When it comes to the New York Liberty, Sabrina Ionescu is the head of the snake.

At least, that’s how Kahleah Copper describes her.

And how do you kill a snake?

You cut off its head.

Candace Parker, left, celebrates with Courtney Vandersloot during the Sky's 100-62 win. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

In Game 1 of the Liberty’s first-round series against the defending champion Chicago Sky, Ionescu scored 22 points and recorded six assists to lead No. 7 seed New York to an upset win.

In Game 2, the Oregon grad was held to just seven points and three assists, and No. 2 seed Chicago secured a lopsided 100-62 victory — the largest margin in WNBA playoff history — to force a deciding Game 3.

The difference largely came down to the defensive assignment. This time around, Copper matched up with Ionescu, as opposed to the first game, when Vandersloot drew Ionescu and Copper matched up with Betnijah Laney.

Copper bothered New York’s star guard from the jump.

“It was important for me to defend her,” Copper said after Saturday’s game. “I gotta be able to make it as hard as possible for her, so that’s what I wanted to do.”

Copper accomplished her mission. The game marked just the fourth time this season that Ionescu posted fewer than 10 points and fewer than five assists in the same contest.

“She’s special because she plays both ends of the floor, and I think that gets undervalued a lot,” Sky coach James Wade said of Copper, who not only played suffocating defense but also scored 20 points. “Her ability to be disruptive and then on the other hand get us buckets and actually draw defenses — it sets a tone, and the tone is really what we need.”

Chicago’s defensive intensity, sparked by Copper, represented a complete shift from Game 1. The Sky put a major emphasis on defending the 3-point line, closing out hard, putting hands up and making sure the Liberty didn’t get uncontested looks.

The Liberty score 36.5 percent of their points from the 3-point line and have made 394 on the season, ranking first in the WNBA in both categories.

In their opening game victory Wednesday, the Liberty shot 44 percent from beyond the arc, making 11 of 25 attempts. The long-range offense came from everywhere, as seven players made at least one 3-pointer. Ionescu and Stefanie Dolson led the team with three makes apiece.

In Game 2, New York went cold from long range, making just three attempts — Ionescu, Han Xu and Rebecca Allen each had one — and shooting 15 percent from beyond the arc. The Liberty’s shooting from 2-point range wasn’t much better, as they shot 33 percent, finishing with 23 total field goals.

“It was important because we know they like to shoot 3s and they are a successful team when they make them,” Wade said. “So we wanted to make sure that if they get 3s off that they are contested, and they weren’t as open as they were in the first game.”

Emma Meesseman, Candace Parker and the Chicago Sky forced a deciding Game 3 in New York on Tuesday. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Natasha Howard — who scored 22 points in the first game — led the Liberty starters with eight points Saturday, while Dolson and Laney each had just one field goal for two points apiece. Crystal Dangerfield rounded out the unit’s scoring with four points.

Meanwhile, Han and Michaela Onyenwere led New York with 10 points each, and the bench unit outscored the starters, 39-23.

“We were struggling everywhere,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “We need our starters to set us off a little bit and hopefully we can build up from there.”

The sentiment that New York struggled everywhere was far from an exaggeration. The offense looked disjointed and lacked the crips passes and ball movement that led to the team’s success Wednesday.

In addition to the poor shooting, the Liberty committed 19 turnovers and only grabbed three offensive rebounds. Turnovers outnumbered 15 total assists for New York.

“A lot of it was our turnovers for easy baskets,” Brondello said. “They’re one of the best teams in the league in the open court, and Copper certainly got them going … We have to be a little more resilient, taking care of the ball. We really made a lot of bad decisions, like the quick shots. I was not happy with that.”

After the bounce-back victory, the No. 2 Sky will have to win on the road to advance to the semifinals, as Game 3 will take place Tuesday in New York.

Heading into the postseason, Wade expressed frustration with the format, saying, “You always want the deciding game, if there’s a Game 3, to be at the higher seed’s home. I’m not a fan of it at all; I don’t think any coaches are.”

But he changed his opinion Saturday.

