The 2023 New York Liberty are one of the best offensive teams the WNBA has ever seen, but it took a defensive adjustment for them to finally come to life in the semifinals against the Connecticut Sun. Already down 0-1 in the series, and trailing by double digits in the second quarter of Game 2 on Tuesday night, the Liberty started using a zone; they outscored the Sun by 19 the rest of the way en route to a series-tying 84-77 win.
While the Liberty were a solid defensive team in the regular season, they have notable weak spots on the perimeter, which the Sun were picking at to start the game. Time and again, the Sun's ball handlers -- often Tiffany Hayes -- were able to get into the paint to either score or create for a teammate.
Just look at how easy this is for Hayes. She gets the hand-off from Thomas and easily turns the corner on Courtney Vandersloot for a layup.
By the middle of the second quarter, the Sun were up by 12 and the Liberty were searching for answers. That's when Sandy Brondello decided to switch to a zone defense, something that the Liberty used for just 88 total possessions during the regular season. The results were immediate. Connecticut only managed four points on its next nine possessions, and all of a sudden New York was right back in the game.
"We haven't played zone in a while, to be honest," Sabrina Ionescu said. "For all five that came in to be locked in, on a string, to make things difficult for them, it speaks a lot to how prepared we were."
Notice the difference here with the Liberty in a zone. With the paint clogged, the Sun aimlessly pass the ball around the perimeter a few times before DeWanna Bonner launches a deep 3-pointer with 10 seconds still left on the shot clock.
There were plenty of similar possessions for the Sun the rest of the way, as they looked out of sorts and unsure of how to attack zone at times. Before the Liberty implemented the zone, the Sun got into the paint on 18 of their opening 27 offensive possessions. Against the zone, the Sun got into the paint on only 11 of 29 possessions, and when they did they were often quickly swarmed and forced to play in a hurry.
The Liberty's biggest strengths on defense are their size, length and activity, and the zone allowed them to lean into them. In the zone, their guards have more license to scramble around and cause havoc...
...knowing that even if there's a breakdown, Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, two of the best help defenders in the league are going to be back there waiting.
Another key factor with the zone is that it may force Stephanie White into some lineup decisions. Olivia Nelson-Ododa was a major factor in the Sun's Game 1 win, as she has the size to guard Jones and prevent that matchup from being a total mismatch in favor of the Liberty. However, she is a non-shooter, and the Sun aren't going to take Thomas, another non-shooter, off the floor. With both of them out there, it's even easier for the Liberty to pack the paint.
And that is perhaps the key factor looking ahead to Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 5. The Sun are going to adjust to the zone and will likely make a few more 3-pointers, but if they want to keep Nelson-Ododa on the floor for defensive purposes, the trade-off will be a tougher time scoring.
All told, the Sun scored 0.897 points per possession against the zone in Game 2. Even with their own strong defense, that's not good enough to win a playoff game against another elite team. They'll need to be better against it in Game 3, or the Liberty may have found the key to unlock this series.