Tina Charles is the most dominant professional athlete in the New York area. The Liberty forward is the WNBA’s leading scorer and leading rebounder and has been the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month all four months of the regular season.
No athlete has meant more to a team this year than the 6-4 Charles has to the Liberty. Yet none of that will seem terribly significant if the Liberty doesn’t win Saturday night’s one-game, win-or-go-home playoff against the Phoenix Mercury at Madison Square Garden and advance to the WNBA semifinals.
“It would be disappointing to everyone, not just Tina Charles, if we don’t get to the next round,” coach Bill Laimbeer said. “Anytime you lose, it’s disappointing. So we don’t intend to lose.”
Laimbeer said that without Charles this year, the Liberty would have been “average at best.” Instead, it has quietly put together an impressive season, especially when you consider that the player who was supposed to be their No. 2 scorer, Epiphanny Prince, missed the first 26 games as she recovered from an offseason knee injury.
Of course, this is why the Liberty traded three first-round picks to the Connecticut Sun for Charles in the first place. She was designed to be the pivotal figure in the rebuild, whose timetable got pushed up last year when the Liberty had the best record in the league and came within one win of advancing to the WNBA finals.
Charles said the memory of last year’s painful loss to the Indiana Fever in the Eastern Conference finals has motivated her and the team this year. After winning the opener of a three-game series, the Liberty blew an 18-point lead in Game 2 and then lost Game 3.
This is Charles’ seventh year in the WNBA, and she is determined to get her team deep into the playoffs. She made it twice to the conference finals — which under the new playoff format are referred to as the WNBA semifinals because teams are seeded without regard to conference — but knows it is something she needs to do again.
“Winning a championship is my ultimate goal,” Charles said. “That’s what my job is. My job is to do more than go out and see how many players of the month or players of the week or MVP awards I can receive. My job is to do what my team needs to do to get a championship.”
A championship is a pretty tall order for this year’s team, given the strength of the top two seeds, the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks. Yet the Liberty has a chance to make the finals.
First, they have to get past the Mercury, whom they were 2-1 against in the regular season. Then they have to hope that the new playoff format throws their next opponent, the Sparks, off their game. As the No. 2 seed, Los Angeles has had a bye in the first two rounds, meaning it will be 12 days between the end of the regular season and their first playoff game. The Sparks struggled after this year’s Olympic break, going 5-5 down the stretch while star Candace Parker averaged just 11 points.
At this point, Charles wants a shot at a title. It’s what she’s playing for. She knows there are great players who never won one. In the NBA, there are plenty, including Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson. Charles believes you can be a great player without winning a title, yet she would prefer not to have to be a key figure in that discussion.
And so on Saturday, she will set out to do what she has done all season. She will put a young team on her back, look for a few of her teammates to lighten the load and then try to get one more big win. That’s a lot of pressure for any player, even someone who led the league in rebounds and scoring. Yet Charles says she really doesn’t feel it.
“When I was in college, I had a great coach who told me that pressure is someone asking you to do something you can’t do,” Charles said in reference to Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. “The situation I’m in, I believe I can handle it.”