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Bill Laimbeer: 'No one said it was going to be easy' as Liberty tries to square series

New York Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer reacts

New York Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer reacts to a call in Game 1 of the WNBA Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Mystics at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. Credit: Steven Ryan

Bill Laimbeer has been here before -- back shoved snugly against a wall, not quite knowing where things were going to go next.

The Liberty coach was let go last October -- product of another season without a playoff appearance -- and though his career was in jeopardy, he didn't panic. He waited.

Three months later, the team called him back -- a mea culpa that meant that Laimbeer, who had dedicated most of his coaching life to the WNBA, would get another crack at winning the championship that this organization so deeply covets. Laimbeer won three of those with the Detroit Shock, while the Liberty are still searching for their first.

"They didn't renew my contract," he said after accepting his coach of the year award Friday. "It wasn't that I was fired. They just didn't renew my contract. Then I told that day, 'They're going to call me back.' I believed that and they did . . . One thing that is gratifying is that I got to come back and prove that the direction that we embarked upon was the right one."

Fast forward a few months, and Laimbeer's faith seems well-founded. He was awarded his second ever coach of the year trophy, and the Liberty, who haven't made the playoffs since 2012, went into the Eastern Conference semifinals as the No. 1 overall seed. And yet, here he is again: coaching a team one loss away from elimination and not sure how things will pan out next.

But even after the Liberty's double OT loss to the Mystics in Game 1 of the best-of-three series Friday, Laimbeer did not break stride. Sunday, the Liberty play at Washington at 1 p.m. and try to reclaim their balance against a team that has beaten them four times in five tries this season, and, as far as Laimbeer is concerned, his players are ready.

"No one said it was going to be easy," Laimbeer said after his team fell, 86-83, on Friday. "We're the best road team in the league and we've just got to go show it . . . Nothing is easy in this league."

He ticked off all the elements that needed to improve -- second-chance points and free throws (not to mention limiting the Mystics' chances in transition) -- and he did so with the firm assurance that things would be righted by Sunday. His team allowed 17 points on 18 turnovers, and shot only 61.5 percent from the free throw line.

"We'll watch it on film and clean it up," he said. "Everyone will know what our mistakes were. We'll clean some of those up and we've got to make some free throws . . . and we should have a very good shot of winning in Washington."

His team is one of the strongest the Liberty has ever had, even without longtime superstar Cappie Pondexter, who was traded for current star (and Brooklyn native) Epiphanny Prince. There is All Star Tina Charles, a Queens kid who came back to her hometown intent on winning a championship, and Swin Cash, a veteran who butted heads with Laimbeer in her earlier days on the Detroit Shock before becoming one of the leaders on his current squad.

Still, they're very different from the Detroit Shock juggernaut (that team won championships in 2003, 2006 and 2008), Laimbeer said. In many ways, the Liberty aren't nearly as physical as those teams, and perhaps not even as aggressive.

"Physically, there's no comparison," Laimbeer said. "[But] both teams have a great mental toughness and incredible leadership . . . When you have leaders in the locker room that police themselves . . . That's what makes champions."

Things certainly weren't going Laimbeer's way when the Liberty finished last season in fifth place, their second season in a row out of the playoffs, or when he was fired all those months ago.

But so what?

"You keep on playing," he said. "It's all you can do."

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