In the first two games of the semifinals, Breanna Stewart shot 10-of-38 from the field en route to just 30 points, numbers that were certainly not befitting of the MVP award she received earlier this week. But on Friday night in Uncasville, with her New York Liberty facing a pivotal Game 3 on the road, Stewart delivered. In a 92-81 win over the Connecticut Sun, she showed why she won that prestigious trophy for the second time in her career.
Stewart finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and two blocks on 11-of-19 shooting -- more shots than she made in the first two games combined. That was Stewart's 12th 25-point game in the playoffs, which is tied for the second-most in WNBA history, behind only Diana Taurasi.
So how was Stewart able to regain her form? To answer that, it's first worth considering why she's struggled. In this series, Stewart has primarily been guarded by Alyssa Thomas, the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up in each of the past two seasons, and one of the most physical defenders in the league. Thomas' length and strength has had Stewart all out of sorts.
Stewart has been getting jostled and held and bumped off her spots, and has had to fight tooth and nail at times just to get a catch. By the time she gets the ball, she often has Thomas in front of her and a set Sun defense ready to bring help. It's no wonder the majority of Stewart's looks in this series have been away from the basket, and often with a hand in her face.
Game 3 was a much different story, as Stewart got much easier looks thanks to a multi-faceted approach.
It started in transition. Scoring on the break has always been the easiest way for anyone to score, and Stewart and the Liberty got out on the break as often as possible in Game 3, particularly in the first quarter.
Watch here as Stewart forces a miss with a strong contest, sprints the floor and catches a hit-ahead pass from Sabrina Ionescu, who then runs around her for a fake hand-off. Tyasha Harris had to pick up Stewart in transition, and Tiffany Hayes then switches to take on the task, but neither is big enough to deal with Stewart, who gets to her spot at the elbow and elevates for a simple mid-ranger.
Later on, Stewart blocks a Dijonai Carrington 3-pointer, then leaks out behind the defense for an and-one layup.
When the Liberty are able to get stops and play with pace, they're impossible to guard. They aren't always going to get fastbreak layups, but just being intentional about getting the ball quickly up the floor, like they did in the first example off a missed shot, creates cross-matches that Stewart can feast on.
"It was huge to really set the tone," Stewart said. "Obviously, wanted to run in transition whenever we could. We were mixing up a few different defenses, and whenever got the ball we pushed it and filled the lanes."
In addition, the Liberty did a better job of getting Stewart the ball on the move so that she wasn't forced to go one-on-one against a set defense. Here she is operating as a screener, which frees her up for an easy stop-and-pop.
Finally, Stewart scrounged up a few buckets on the offensive glass and simply hit some shots that she had been missing in the first two games. Put it all together and this was the most she's looked like herself in the entire postseason, let alone this series. That's great news for the Liberty, who are now one win away from their first trip to the Finals since 2002.
If Stewart maintains her MVP form, they're certain to get there.