“I’m OK with (going on the road),” he said. “Because the thing is, if we wouldn’t have lost game 1, this game wouldn’t have been on the road. You know if we play like that, it doesn’t matter where we play. We could play on the moon. But we have to be who we gonna be, and that will dictate everything.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Jewell Loyd has set a precedent against the Mystics.

She’s been dominant in each of the Storm’s three regular-season meetings with Washington this year, scoring 22 points in their final matchup on 6-for-8 shooting from the 3-point line.

But in Thursday’s first-round playoff game, Washington seemed to have her figured out.

With Seattle down five points with 4:52 to play, Loyd had yet to make a field goal. The guard had four points, making two free throws in the first quarter and two more in the third, but her usual scoring acumen was absent.

Loyd matched up against Washington's Natasha Cloud for most of the game Thursday night. (Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

Lest people forget Loyd’s experience level, the guard reminded the public and her teammates of it after the Storm’s 86-83 win over the Mystics in Game 1 of the first round

“(I’ve grown),” she said. “I’ve been in the league eight years, so if I haven’t grown that would be a problem.”

As Loyd, 28, finished her sentence, teammate Gabby Williams blurted out, “Oh my god. You’re so old!”

“I’m old, man,” Loyd responded with a smile. “I’m a vet.”

And a vet doesn’t let missed shots keep them down, especially not with the game on the line.

“As a rookie, you get frustrated when you’re not making shots,” she said. “You’re used to things being smooth, but when you’ve been in the league for a while, you understand the flow of the game, you understand who you are, your teammates, time, score, all those things.”

Loyd kept battling on Thursday night. She kept looking for her shot, and with less than five minutes left in a tight contest, she broke through for her first field goal, knocking down a step-back 3-pointer that cut the Mystics’ lead to 77-75.

From there, it was all Loyd. She added 10 more points down the stretch, and until Breanna Stewart hit two free throws with 14.6 seconds left, Loyd had scored all of her team’s points in the last five minutes of play.

Natasha Cloud, who spent most of the game matched up against Loyd, said the guard didn’t change anything about her game. She just stayed the course.

“Just a great player getting hot,” Cloud said. “She made tough shots down the stretch, and we knew they were going to go to her. And that’s just on me. I promise you I’m gonna be better next game.”

Loyd’s heroic run culminated with the go-ahead bucket with 38 seconds left on the clock.

As she dribbled toward the 3-point arc, she refused a screen from Stewart and continued on her line to the basket. Then, with Cloud on her right hip, Loyd took off on one-foot near the free-throw line. She used her athleticism to make a minor adjustment in the air and then fired a jumper.

It gave the Storm a one-point lead and resulted in a Washington timeout. Despite Elena Delle Donne’s 15 second-half points, and 26 overall, the Mystics came up short on their next possession and Seattle closed out the win on two Stewart free throws.

“I just stayed patient,”Lloyd said. “The second half came around and my teammates kept encouraging me, they threw it to me, and I was able to get to my spots.”

Storm coach Noelle Quinn has a unique perspective on Loyd’s game. Before joining the coaching staff in 2019, and eventually taking over as head coach last year, Quinn was Loyd’s teammate in Seattle.

Quinn says there were moments early in Loyd’s career when she started games slow and didn’t end up making the breakthrough. Since the Storm drafted her first overall in 2015, Loyd has won two WNBA championships, made four All-Star teams and earned many individual honors. Against the Mystics on Thursday, she showed that, even when things aren’t going her way in the beginning, her experience will carry her through.

“She pushed through today in a big way, in a major way,” Quinn said. “It wasn’t how she started, but how she finished. Those were big buckets down the stretch.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

After an intense battle between five teams, the Mercury and the Liberty secured the last two playoff spots. The Dream, the Lynx and the Sparks just missed the cut, while the Fever have been out of contention for most of the season.

As the rest of the league entertains scenarios of championship bliss, the offseason is already underway for those four organizations. Here’s what each squad needs to do in the coming months to get into contention next season.

Atlanta Dream

Atlanta was one win away from sneaking into the playoffs, but back-to-back losses to the Liberty ensured New York surpassed the Dream as the final team in the postseason. First-year head coach Tanisha Wright took the Dream from winning 25 percent of their games in 2021 to 39.9 percent this season. That’s the team’s best win percentage since they made it to the semifinals in 2018.

