In CBS Sports’ first national television broadcast of the 2023 WNBA season, the new-look New York Liberty used an impressive second-half turnaround to pull away from the previously undefeated Connecticut Sun for an 81-65 victory. After losing their first game together, the Liberty have now won two in a row and are starting to show glimpses of why they were proclaimed a superteam.
During the winter, the Liberty made headlines with one of the most stunning offseasons of all time. In the span of a few weeks, they added Breanna Stewart (2018 MVP), Jonquel Jones (2021 MVP) and Courtney Vandersloot (active all-time assists leader) to a squad that already boasted Sabrina Ionescu (only player ever to have 500 points, 200 rebounds and 200 assists in a season).
The amount of offensive talent on the roster is staggering, and that’s where most of the initial analysis focused. Through the first week of the season, though, they’ve shown that they’re not just looking to outscore teams. They rank third in the league in defensive rating at 90.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, third in opponent field goal percentage (38.8), fourth in opponent field goal percentage at the rim (56.7) and second in free throws allowed per game (16).
Their effort against the Sun on Saturday, led by the brilliant Stewart, was perhaps the best showcase yet of their potential on that side of the ball. In the second half, in particular, they stepped up their intensity and completely smothered the Sun. They held Connecticut to 27 points on 7-of-28 from the field and forced 10 turnovers.
Stewart finished the afternoon with 21 points, six rebounds, five assists, six steals and four blocks, falling one rejection short of becoming just the second player in WNBA history to record a vaunted 5×5 game — that is, having at least five of every major stat category. But while she just missed out on the record books, she did lead the Liberty to a win with some brilliant defense.
Her versatility is what made her an All-Defensive First Team honoree last season and the third-place finisher in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, and against the Sun she made an impact both on and off the ball.
Early in the third quarter, after Tiffany Hayes snaked her way into the paint, Stewart was waiting on the weak-side to protect the rim.
Later in the frame, we saw her length and instincts pay off in a different way as a help defender. This time, she gets her hands up and deflects a cross-court pass from Brionna Jones for a steal.
On the ball, Stewart’s primary responsibility was Alyssa Thomas. She completely took the dynamic forward out of the game in the second half, limiting her to five points — all on free throws — and forcing her into three turnovers. Here she is shutting off one of Thomas’ patented spin moves and forcing a turnover.
Then, in the fourth quarter, we saw Stewart’s ability to switch and stick with a guard. On this possession, she sits down in a stance, moves her feet to shadow Hayes, then denies her at the rim with ease.
“She was all over,” Courtney Vandersloot said. “I’m just admiring her stat line here… “She’s not perfect, but pretty close. Some lanes that look open are not when Stewie’s on the floor.”
As expected, the Liberty remain a work in progress on both sides of the ball, and we’ve yet to see them put together a full 40 minutes of defense. The second half against the Sun was a sign, though, that when they’re fully engaged they can reach some impressive heights on that side of the ball.
Of course, it helps having arguably the best defensive player in the world leading the way and cleaning up any messes she finds.