Maybe we all should've seen it coming. Even before the season, Bill Laimbeer suggested expectations of the Liberty should be tempered. Sure, the blockbuster trade that landed Tina Charles would offer an immediate boost, but it would be foolhardy to consider that an elixir.
"Our depth took a little hit in trading for Tina," Laimbeer, the coach and general manager, said in May. "I don't think we're a super team."
The Liberty, clearly, has proven that much with only 13 victories and their playoff chances teetering as the season winds down.
Great! Just what the Liberty needed Tuesday night: Taking on an actual "super team."
The mismatch was obvious and the Liberty's weaknesses were exposed in losing to the Mercury, 76-64, at the Garden.
Candice Dupree had 18 points and 10 rebounds and Brittney Griner 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks for Phoenix (27-4). The Mercury, the No. 1 seed in the West, secured home-court advantage throughout the WNBA playoffs and are a win away from matching the league's single-season record.
Despite Charles' 26 points and 12 rebounds, the fifth-place Liberty (13-18) was overwhelmed and dropped a game behind Indiana for the fourth and final playoff berth in the East. The Liberty has meandered all season, but its mediocre and log-jammed conference has kept it relevant.
Still, at this point, "winning out might be our only solution," said Cappie Pondexter, who scored 12 points but shot 6-for-17 from the field. "We've put ourselves in this situation so it's on us to move forward and get ourselves out."
The difficulty there is two of their final three games are against Indiana, a team they've lost to twice, including Sunday's 14-point blowout.
Phoenix had control from the outset Tuesday night. Charles' 16 first-quarter points kept the Liberty in striking distance early and Essence Carson's jumper drew them within 33-30 with 3:29 left in the second, but the Mercury answered with a 10-0 run. Diana Taurasi (14 points) gave Phoenix a 59-43 lead on a free throw with 3:35 remaining in the third.
"We lost to the best team in the league," Laimbeer said. "We played hard, but we don't have the shooting or the additional players to step up, and you need that in big games."
Griner and Taurasi are the kind of dominant All-Star tandem the Liberty hoped to emulate with Charles and Pondexter. But the Mercury also have that depth the Liberty lack, with five players averaging better than 10 points. The Liberty have two - Charles and Pondexter, who has been slowed by injuries.
Nevertheless, Laimbeer said his team understands "the task at hand, and that is to win the next three games." Whether that happens, he realizes that he also is charged with the task of improving this roster.
"We have to go out and hit the free-agent market and find more players who can play at a high level," Laimbeer said. "That'll be our focus when the season ends."
It could be as soon as next week.