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WNBA season in review: New York Liberty lean on Sabrina Ionescu

Finally back to full health, Sabrina Ionescu took a leap forward for the Liberty. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The New York Liberty’s season came to an end last week with a 90-72 loss to the Chicago Sky in Game 3 of their first-round series.

The No. 2 seed Chicago Sky lost the first game of the series after the Liberty closed on a 13-0 run. But the defending champions won the next two games, including a blowout Game 2 that set a WNBA record for the most lopsided win in playoffs history.

Still, young star Sabrina Ionescu took a leap forward, and veteran Natasha Howard remained a rock. With both returning next season, the Liberty seem primed to build on the progress they made this season.

New York Liberty: Year in Review

What went right?

New York made the playoffs for the second year in a row after failing to qualify from 2018 through 2020. And despite another early exit, the opening win against the Sky proved the Liberty have the tools to compete.

Ionescu’s first year back at full health since her injury-shortened rookie season in 2020 showcased her superstar-level skill.

In a career year that saw her put up 17.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, the guard also proved to be a triple-double machine. The 24-year-old posted two this season (and had several other near misses) to become just the second player in WNBA history with three career triple-doubles. She joins 36-year-old Candace Parker, who also posted two this season.

The addition of Marine Johannès also came up big for the Liberty. The French player provided a boost in the playoffs — including with her signature no-look pass to kick off the game-winning run in Game 1.

What went wrong?

The injury bug hit the Liberty hard this season.

Betnijah Laney missed the majority of the season with a right knee injury. The impact of her absence became all the more apparent when she returned to average 11.2 points in the final nine games of the season. Her return in early August marked the first time all season that New York played with a full roster.

“New coach, new system, new players coming in, and with our injury toll, it took longer than we thought with our chemistry,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “I think we’ve grown. As we move forward, keep adding the right people around our core and continue to build.

“I was proud that we could get back and play with a better sense of urgency.”

The absence of Laney also affected the team defensively. But even with Laney in the lineup, the Liberty’s defensive struggles showed through, especially in the final two games against the Sky.

“We were a good defensive team; we have to be a great defensive team,” Brondello said. “We worked really hard, we just have to be consistent with that.”

What comes next?

Remember in the 2021 offseason when everyone was convinced Breanna Stewart was going to sign with New York in free agency? While the Liberty courted the star, she wound up heading back to the Seattle Storm on a one-year deal.

But, especially with Stewart’s Seattle teammate Sue Bird retiring at the end of the season, the Stewart lottery is back in business.

If the Liberty add Stewart alongside Ionescu and Howard for 2023, they could go from a first-round also-ran to a championship contender.