After their eighth win in nine games on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, the Liberty are in a place where they haven’t comfortably been in more than a decade: alone at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Year 1 of the Tina Charles era ended in disappointment last season. New York finished 15-19 and missed out on the playoffs in a tie-breaker with the Sky, who went on to the WNBA Finals.
Year 2 has produced results the Garden hasn’t seen on the WNBA side since the opening years of the league and the Liberty franchise. Back in the days of Teresa Weatherspoon, Tari Phillips and Becky Hammon, the team finished first in the East three times in four years.
The Liberty have since finished in the bottom half of the conference seven times in 12 seasons, including each of the past four.
What has led to the revival in NYC? Here are three key factors:
Prince Has Been King
The Liberty traded mainstay Cappie Pondexter for young guard Epiphanny Prince in February, but they didn’t begin benefiting from the swap until the second week of July. Prince missed the first three weeks of the season while playing with the Russian national team.
The past two games — both double-digit wins over the Chicago Sky — have been Exhibit A in why they made the trade. Prince, a New York City native who once scored 113 points in a high school game, took it to her former team with a combined 52 points on 20-of-27 shooting.
“Piph has that gear. We call it her zone,” said Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer. “When she has that zone going, keep giving her the ball all the time. She’s one of those very few that can get in that zone.”
Laimbeer has handed Prince the keys to the offense, featuring her and Tina Charles as a one-two punch on possession after possession. It wasn’t until last week that, at the urging of her coaches, Prince began to more aggressively look to score. Now she’s shooting a career-high 47 percent from the field while averaging 15.4 points.
“I’m just more comfortable and am not second-guessing my shot,” Prince said. “My teammates and my coaches were always yelling at me to shoot, but at the beginning I was still trying to learn the system and wasn’t so comfortable. But now I’m comfortable and I’m confident and they believe in me and I believe in myself.”
The Liberty’s nine-game hot streak has come during unheralded center Carolyn Sword’s first nine starts of the season. That’s not a coincidence.
Laimbeer said that he has always viewed star post player Tina Charles as a power forward, and giving her more minutes next to a legitimate center — Swords is listed at 6-foot-6, 206 pounds — has eased Charles’ burden.
“I need to get [Charles] off of the big players out there,” Laimbeer said. “It wears you down, going in there and sumo wrestling with big centers. I needed somebody defensive-wise who could take that load off of Tina and give her more energy as the game progresses.”
Like Prince, Swords spent the first part of her career in Chicago, but her signing this offseason flew under the radar. Now she’s averaging career highs in points (5.7), rebounds (3.7) and blocks (0.8). With Rookie of the Year candidate Kiah Stokes also in the fold, the Liberty are loaded in the front court like few other teams.
|Liberty 2015 Defensive Statistics (League Rank)|
|PPG Allowed||Def. Rating||Opponent FG%||Rebound Differential||Blocks Per Game||Turnovers Forced Per Game|
|70.3 (1st)||92.4 (1st)||37.8% (1st)||+6.5 (1st)||5.1 (4th)||14.5 (4th)|
Opponents have felt the effects of New York’s overwhelming size every night. Laimbeer praised Charles, Stokes and Swords for consistently being in the right position on the defensive end, clogging the paint, protecting the basket and allowing the guards to be aggressive on the perimeter.
It has added up to the best defense the WNBA has seen in eight years; the 2007 Indiana Fever were the last team to post a Defensive Rating — points allowed per 100 possessions — as low as the Liberty’s current mark of 92.4.
Their physical play has bogged down fast-paced, high-powered offenses like the Sky, who are averaging 69 points against New York and 86.5 against the rest of the league. And the Liberty are not only holding opponents to a league-low 38-percent shooting; they’re finishing off possessions as the best rebounding team in the league.
“Those are two hallmarks of any great defensive team,” said Laimbeer, “which we quite frankly are right now.”