Petnija Laney strengthens Liberty; Satu Sabally, Wings beat Dream

The second night of the 2023 WNBA playoffs brought all the heat and then some after the first night lacked any of it.

The No. 7 Washington Mystics, plagued by injuries throughout the regular season, gave the No. 2 New York Liberty a test until Sabrina Ionescu lit up Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. New York won 90-75 for its first home win since 2015.

Within an hour, the No. 5 Atlanta Dream surprisingly took a 20-point lead against the No. 4 Dallas Wings, the favorite to upset the major teams. Instead of earning their first postseason win with a lower seed, the Wings came back 94-82 at College Park Center in Arlington, Texas, in a battle of high-scoring young stars. It’s the biggest comeback in the WNBA playoffs since 2014. Teams went 2-89 (.222) in the regular season when trailing by at least 20 points.

Here’s how each side won their opening matches. The playoffs continue Sunday when the No. 1 Las Vegas Ice and No. 3 Connecticut Sun can clinch a semifinal berth.

Liberty isn’t a super team without Betnijah Laney

It would be wrong to say that Betnijah Laney’s importance to the New York Liberty has not been adequately covered given that an entire 40-game season was played with the super-team discussion at its center. However, even a die-hard New York fan who listed Liberty starting at five would likely call it last.

In Game 1, the 6-foot winger showed that even as a fifth-name player, she’s just as important to the team’s success. Laney kept the Liberty on their feet early as they struggled to move the ball, an issue they’ve had against the Mystics all season. New York had two assists in the first quarter and seven in the first half, despite averaging 24.1 per game this year. Their 75% seasonal assist rate set a WNBA record, and they’re even more dangerous when giving up a good shot to get a better shot.

Washington’s length, even without Shakira Austin in the lineup due to a hip injury, clogged lanes and caused problems for New York. The Liberty had five turnovers in the first half, which Washington turned into nine points, and their star names struggled to find their matchups. The two teams split their season series, 2-2, and the Mystics came out with momentum after their season-ending blowout win that sealed the Liberty as the No. 2 seed.

Petnija Lani, who appeared during a regular-season game, was key to the New York Liberty’s Game 1 win over the Washington Mystics in the first round of the 2023 WNBA playoffs on Friday. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Laney’s efforts on both ends of the field were decisive. Courtney Vandersloot didn’t get an assist until 4:35 of the second quarter. This was the team’s fourth match. Ionescu didn’t make a 3-pointer until 2:14. It was her fourth and only attempt of the first half. Breanna Stewart didn’t make her first field goal until 58.1 seconds left in the first half.

It was Laney, with a heavy dose of help from center Jonquel Jones, who kept the freedom in it until those stars started to click. She was 6 of 9, including 2 of 4 from 3-point range, for 14 points and six rebounds in the first half. She said her putback at the buzzer not only gave the Liberty a 46-42 lead into the locker room, but “momentum (and) good energy” to power them in the second.

While the rest of the team found their feet in the second half, Laney scored just five points to finish with 19. She was 3 of 6 from 3-point range, and flashed a big smile on her final assist from Vandersloot with 5:58 to play and a 13-point lead.

Laney is the lowest pick of the top five, going 17th in the 2015 draft. She’s not as decorated, but she would still be (and has been) a higher pick on almost any other team. Laney won Most Improved Player honors in 2020, made the All-WNBA Defensive Team that year and earned an All-Star nod in 2021.

When general manager Jonathan Culp, who won CEO of the Year, compiled this list, Laney’s inclusion was as purposeful as the rest. She’s known more for defense, but her offensive skills as the oft-cited “fifth-best” player make New York dangerous.

More Sabrina Ionescu three-point records

It took a full half for Liberty to find her spacing, and when she did, Ionescu took over as she was wont to do. The guard set the franchise record for 3-pointers in a game and had her sixth late in the fourth quarter. She was 7 of 13 from 3 (10 of 18 overall) to go for 29 points, 20 in the second half. It’s the third-biggest playoff appearance in Liberty history.

Ionescu’s first deep 3 came at 5:12 in the third quarter and gave New York its largest lead of the game, 58-50. It had the sold-out 8,789 fans at Barclays Center roaring.

They exploded in the fourth period when Ionescu, angry that the refs didn’t call a shooting foul, nailed back-to-back three-pointers to put the Mystics up 7-0. Liberty’s six-point lead fell to 12.

