna Jones (out; Achilles)