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Fresh Hell

New York’s Long Basketball Nightmare is Over: The Liberty Are Going to the Finals

The hottest team in New York is on the way to play the hated Aces in the championship round.

(Brandon Todd/New York Liberty)

There's nothing that screams New York's professional basketball ineptitude more than the fact that it has been 21 years since a New York basketball team has advanced to a championship round. On Sunday, that shameful streak was broken. WNBA Most Valuable Player Breanna Stewart and the rest of the New York Liberty beat back a freakishly resourceful and unyielding Connecticut Suns team in game four of the WNBA semifinals. The Liberty finally sealed the deal in the final seconds, narrowly dodging the ignominy of trudging all the way back down I-95 to what would have been a terrifying and decisive game five at the Barclays Center. The Liberty somehow found a way to win, despite, once again, not really having a very good game. 

Now let's take a moment and savor victory. Or, in our case, to begin nervously evaluating where things stand as the Liberty head into their most important games in two decades. 

Don't be fooled by their 5-1 record in these WNBA playoffs—the New York Liberty haven't been playing all that well since the end of the regular season. Or at least, they're not looking like the world-beaters they became during the final three-quarters of this WNBA season, where their three-point shooting and rebounding dominance made it nearly impossible for other teams to catch up on the scoring end of the floor. Once the Liberty started draining threes, which usually was early and often, there was no coming back. 

These playoffs can be defined so far by the play of two Liberty players—Stewart, the misfiring MVP, and Betnijah Laney, the everywhere-on-the-floor-at-once guard who has acted as the glue for the team this year, holding together Frankenstein's monster of a superteam (same green-ish pallor as the uniform). 

Stewart, after a season where she piled on points so effortlessly that you'd consistently look up at the scoreboard to find she'd somehow already have twenty, suddenly found it tough to get buckets. Part of that might have been some nerves in the opening round against the pesky Washington Mystics, but in the second round, that difficulty came in the form of Suns forward Alyssa Thomas, who took several of Stewart's gigantic elbows right to the nose, and then bounced back up and smothered her wherever she went on the floor. Stewart had a brutal first two games of the series against the Suns, shooting below 30 percent, but finally broke through during the final two games when Thomas began to sputter defensively against Stewart's relentless physicality (and again, her elbows). 

But when Stewie is cooking like this during a pressure situation, no one can beat the Liberty: 

(Why was she so open? Well, guard her closely thirty feet from the hoop, find out what happens then.) The Liberty need Sunday's Stewart if they want to have any chance in the finals. 

The other side of the Liberty coin is Laney, one of the few Liberty who pre-date the "superteam" era. Laney earned a much-deserved contract extension that will keep her in New York for at least the next three seasons. 

What does Laney do? A little bit of everything. But her effortless flow from a smart defensive play to a backdoor cut is every bit as valuable as Stewart's big-time shots. 

For Laney, despite a hiccup for a single game, the playoffs have been a perfect showcase for her relentless movement and ball IQ. If a team is going to make a run at the finals, it needs a player like Laney, who through sheer will can make things happen. And just like Stewart, as goes Laney, so go the Liberty. If she's balling out, they're going to be OK. 

Waiting in the finals for the Liberty are the Aces, the reigning champions who have been flawless this postseason. The Aces are from Las Vegas, a blasted mistake in the desert whose late capitalist move into having real sports teams is a true reckoning with the general decline of the American empire. Las Vegas should not be a city, should not be able to have sports teams, and most importantly, should not be the ones standing in New York's way to basketball glory. (Another incriminating fact: The Aces are partially owned by Tom Brady.) 

But here we are, and yep, the Aces are going to be tough. They're battle-tested, have an MVP of their own, and have shown zero let-up in recent weeks. While the Liberty might have won the season series against them, they'll be playing a much more focused Aces team this Sunday in Vegas. We'll get to them later this week, along with a fun little "get to know the Liberty" feature, but ack: Aces, good. 

The finals don't start until Sunday, though. For the moment, for today, we are permitted to bask in the bit of basketball sunshine the Liberty have shone on the dark void that is New York basketball. They were built to quickly win a championship, and with very little trepidation or resistance, they're now ready to fight for one. The easy part is over.

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