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WNBA Finals: How the Liberty can bounce back in Game 2 and avoid first 2-game losing skid this season

LAS VEGAS — Kelsey Plum is aware the New York Liberty have not lost two games in a row this season. She has also seen all those other statistics littered in the haystack like needles.

“A lot of times in these playoffs [and] even throughout the season, there’s all these statistics, like, three bobby pins have never dropped on the floor for Game 1,” the Las Vegas Aces guard said after practice Tuesday. “Or, like, two birds flew into the arena for Game 2. It’s never happened before. I mean, respectfully, I don’t pay any attention to that stuff.”

Much like her head coach, Becky Hammon, Plum said her team’s focus heading into Game 2 of the WNBA Finals is what they can control and where they can continue to get better.

That’s all well for the Aces, who won Game 1 98-81 to open the best-of-five series. They’re two wins away from a repeat championship that would make them only the third back-to-back champs in league history and the first since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2002. They’ll have a sold-out Michelob Ultra Arena at their advantage when Game 2 tips off Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).

It’s a different story for the New York Liberty — but not one with which they aren’t familiar. They are, as Plum knows, not one to drop two in a row. And they come out strong in such moments. No team in league history has come back from down 0-2 in the Finals, so while Game 2 isn’t technically a must-win, it’s close to being one. New York is focused on the success and growth it has experienced after losses to steal one before heading home.

“Things are always highlighted or exaggerated after a loss. There’s good, bad, ugly in every game,” Liberty point guard Courtney Vandersloot said. “But after a loss, you feel like your highlight is a little bit more on the bad and ugly. And I think that’s what we do really well is we are having these conversations. We’re addressing our feelings. We’re getting things out there that maybe we felt in the last game, too, or the game before that, but we won.”

It’s a sign of maturity, Vandersloot said, though she admitted, “maybe a growth point is that we do that before we lose.”

New York Liberty forward Betnijah Laney drives past Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young and forward A'ja Wilson during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas. (Candice Ward/USA TODAY Sports)

In the opening round, the Liberty played a hard best-of-three series against the Washington Mystics that nearly took a Game 3 in Washington, D.C. When New York dropped Game 1 of the semifinals at home against the Connecticut Sun, whom New York defeated in all four matchups in the regular season, head coach Sandy Brondello said she yelled at the team.

“Because that was totally embarrassing,” she said. “We just thought complacency snuck in. That was just a wake-up call.”

But in the days after Sunday’s loss that was closer than the final score indicated, Brondello took a different approach. She and players said immediately afterward and ahead of Tuesday’s practice that all of the issues are things they can control. They know they can and have played better, including against the team standing on the other end of the court. It’s about instilling confidence and being a better team than what they showed Sunday.

“Now it’s the Finals,” Brondello said. “I’m going to pour into them. Come on, let’s do this. It’s hard to get here. It’s really hard to get to the Finals. Some of us never get here. But we don’t have to do anything different than we haven’t already done. Just focus on that each and every one. No one has to do anything different than they haven’t done already. It’s not on one person. It’s we. It’s always going to be we.”

In Game 1, the Liberty scored 49 points in the first half, a stat Hammon pointed at as an issue her team needs to address. They’ve relied on center Jonquel Jones and wing Betnijah Laney to pace them early in the playoffs, and Laney had only her second game of the postseason without scoring at least 19 points. Shooting guard Sabrina Ionescu didn’t get good 3-point looks, Vandersloot struggled, and star shooting reserve Marine Johannès was negated in the second half.

Brondello is focused most on the way it all came together, not the individual lines. There’s a list of ways to improve from Game 1, such as players finding their shots and screening better. They missed open looks and didn’t move the ball around enough to find the best shot, not just the best-at-the-time shot. It wasn’t the Liberty’s standard game style, and Brondello said her team played too individually.

“That’s Vegas’ game,” Brondello said. “They move the ball around, but they’re one-on-one players. We’re not good like that. We’re not breaking down anyone on the dribble. Our movement should be our success.”

The Liberty led the league in assist rate (75%) but had their lowest of the season against Las Vegas in Game 1 (53%). In three of four regular-season meetings between the teams, the assist rate was at least 70%. The one in which it wasn’t was the first meeting (67%), when the Liberty were still figuring out one another.

The team watched the film and Brondello, as she says she usually does, opened the floor to hear from the players about what happened and what needs to collectively be fixed. She said she wished Game 2 were Tuesday because she feels good about how they will be better.

“That’s the best thing about Sandy and her coaching staff,” Vandersloot said. “They’re not going to panic, they’re not going to dwell on what it was. We’re just going to address it, we’re going to fix it, and that’s what we’ve done all season. That’s why our season has gone the way it has, and when we dropped a game, we move on — and usually go on a winning streak.”

After four of the team’s first five losses dating to late July, the Liberty won the next four games. They went 14-2 down the back end of the season after dropping a game against the Minnesota Lynx at home July 28. One loss was by 13 against Vegas on Aug. 17, and the second was the season finale the Mystics won on a buzzer-beater.

The defense has often proven to be a larger problem in those losses, as it was Sunday. The 99 points were the most the Liberty have given up this season, edging out the 98 in their first meeting against the Aces in June and against the Dallas Wings. They gave up 3s to Young, Plum and Gray within the first four minutes and struggled to make shots difficult for the dangerous guards.

“I don’t think any of us expected it to be easy, but [it’s about] making sure that throughout the game, when there are highs and lows and we are at a low, that we bring ourselves back to a high,” Liberty forward Breanna Stewart said. “Continuing to fight through it and making sure that we stay together.”

What really broke the Aces’ way was they were able to go on a fourth-quarter run the Liberty couldn’t stop. It’s how each of their meetings have been decided, no matter the victor, and why the scores look more like two teams at opposite ends of a spectrum than fairly matched opponents.

“At the end of the day, both these teams have very explosive offenses,” Hammon said. “And even [against] great defense, greater offense will win, will score. That’s why the score’s not 12-13. Great offense will beat great defense frequently.”

Much like random stats are a part of basketball life, so are cliches. And each side has used the one about basketball being a game of runs. It’s about knowing they’re coming and withstanding them.

“There’s gonna be moments in this game where either team has a choice to fall apart,” Hammon said. “And the team that keeps it together the best during those teetering moments is going to be the team that wins.”

New York is focused on making sure that’s them on Wednesday to avoid the brink of elimination.