Last weekend, the basketball gods smiled at the New York Liberty. Despite going 2-9 in the second half of the season with a net score of -13.0, the Liberty reached the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
To advance to the first round of the playoffs, New York will once again need fate in its favor.
Thursday night at 10pm ET (ESPN2), No. 8 seed Liberty meets No. 5 seeded Phoenix Mercury in a do-or-die match. Phoenix is a custom nightmare in New York, as the Mercury is able to capitalize on a number of Liberty’s weaknesses.
During the regular season, New York did steal a game in Phoenix in mid-June, when the shortened Liberty, missing Natasha Howard and Sabrina Ionescu, appointed a Diana Taurasi-less Mercury team. 85-83 behind a fourth-quarter blast from Jazmine Jones and a clutch brake from Betnijah Laney.
At the end of August, the two teams meet for a set of two games in Brooklyn, and Phoenix wins both games with ease, even though Brittney Griner missed the second game due to a single cut.
In the first of these games, a 106-79 victory for the Mercury, Phoenix maximized their biggest advantage. For the season, the Liberty conceded 38.4 points per game in the light. The Mercury, who averaged 35.6 points per game this season, scored an astonishing 54 points in the paint, with 10 each from Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brianna Turner and 18, including a transition fight, from Brittney Griner.
In her two games against the Liberty, Griner averaged 27.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and three assists, all of which exceeded her average of the season. In single cover, BG puts the ball intact in the basket. If New York sends doubles, as they are often forced to do, she can and can dock her teammates for undisputed lineups and open jumpers.
In the second game, a 80-64 With Mercury victory, New York did little to take advantage of Griner’s absence, turning the ball 17 times. The Liberty also could not contain Diggins-Smith again, which may have been motivated by a bit spices on social media in New York.
Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jazmine Jones had a few words during the last Mercury-Liberty game
Tonight the two teams take on each other. Can not wait. pic.twitter.com/PDB1wlghvX
– Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) 25 August 2021
Sky-Digg did not disappoint, with some 27-point performances in NYC. In the second game, she used her expertly flawed drawing ability to boost her score and go 11-of-11 from the free throw line.
If Griner and Diggins-Smith offer easy points for themselves and others, Phoenix should be well positioned for the win. Add a featured single elimination game from Diana Taurasi, who is expected to play after missing four games with an ankle injury, and the Mercury could run away from Liberty and turn it into a route.
However, if the basketball gods intervene again in favor of the Liberty, New York can certainly ensure the uproar.
This season, New York had the most prolific 3-point shooting season in WNBA history, scoring a record 321 tries. Per game, they led all teams with 27.7 attempts and 10 make. Considering this volume, their team-wide percentage of 36.2 percent is impressive.
They also have the most dangerous three-point sharpshooter of the league in Sami Whitcomb. Although she shot 179 total three points, she was third in the league in a 3-point percentage at 47.3 percent, giving her a total of 76 tries on the season, the second most in the WNBA. She has also passed five or more treys this season.
If New York can combine a super-laden Whitcomb performance with several tries from Rebecca Allen, Michaela Onyenwere and Sabrina Ionescu, the hard shooting from Betnijah Laney and above-average ball safety, it might just be enough to surpass the Liberty Phoenix.
However, this confluence of factors seems a bit far-fetched.
In short, the Mercury should penetrate on Sunday on an appointment with the defending champion and Seattle Storm no. 4.
Nr. 5 -seed Phoenix Mercury vs no. 8 -saad New York Liberty
When: Thursday, 23 September at 22:00 ET
Where: Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix, AZ
How to watch: ESPN2, SN1 or NBA TV Canada
Key to matching: In addition to the drama on social media, which adds a little extra to an otherwise somewhat skewed game, there are also some potential revenge games. Four members of the Mercury – Kia Vaughn, Bria Hartley, Kia Nurse and Megan Walker – once qualified for the Liberty. Because Walker is unlikely to play significant minutes, and Vaughn merely serves as a regular presence, it looks like Nurse will torture her former team with a revenge show. Nurse, a streak shooter, could certainly find the bottom of the net just enough times to bury the Liberty. Hartley popping up, however, may be the best story. After recently returning from the knee injury that cut short the career year she drafted in 2020, Hartley only played a few minutes. But she made her jump shot work, also from the depths. If head coach Sandy Brondello needs a spark, Hartley could swing momentum toward the Mercury by pulling off a few timely tries.
Mercury Injury Report: Diana Taurasi (doubtful; left ankle)
Liberty Injury Report: Jocelyn Willoughby (out for season; left Achilles)