NEW YORK, NY–Tuesday evening was fan appreciation night at MSG, and while the Liberty were thanking their supporters for their dedication this season, the best organizational ‘Thank you’ is ensuring the Garden’s next tip-off isn’t its last.
New York is currently locked into the third seed heading into the postseason. This means they’re guaranteed another home game and will return to action Saturday, September 24th for a win-and-advance showdown with either the Storm, Sky, Mercury or Dream as of now.
In previous seasons, East-leading New York would host a best-of-three series with two games at MSG, but things have changed. Starting this postseason, clinching the three-seed still ensures home-court advantage, but the third seed will host a one-game playoff. This format intensifies the already-thick tension of the WNBA postseason.
But with one regular-season game remaining (Friday, September 16th at Chicago on League Pass), the Liberty will use their eight-day layoff to regroup and refocus before the playoffs begin.
“We’re coming off some injuries, and not playing for eight days is good,” said head coach Bill Laimbeer after Tuesday’s 75-62 loss to the Mystics. “We could use the rest, and it’s time to start getting ourselves prepared. There will be a lot of practice days to take care of what we need to get done. Right now, I think they’re feeling a little bit of uncertainty with what’s coming, and they have to grow up.”
Tina Charles, more than anyone, could use that rest. The Liberty’s MVP candidate is averaging 33.7 minutes, third-most across the WNBA. Charles also played a significant role in the United States’ quest for a sixth-straight gold this summer. Of course, what lies ahead remains her main focus.
“The fact that we have practice time for a week or so leading up to the 24th is great,” Charles said after the loss to Washington. “We’re beating ourselves right now; we’re a really good team, but we’re just not showing it. Now we’ll have time to look at defensive and offensive schemes and decide what exactly our gameplan is in executing them.”
Although New York has dropped two-straight, Charles’ play continues elevating as the regular-season reaches its final act. Against the Mystics, she recorded her third-straight double-double, collecting her 14th game this season with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds – impressive finishing touches after Charles earned her WNBA-record seventh Player of the Week award of 2016.
“Right now she’s going to be leading the league in scoring and rebounding which is something that’s never been done before. The only person that comes to mind is Wilt or somebody like that who would have led the league in those categories,” said Lambieer. “If you get into the argument of what the most valuable player award means, is it the most scoring, the most rebounding or the most value? Well, in all three, she leads our team.”
Laimbeer’s praise glows brightly considering the coach and four-time NBA All-Star battled with and against MVPs. It’s also validated by the numbers, considering Charles’ 21.5 points and 9.9 rebounds lead the league.
WNBA veteran Swin Cash echoed her coach’s strong praise of Charles, understanding the 27-year-old’s value going into the playoffs.
“Listen, Tina Charles is the MVP in my book,” Cash said. “She has been our horse all year long, played some heavy minutes here down the stretch and the rest of our team needs to get on board with where she wants to go. She’s hungry, she wants a championship and hopefully we all start clicking at the right time.”
Charles’ floor presence is the catalyst behind New York’s hopes for a deep playoff run, aided by an x-factor: the Madison Square Garden crowd. The world’s most popular arena can provide a formidable presence for visiting teams, impacting opponents before they even step onto the hardwood. New York’s basketball energy booms from the stands, taking games into different stratospheres.
“When that lower bowl is packed up, our fans and their energy can cause it to get loud and crazy in here,” said Cash. “We’re going to need everyone to come out, we understand it’s one-and-done, and we need to win.”
On the 24th, the Liberty and their fans will get their opportunity to feed off one another. Although their opponent remains unknown, clinching the third seed means New York awaits opponents at the Garden, with an MVP candidate with a hungry roster behind her, and a fervent fan base elevating New York’s playoff atmosphere.