“If you give up transition 3s, especially (in) this building, you’re going to have an uphill battle,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault said. Buckets like those “take the air out of the room,” said mystery guard Ariel Atkins.

Ionescu fired the Game 1 dagger in a fitting finale. The Mystics missed a jumper that Vandersloot rebounded as Liberty led by 12 points with less than 40 seconds on the clock. The Liberty ran their offense to kill time and Stewart put it back to Ionescu on the perimeter, who finished the night with a 33-foot 3 for the 90-75 final.

“They knocked us out last game (and) we have to show them what it’s like,” Ionescu said in the radio interview, referring to Natasha Cloud, who waved goodbye after a buzzer-beater secured the tournament’s second seed. Freedom.

“They upset us and we had to come here and prove what we are, and we did that tonight,” Ionescu said.

Jones had 20 points and 12 rebounds, split perfectly in half. She added two blocks. Stewart scored 10 goals with eight rebounds and three blocks in another quiet scoring night for her against Washington and Elena Delle Donne. Vandersloot finished with seven points, six rebounds and six assists.

The Liberty’s first five starters had more than 85 points, 40 rebounds and 10 made 3s in a postseason game. For each across the schedule. They assisted on 18 of 33 baskets (54%) and their nine blocks set a franchise record. Five players combined for a total. The previous record was eight, set during the 1999 finals.

A glimpse of the upcoming qualifiers

The way the Dream’s Rhyne Howard and the Wings’ Satou Sabally lit up the scoreboard on Friday night is a sign of what’s to come in future postseasons. Not to mention how they followed up their amazing performance on Tuesday.

Howard, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft, set the scoring record in his first playoff game with 36 points. Her eight 3s on 15 attempts (53.3%) were also a record for her debut. She added four rebounds, three blocks and two assists. Her 19 points in the first quarter tied the WNBA record for the most points in a quarter of any playoff game. Dream star Angel McCoughtry scored 19 points in the third quarter of the 2011 contest.

Sabally, the No. 2 overall pick in 2020 behind Oregon teammate Ionescu, was almost as good. She had 32 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals, shot 55% overall and hit 3-of-5 3-pointers. This was Sabally’s fifth playoff appearance and her first in a fully healthy season. Her scoring output set the franchise record for a single postseason game.

This is the fifth time in postseason history that two players have scored at least 30 points each across the schedule.

In 73 career games before Friday, Howard had scored 1,233 points and averaged 16.9 career points per game. It holds the Dream franchise tag for the fastest time to reach 1,000 points. Howard’s rookie contract runs through 2024 with a team option for 25 years.

Sabally will be a restricted free agent this offseason. When she entered the league, many analysts saw her as having the highest ceiling of any player in the class – even Ionescu. But she has suffered various injuries over the years and missed some time while with overseas clubs. It is a favorite of the most improved player.

Perimeter defense on the wings

The Wingers have the longest frontcourt in the league and are causing problems throughout the game. They doubled the dream in the paint, 48-24, but it was the team’s defense on the perimeter that stood out long into the postseason.

The Wings are the second-worst playoff team in terms of defensive efficiency (105.8) in the regular season behind the Minnesota Lynx. It was their third-best offense (109.5) that propelled them to the No. 4 seed and the favorite to knock super teams out of championship contention.

Against Atlanta, they had 12 steals and missed a season-high by one hit. Arike Ogunbowale had four of them, none more important than her shot from goalkeeper Allisha Gray in the final minutes of the game to put away. She tied her season-high four times. One of those games was their July win over the Aces.

The Dream Team were quick to attack at times and head coach Tanesha Wright said composure became an issue. They would often give up the ball, or trip over their own ball handles, in the fast-paced, physical competition. Credit Dallas for pressuring them into making mistakes.

Ogunbowale scored 24 points with nine rebounds and seven assists. Terra McCowan dominated the paint with 17 points and 14 rebounds, including seven on the offensive glass. Nine of those rebounds were in the pivotal fourth quarter, and cleaning up the boards late prevented the Dream from coming back. I shot 6 of 7 overall.

Gray scored 21 points for Atlanta and center Cheyenne Parker added 11 points. The team shot 10% worse than Dallas, although they did have five more 3-pointers thanks to Howard.

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