Saturday, May 20, 2017

In Minnesota, Liberty finds learning experience on road to WNBA elite

Lindsay Whalen and Minnesota showed Liberty how much more remains in their process of returning to prominence in WNBA during Thursday's win at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- The Liberty handled their opening day in an orderly fashion, taking care of business while posting a 73-65 victory over San Antonio.

The simple fact remained, though, that while the Liberty did what was needed to secure the opening victory, head coach Bill Laimbeer was not pleased with the way his team played. In the veteran mentor’s estimation, his group was capable of better. Much better.  
That is not a knock on San Antonio, but rather an indication of how high the bar is raised in New York. In simple terms, this is a team longing to execute the ultimate close-out, their first WNBA championship.
Thursday night, Minnesota invaded the Garden. If you are looking for a marquee team, the Lynx, last year’s WNBA runner-up, is exhibit A. Minnesota was coming off a home win over Chicago. Entering the Garden on a sweltering evening, Minnesota was a test; not just in talent and star power, but experience as well. Cheryl Reeve, one of the league’s best and most respected coaches, could not be overlooked in the equation of the Lynx and their success.
The first half saw three ties and three lead changes. The Lynx led by as much as 11 in that opening stanza, but the Liberty constantly showed resolve, fighting back to trail by just three at the break. In one respect, the deficit was a smoke screen. Defensively, the Liberty allowed 43 points and a 96 defensive efficiency, numbers that would not sit well with Laimbeer. Offensively, Sugar Rodgers was white-hot for the Liberty with 19 first half points, but a glaring concern was Tina Charles registering just two points, on free throws, in 13 minutes of first half action.
The Liberty came out strong in the second half. Minutes into the third quarter, they took a lead on a conventional three-pointer by Brittany Boyd. Lindsay Whalen quickly answered with a pair of field goals and despite the fact that over 16 minutes of action remained, the pervasive feeling was one of Minnesota regaining control. The Lynx were never really challenged after that juncture, going on to score a 90-71 victory for win number two on the season as the Liberty fell to 1-1.

While the season is in its infancy, Laimbeer is looking to get his team defined and in a groove, soon and fast. He was not as upset about the Lynx putting five in double figures, nor did he obsess over a subpar six-point night from Tina Charles. There were other pressing matters.
“Too many mistakes and  missed assignments that really can’t happen,” Laimbeer said following the defeat.  “They have to understand what good basketball teams do on both sides of the ball. It is drill and drill in practice, build good habits. Unfortunately, the league doesn’t stop these games continue to go on.”

“We are still a work in progress,” he conceded. “We were within three and let it get away. They are more disciplined and talented than us.”
In the winner’s locker room, veteran point guard Whalen touched on those aspects of the game that made Minnesota winners. Detractors may say their core group isn’t getting any younger. The half-full group would look at it as a case of having valuable experience. Whalen agrees.
“We have been together a while,” she said. “We never get down anytime during a game. We know each other so well our strengths and weaknesses and that is crucial. We are a group that enjoys playing together and gets along on and off the court.” Finishing her sentence, Whalen turned and fist-bumped Maya Moore, icing her knees and chatting with writers in the next stall.
A byproduct of that experience and camaraderie is intensity. It is not switched on. The Lynx have it the minute they step on the floor. “The X’s and O’s are important,” Whalen observed, “but you have to play hard through each possession. We had an early lead and lost it tonight. We all realized there was plenty of time to regroup and just knew we would.”
The Liberty have been known for tough defense under Laimbeer’s watch. The offense was the concern. Charles needed consistent complimentary help. Laimbeer hoped a group including Rodgers, Boyd (now out for the season with an Achilles injury), Epiphanny Prince, Shavonte Zellous; plus the additions of Bria Hartley and Notre Dame draftee Rebecca Allen, would be the answer. In the final analysis that group may, in fact, put those needed points on the board. A tougher task is developing that team chemistry, the type the Lynx have, an intangible qualifying Minnesota as a WNBA elite, an exclusive club the Liberty hope to join.
A long season has just started. Already, New York knows what needs to be done in the realm of intensity and effort. Maybe Minnesota posed more than a test. It was what we call a learning experience.

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