Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu reacts to the crowd during the...

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu reacts to the crowd during the second half of Game 3 of the WNBA Finals against the Las Vegas Aces at Barclays Center on Sunday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Liberty cannot waste this gift.

They were handed a chance that seemed almost unfathomable when the Las Vegas Aces bulldozed to a 2-0 lead in the WNBA Finals, outscoring them by a total of 45 points.

Not only did the Aces lose Game 3, they lost two of their starters to foot injuries. Point guard Chelsea Gray and center Kiah Stokes will be change tense to "were" in print version in street clothes on the bench for Game 4 Wednesday, and the Liberty know they have to take advantage of what should be a huge momentum swing in this series.

“We have an opportunity, and we can’t let it pass us by,” forward Breanna Stewart said. “We have to continue to seize the moment.”

One Liberty player who is due for a seize-the-moment performance is guard Sabrina Ionescu.

Ionescu set a league record with 128 three-pointers in the regular season.  She also hit a franchise playoff-record seven makes from beyond the arc in Game 1 of the Liberty’s first-round series against Washington.

There were plenty of reasons to expect her to have a big series in the Finals, given the way she lit up the Aces in the regular season. In four meetings, she averaged 21.3 points while shooting 18-for-24 from three-point range.

So it’s been a bit of a shocker the way she has struggled to score against Vegas’ talented guard trio of Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum. 

Heading into Game 4, Ionescu was averaging 8.7 points while shooting 27% overall (7-for-26) and 31% (6-for-19) from three-point range in the Finals. Compare that with the regular season when she averaged 17.0 points while shooting 42.3% from the field and 44.9% from three-point range.

What’s more, until Game 3 when coach Sandy Brondello shifted her defensive assignments around, Ionescu struggled against Vegas’ quick guards. It wasn’t until Brondello put Stewart on Gray in Game 3 that the Liberty experienced any kind of success against the Aces’ guards.

Aces coach Becky Hammon has relied heavily on her starters throughout the season, mostly using a rotation of six or seven players. Alyssa Clark, who won the league’s Sixth Person of the Year award this season, is the one reserve who has seen significant playing time. No one else on the bench averaged more than 11.8 minutes. Cayla George, who was practicing with the first team Tuesday, has averaged just 2.3 points and 8.5 minutes.

Gray was the MVP of the Finals when the Aces defeated Connecticut last season. Her loss means that Plum and Young will likely split ballhandling duties.

"Our sum has to be greater than our individual parts," Hammon said. "Jackie, KP and Syd [Colson] are all more than capable. Syd has been in this league a long time. KP is used to when Chelsea goes out, she goes to the point or Jackie swings there. They're all very capable scorers and passers."

Gray’s loss also means that Ionescu should get some better shots on the perimeter.

Dating to the semifinals, Ionescu has gone four straight games without scoring 15 points, her longest scoring lull this year. Compare that with she scored 15 or more in 10 of the Liberty’s final 12 games of the regular season. The Liberty can win without Ionescu knocking down threes, but their high-octane offense is much more effective when defenses have to worry about her out on the perimeter.

“We know what we have to do better,” said Ionescu, who earned second-team All-WNBA honors. “This is a must-win game for us. We can’t look too far ahead. It’s all about just being in the moment.

“We’re going to have to come out and punch. We did that in Game 3 and we saw how that dictated the game for us. Going into this game, we are going to have to punch even harder and continue to keep them on their heels and understand that they are going to have to come in and take it from us. Because we are going to come in and play like our season is on the line, because it is."


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