Oh, this was painful.
The Liberty had every chance in the world to force a Game 5. They have every chance in the world to rewrite history, to move within one win of winning the franchise’s first WNBA title.
Instead, it all fell apart in the most unpredictable and dysfunctional of ways as the Liberty’s superstar players couldn’t find a way to score on a Las Vegas Aces team that was missing two of its starters and had the thinnest of benches.
The Liberty’s season ended with a thud and a broken play Wednesday night at the Barclays Center as the Aces hung on for a 70-69 win in Game 4 to become the first WNBA team to win back-to-back championships in 21 years.
With 8.1 seconds left, Liberty coach Sandy Brondello called a timeout. She then drew up a play designed to get the ball to Breanna Stewart, the league’s MVP. Stewart, however, had Alyssa Clark in her face and could not get the shot she wanted. Courtney Vandersloot then missed an 18-footer with a second left and that was that.
“I put the ball in the hands of the MVP because we trusted her and it just didn’t work out today,” Brondello said. “I would still do it again. I think it’s the right call.”
It likely was but the Liberty shouldn’t have been in a position where they had to make a bucket in the final seconds in order to keep their season going.
The Liberty had lost the first two games of the series by a total of 45 points. Game 3, however, provided an unexpectedly wild pendulum swing as not only did Las Vegas lose Game 3, they lost two of their starters to foot injuries. Point guard Chelsea Gray and center Kia Stokes were on the bench for Game 4.
The Liberty, on the surface, had been handed a gift of gigantic proportions. Aces coach Becky Hammon has relied heavily on her starters throughout the season, mostly using a rotation of six or seven players. Clark, who won the league’s Sixth Person of the Year Award this season, wasn’t expected to have much trouble stepping into a starting role. But the other starter, Cayla George, had averaged just 2.3 points and 8.5 points during the regular season.
Who could have predicted that George, who finished with 11 points, would outscore Stewart, who had just 10? Who could have predicted that Clark would play the kind of defense that shut down the league’s MVP? Who could have predicted that Sabrina Ionescu, who set a league record for three-pointers made, would have another rough night, scoring just 13 points on 5-for-12 shooting?
‘We didn’t play our best game. That’s the one thing that stings a lot,” Brondello said. “We grew a lot as a team and will evaluate as we move forward. We know we are better than what we did. Credit Vegas. Thy just found a way.”
Vegas found a way because they were able to view their injuries as just another obstacle in what has been a roller-coaster season on and off the court. Beating another superteam on that team’s homecourt seemed like a perfect ending to a challenging season.
“This group has been forged out of adversity,” Hammon said. “They weren’t put together based on superteam expectations. . . . They’ve earned this moment, they’ve earned this opportunity, and so now it’s just on us to go grab it.”
A’ja Wilson, who lost out to Stewart for MVP in the regular season, was named MVP of the Finals after scoring 24 points to lead the team Wednesday night.
Both Stewart and Ionescu had subpar series. Jonqul Jones, who had been the team’s one consistent performer, was held to just six points after missing multiple layups.
Part of the problem might be chemistry. The Liberty were a super team that was thrown together this offseason.
The Aces, despite their injury problems, have been together for a year. In the end, it was that experienced that showed.
Said Brondello: “This is going to be a hard one to learn from.”