Rookie of the Year frontrunner Rhyne Howard averaged 16.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 steals a game to lead Atlanta back into the playoff chase. But the Dream have some major offensive shortcomings that need to be addressed in the offseason, starting on the inside. The Dream are fourth in the country from beyond the 3-point line, but once they step inside the arc, things go downhill. As a team, they are 11th in the league in 2-point field goal percentage (45.2) and 10th in free-throw percentage (77.7). And on the other side of the ball, the Dream allow their opponents to score 49.9 percent of their points from 2-point range.

Atlanta needs to set out and sign an experienced big or draft a WNBA-ready post. Players like Nneka Ogwumike, Emma Meesseman and Dearica Hamby will be free agents this offseason, and depending on how things shake out in the 2023 draft lottery, the Dream could be in a position to select South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston or Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee, though the latter may take more development. A better inside presence can easily lead to a couple of more wins and, in turn, a playoff spot.

Moriah Jefferson will be one of Minnesota's four unrestricted free agents this offseason. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Minnesota Lynx

I’m not ready to think about the WNBA without Sylvia Fowles, but the Lynx need to. Cheryl Reeve was right when she said there will never be another player like her, so replacing the WNBA’s leading rebounder isn’t going to happen.

Instead, Minnesota needs to figure out its new identity. Will they be a more guard-oriented team? Will they look for another traditional post, or seek out someone who can stretch the defense and shoot 3s? How will they fill the hole on defense? What about on the glass? There are plenty of questions, and they won’t all be answered right away.

A good start for Minnesota would be to sign a couple of non-traditional bigs who can serve two purposes. The first is to keep up the team’s rebounding prowess — they were the second best squad on the glass this season. The second is to create offense by stretching the floor. Without Fowles to displace defenders and take attention away from driving guards, the Lynx need to clear lanes in other ways. A post who can stretch the defense and shoot 3-pointers is a great way to do that. Plus, Minnesota could use a lift from beyond the arc after finishing the season with just 24.9 percent of the team’s points coming from 3-point range.

Overall, the Lynx will want to play through two-time All-Star Napheesa Collier, who returned to the court for her team’s last four games just 74 days after giving birth to her daughter. Collier averaged 16.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks during the 2021 season.

Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike may be searching for a new destination this winter. (Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

Los Angeles Sparks

Despite finding a way to stay in playoff contention, the Sparks were a mess this year. Derek Fisher was fired early in the season, but his decisions continue to haunt L.A. From the contract divorce with Liz Cambage to his insistence on signing Chennedy Carter despite reported pushback from the organization, Fisher left the Sparks in bad shape. Because of that, it’s time for a total rebuild.

Seven players are going to be free agents, and it makes sense for L.A. to unload most of them and start fresh. Holding onto someone like Nneka Ogwumike, despite her obvious talent, isn’t beneficial when the team needs to rework most of its roster. Her $193,409 salary is better used on young talent the organization can develop and build around. The Sparks need to worry about the future, not the now. That means turning to the draft and targeting a versatile centerpiece like Haley Jones or, looking further ahead, a game-changing playmaker like Caitlin Clark or Paige Bueckers in 2024.

The Fever are building toward the future with their five 2022 top draft picks. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

Indiana Fever

On paper, things look bad for the last-place Fever, who parted ways with coach Marianne Stanley earlier this season after she amassed a 14-49 record over three years and missed out on the playoffs for a league-leading sixth straight year. But in reality, the organization is doing all the right things and there is plenty to be excited about.

The Fever are overflowing with young talent after drafting college stars NaLyssa Smith, Emily Engstler, Lexie Hull, Queen Egbo and Destanni Henderson. Smith is certainly a player to build around, and after Rhyne Howard, she was easily the best-performing rookie in the league, averaging 13.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists per contest. For the Fever, it’s all about staying the course. There likely isn’t a quick pick-up or one draft pick who can take them from last place to the top of the league, but the pieces are coming together.

If Indiana develops the players it has and continues to put a focus on drafting top players over the next few years, then the organization has a good chance of breaking into the top half of the league. For now, they just need to be patient.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.