LOS ANGELES — The Sparks are hot going into Sunday. We all know they went through an awful 8-game losing streak but Los Angeles defeated the Indiana Fever in both games of their little series in Los Angeles. And starting on Sunday, they’re about to go on another two-game series with a team that they haven’t faced yet this season.
This one is decidedly different than the Fever. The New York Liberty are (is?) a fully loaded team (more than those deadly fries at a certain establishment) and they were one of the favorites coming into the 2023 WNBA campaign. We know New York has the 2020 #1 overall pick and all-star in Sabrina Ionescu. The Liberty have also had 2020 Most Improved Player in Betnijah Laney.
But in the offseason, the Liberty struck gold. Multiple times, really. They got 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones in a trade with Connecticut. New York also got Courtney Vandersloot through free agency. And to top it all off, they got two-time champion and 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart. And many would agree with you if you called the Liberty a superteam.
Maybe the 18-6 record by the Liberty isn’t what we expected for a “superteam” considering that the other “superteam”, the Las Vegas Aces, has run roughshod over the rest of the league with a 22-2 slate. Still, New York had won 11 of 13 games before getting upset by a Minnesota Lynx team that did not have Napheesa Collier.
But we see the names on that roster. We see the credentials. This team is as tough as they come. Pick your poison, per se. Jones has started to pick it up over the last few week or so (17.2 points and 12.6 rebounds over her last five). Breanna Stewart has already had two 40-point games this season. Courtney Vandersloot is tied for the lead in assists per game with 8.0. Sabrina Ionescu has gone over 30 points four times this year and is fourth in the league in three-point percentage (.435). Remember that now-legendary three-point shootout performance by Sabrina. And Laney can fill it up herself; she’s averaged 16.5 points in her last four contests.
New York’s starting five is incredible but they also have the exciting Marine Johannes, veteran Kayla Thornton, and rookie Nyara Sabally (yes, that’s Satou’s sister). Stefanie Dolson (Big Mama Stef!) has been out with an ankle injury. And Jocelyn Willoughby and Epiphanny Prince provide more depth in the guard spot.
The Liberty will let it fly. They have the most attempts from three and are, scarily, the most accurate in the league. And when you have great distributors like Vandersloot, Sabrina, and even Marine, there will be a lot of assists; they lead the league in that category, too. And with a team that has Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart, they get a lot of boards as well. The Liberty average the second most rebounds in the W.
So what do the Sparks have to do? Well, take advantage of a Liberty team that might be fatigued. The game that the Liberty had against the Lynx was supposed to happen last month but it was rescheduled for Friday. Suddenly, New York’s schedule was crunched into 7 games in 11 nights (and 8 games in 13 days with the second game against the Sparks). And that’s not even including the travel cross country after Friday since that game happened in New York.
Nneka Ogwumike has really been lighting it up the past couple of games. She scored 30 on Tuesday and then 25 more on Thursday. But it will be a hell of a match-up against Stewie. We also can’t ignore Jordin Canada doing her thing. We all remember her game-winner on Tuesday but she scored 20 or more in that two-game series against Indiana.
The defense also has to stop that Liberty scoring machine. We’ve seen Azurá Stevens and Dearica Hamby play physical. Zia Cooke has been going after it defensively and continues to improve there. And we know what Nneka and Jordin can do on that end of the court. They’ll try their best to run them off the three-point line. Surprisingly, the Liberty are in the bottom half of the league when it comes to scoring in the paint.
So it’s the classic match-up between Los Angeles and New York. They were the two teams that opened the league back on June 21, 1997. 26 years later and they are all still here. We’ll see if the superteam in the Liberty come out on top or the now-plucky underdog Sparks can make it three straight wins.