New York Liberty's blossoming chemistry leads them past Sun, to top of WNBA

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — A Courtney Vandersloot curl cut as Jonquel Jones seals a perfect lane to the hoop. A no-look pass from Breanna Stewart to a streaking Leonie Fiebich for a transition 3. A laugh between Sabrina Ionescu and Vandersloot after Ionescu looked off a defender and hit a triple. A cohesive defensive effort with movement, communication and helpside rotations.

The on-court connections among the Liberty are obvious. But that wasn’t always the case.

Last season, when the words “superteam” dominated Liberty-related headlines, New York didn’t always deliver the expected product on the court.

And despite making the WNBA Finals, New York endured criticism of a lack of chemistry, all of which came to a head when Las Vegas guard Kelsey Plum called them out after her Aces topped New York for the title.

“We also knew that, as much as they’re a team, they’re not a team, if that makes sense,” Plum said. “They’re really good individual players, but they don’t care about each other. And you can tell in those moments. They revert back to individual basketball.”

She later said the quote was taken out of context, but the damage — at least as far as the Liberty were concerned — was done.

It added insult to injury, as the Liberty watched the Aces, who have long been praised for their closeness as a unit, celebrate their second title. New York’s players, coaches and GM responded in different ways, but at the core of their comments the Liberty made one thing clear: They are a team, and they do care about each other.

But saying that doesn’t mean much. Showing it on the court does.

This season, the Liberty’s approach and chemistry are on full display as they sit alone atop the standings after defeating the Connecticut Sun 71-68 on Wednesday. The victory also further strengthened their case for a No. 1 seed for the playoffs.

“It's about just playing one game at a time, and let's just win today, just win the moment,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said before the game. “As long as we're buying into what we want to do, and we're doing it together, we're in good shape."

The buy-in started last season, even if it didn’t show right away. Players like Jones and Stewart, both former MVPs who are used to being their teams’ centerpiece, learned to play together. Vandersloot left the only team she’d ever played for in Chicago to run a new offense, and Ionescu improved as a facilitator and defender.

Now, their efforts are resulting in wins, separating New York (18-4) from the rest of the WNBA and making them the current title favorites.

Beating the Sun (17-5) in front of a pro-Connecticut crowd Wednesday was part of the process. And so was losing to the Aces in the playoffs last season, no matter how painful it was.

“Last year was such a learning experience,” Jones said. “This year we’ve been able to hit the ground running. You can feel the trust of everybody out there, regardless of if I’m hitting shots or whatever is going in. I know my teammates have my back.”

In the offseason, New York made togetherness a priority. They spent time as a team outside of the gym, even starting a bookclub. And as the season progresses, so does the Liberty's chemistry.

They needed it to defeat the Sun in a close game at Mohegan Sun, as Connecticut was fueled by the shrieks of Camp Day kids and energized despite the 11 a.m. ET start time.

With two minutes left in the third quarter, the Sun cut the Liberty’s lead — which was once as many as 14 points — down to 53-51. The Sun tied the game at 63 with 4:59 remaining in the fourth quarter, when Ty Harris drove and finished a layup off the glass. From there it was a back-and-forth contest until the buzzer.

Ionescu finished things off with a runner in the lane to put her team up by the final margin with 4.4 seconds left, followed by a block on Harris’ buzzer-beating 3-point attempt on the other end.

After the game, Jones stood in front of reporters to discuss Ionescu’s clutch plays at the end of the game. Then, greeted the guard outside the Liberty locker room. “I was talking about you,” Jones told her with a smile.

The two have been vital to the Liberty’s success, building a bond that’s led to a dominant two-player game.

"When I came in, I wanted to have that connection with her, just be a really good teammate for her," Jones told reporters last week. "Our chemistry has grown as we spent more time together and you can see it on the court. ... It's a blessing to have a teammate like her."

And when the Sun made their comeback Wednesday, the Liberty often leaned on Ionescu and Jones to run that two-player game on offense.

When DeWanna Bonner hit three free throws early in the fourth quarter to get the Sun within one point, the Liberty ran an action to get Ionescu the ball at the top of the key. Then, a cutting Jones made her way to the free-throw line, catching a pass and driving to the rim for an easy bucket.

And if it wasn’t Jones or Ionescu, it was Stewart or Vandersloot. And if it wasn’t them, it was Fiebich or Kayla Thornton playing their supporting roles.

Everyone had a part in Wednesday’s victory, something that’s propelled New York throughout the season.

“This team just continues to get more connected every single day,” Brondello said. “I think all of these experiences that we are having are all positive. Even if we lose, they can look at the person next to them and know that they trust them.”

The Liberty are alone in first place. And it turns out, it’s not so lonely at the top.

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