Reigning champion Sky facing elimination after dropping Game 1 to No. 7 New York Liberty: ‘We’ll respond’

Defense, turnovers and three-point shooting are three key areas the Sky need to adjust before Game 2 Saturday against the Liberty.

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The Sky can talk all they want about the target on their back as the reigning champs and how that affects their opponents’ effort, but the playoff opener Wednesday came down to theirs. In front of their home crowd, with multiple opportunities to close out Game 1 of the best-of-three series against the Liberty, the Sky failed to.

Credit the seventh-seeded Liberty, who were unaffected by the pressure of facing the champs on the road. They executed on both ends of the floor, led by Sabrina Ionescu and Natasha Howard, and have a chance to win the series Saturday.

However, adjusting after losses has been the Sky’s strong suit all season. It took them 35 games before they lost two straight in the regular season. Facing an elimination game on their home court, they need to adjust, beginning with defending the three-point line.

The Sky were trapping aggressively but did a poor job rotating. The Liberty’s ball movement out of the trap gave them wide-open looks from the three-point line all night. They went 11-for-25 from deep, but many of their 14 missed threes were uncontested.

The Liberty have the highest percentage of field-goal attempts from three in the league, and the Sky did little to take them out of their game. The Sky also need to limit Howard’s touches. She demolished them in pick and rolls and scored 16 of her game-high 22 points in the paint. 

“We have to do a better job in rotations,” Candace Parker said. “In terms of if we are going to put two on the ball, we need to have pressure.”

The Sky didn’t turn the ball over in the first quarter. They had committed six turnovers by halftime and finished the night giving up 14 points on 10 turnovers. A few of their miscues in the second quarter came in transition, resulting in the Sky’s defense being unable to get set. Turnovers allowed the Liberty to close the quarter on an 8-2 run, including a four-point play by Marine Johannes, whom Courtney Vandersloot fouled shooting a three in transition.

James Wade’s team averaged 14.8 turnovers in the regular season, and the players talked about it being an area of improvement ahead of the postseason. Though 10 is below their season average, which ranked seventh in the league, it still was one of the difference-makers in Game 1.

Ahead of the game, Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said that the biggest key to her team’s success in the series was going to be defending the paint, but that’s where the Sky controlled the game. They outscored the Liberty 50-40 inside but shot just 7-for-25 from three. Wade has said on multiple occasions that his team isn’t a three-point-shooting team. The Sky scored 25% of their points from beyond the arc in the regular season.

Allie Quigley did a great job attacking the rim early, with four of her five made shots in the first half coming in the paint. She finished with 18 points, shooting 7-for-14 from the field. She went just 2-for-7 from deep, though, and air-balled a three attempt as the Liberty mounted their fourth-quarter comeback.

Despite the reliability of their inside game, the Sky need to improve their three-point shooting, especially when their third-leading scorer, Emma Meesseman, is held to four points. In their three regular-season wins against the Liberty, the Sky shot an average of 39.7% from deep.

Walking off the court Wednesday, the Sky looked down and out. The mental hurdle attached to defending their title and needing to regain control of the series is a difficult one. Now, more than ever, the Sky’s veterans need to refocus the group.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Wade said. “We’ll respond.”

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