What will determine if Liberty are legit contenders

From the borough whose lovable baseball losers introduced us “wait till next year” comes the Liberty’s summer time model of that autumnal rallying cry of their inaugural season at Barclays Center: “Why wait till next year?”

The revamped Liberty have shortly leaped from final season’s inept 2-20 bubble end — at 8-9, they’ve quadrupled their win complete in 5 fewer video games — to emerge as viable playoff contenders on the approximate midpoint of the WNBA schedule.

Eight of 12 groups qualify for the postseason. The Las Vegas Aces, Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun have separated from the sector and are set to safe three of these spots. The last-place Indiana Fever are a pitiful 1-15.

That means there are eight groups within the tightly bunched center of the standings vying for 5 spots — or seven groups for 4 spots, relying on the way you measure the fourth-place Chicago Sky, who had been 8-1 when Candace Parker performs and 1-7 when she doesn’t.

Advanced metrics don’t augur effectively for the Liberty, who rank eleventh within the league in internet score (minus-6.8 factors per 100 possessions, predictive of a 6-11 file, per Basketball Reference), however they could discover reduction within the schedule — 9 of their remaining 15 video games are at dwelling, 10 of 15 are in opposition to groups who began Wednesday at .500 or worse.

The New York Liberty celebrate a WNBA basketball game win over the Chicago Sky
The Liberty have already quadrupled their 2020 win complete.
AP Photo

Here’s what to observe down the stretch and what will determine whether or not Walt Hopkins’ squad breaks by with a postseason berth or is left to mutter “wait till next year”:

Which Sabrina Ionescu will they get?

The world-beating school phenom-turned-No. 1 choose who averaged 17.8 factors, 6.8 rebounds and seven.8 assists by her first six video games, together with a historic triple-double?

Or the 23-year-old level guard in her de facto rookie season who has been slowed in latest weeks, each by opposing defenses. — “I have seen them all in college,” Ionescu mentioned lately, “but of course at this level, the IQ, the athleticism, the passing windows, all of those things shrink, and you have to be able to make those reads and those decisions in a split of a second” — and by a halting recovery from tearing ligaments in her left ankle final summer time.

Ionescu is averaging 5.6 factors, 5.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in her previous 9 video games. She’s capturing 33.1 p.c total. She sat out two video games in mid-June to relaxation the ankle and has been on a minutes restriction since.

Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the New York Liberty drives to the basket against the Chicago Sky.
Sabrina Ionescu continues to be adjusting to the WNBA recreation.
Getty Images

”It’s a kind of issues that’s form of unavoidable,” Hopkins mentioned. “We could’ve done more of a minutes restriction, but really she needs to practice, she needs to get reps, so it’s this mixed bag. … I think it’s just going to be a back and forth for parts of this season. The Olympic break is obviously going to be a huge thing for her to get that rest and continue to play but to take some of the load off of that leg.”

Can Betnijah Laney preserve her All-Star degree?

The Liberty’s offseason signing of Laney, a 27-year-old journeywoman wing who gained Most Improved Player honors in 2020, has seemed good. Laney was named an All-Star on Wednesday for the primary time, averaging 19.7 factors (sixth within the league) and 5.3 assists (seventh) whereas typically guarding the opposite staff’s greatest perimeter participant. She’s been pressed into extra play-making duties on account of Ionescu’s slowdown.

“The amount we rely on her — offense, defense, leadership, scoring, passing, rebounding. I mean, she’s required to do so much for our team, particularly with injuries,” Hopkins mentioned final week. “To go from a player who was essentially a defensive stopper, role player, energy person, to being … one of the best two-way players in the league, and a phenomenal leader and teammate, I cannot say enough about B.”

Is Natasha Howard the lacking piece?

Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the New York Liberty drives to the basket
Natasha Howard
Getty Images

Howard, acquired through blockbuster commerce this winter, was supposed to round out the Liberty’s Big 3. But, echoing the opposite Big 3 within the constructing, they’ve not often shared the courtroom. Howard arrived late, quarantined, then suffered an MCL sprain in her second recreation in seafoam. But even in a small pattern, she proved a much-needed defensive anchor and explosive pick-and-roll participant: In her 44 minutes, the Liberty had been plus-12.3 factors per 100 possessions. Howard’s return is now in sight — the Liberty waived backup heart Kiah Stokes on Wednesday.

Will it come all the way down to tiebreakers?

The Liberty at present personal the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Dallas Wings (8-8 getting into Wednesday), Phoenix Mercury (7-7), Minnesota Lynx (7-7) and Los Angeles Sparks (6-8). They have one dwelling and one highway recreation left with the Wings, back-to-back dwelling video games with the Mercury (whose level guard Skylar Diggins-Smith instructed Liberty reserve Jazmine Jones on Twitter to “shut tf up”), two highway dates with the Lynx and one dwelling recreation versus the Sparks.

Or how about this subplot? The last recreation is in opposition to Tina Charles, the scorned former Liberty franchise participant handing over an MVP-caliber season for the Washington Mystics (7-9), in Brooklyn, with a attainable playoff spot on the road. 

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