I don’t believe what I saw on my television Friday night.
I saw the New York Liberty grinding out a 69-68 victory over the Dallas Wings at Westchester County Center by getting defensive stops and shutting down Wings rookie guard Arike Ogunbowale, who is famously known for hitting two buzzer-beaters that gave Notre Dame respective victories in the 2018 Final Four over Connecticut (semifinals) and Mississippi State (national championship game).
When was the last time anyone can say that about the Liberty? It seemed too long. In that regard, you can say you can’t make this up. This game should provide an example about the growth Katie Smith’s team made this month and this season so far. They don’t win a game like that in the last few years. Yes, they have come a long way in that regard.
I admit that I thought Ogunbowale would make another game-winning shot. She had two good looks of it, too, but she missed both. Stunning.
Credit the job Brittney Boyd and Reshanda Gray did on the former Notre Dame star in making her miss those two shots by putting a pressure on her. It couldn’t have been easy since they looked exhausted for being on the court for most of the second half. They found a way. They embody the grit of this Liberty team.
That yeoman effort turned out to be better than anyone anticipated as Ogunbowale shot 2-of-23 in that contest. The type of defense that makes a basketball wonk bragging about defense wins games.
We haven’t seen a defense like that from the Knicks and Nets when they were once competent basketball teams. In a sense, the Liberty’s defensive effort turned out to be such a foreign concept for the locals that wanted to see defense from their respective NBA basketball teams in town. The type of defense that should make Knicks coach David Fizdale and Nets coach Kenny Atkinson wonder why can’t their teams play defense like the Liberty did on Ogunbowale.
Yes, defense may not be a work of art for basketball fans that are used to watching flashy passes or shots from downtown, but it should be appreciated. Boyd and Gray can be offensive players if they want to be, but they sacrifice their offense for defense for the common good of winning games. That’s being unselfish. It’s actually unheard of in the NBA and even in men’s college basketball since players want to get their points.
Women players likely do it out of necessity just to make up for their offensive shortcomings. Still, this should not go unnoticed because playing defense takes so much will and intelligence for them to be effective.
The Liberty need to win games like this by grinding it out. They don’t have much firepower to win games solely on offense. Kia Nurse and Asia Durr are good, but they are far from finished products to rely on them to win games on their offense.
It’s why Amanda Zauhi B., Boyd and Gray proved to be invaluable since they keep the Liberty in the game with their defense by getting rebounds and forcing others to miss shots.
No one is saying the Liberty are the best defensive team in the WNBA. We are saying this is progress unlike the last few years where defense became an option for the players or they simply didn’t have the skillset to play defense. They have to start from somewhere. Sometimes, seeing isn’t bad.
It’s all about repetition in a sense once they form good defensive habits, this becomes easy for the players. Defense was one of many objectives the Liberty wanted to have this season, and so far, they made strides.
For all the talk about the Liberty’s growth predicates on Nurse and Durr, measure the team’s progress based on how many more games they can grind out defensively this season.
In July, the Liberty play only two home games. They need to play defense like they did last night to win their fair share of road games. If they can win enough games through their defense, it will be the team’s biggest growth of this season. More than the development of Nurse and Durr.
The Liberty never had an identity in recent years. It appears they are developing one now.