Game Preview: Liberty Kickoff Four-Game West Coast Trip in Phoenix Against the Mercury

By Justin “Say Say” Rivers

In a matchup that pits two of the WNBA’s three remaining original franchises that are both in the midst of celebrating their 25th season, Betnijah Laney and the New York Liberty (5-4, second in the Eastern Conference) are looking to snap a three-game skid in the Valley of the Sun against Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury (5-5, fourth in the Western Conference).

In their last three games, the Liberty have run the gauntlet of the league’s who’s who, facing two teams that are currently .700 or better on the season. While that .500 or over trend won’t end against the Mercury, New York will not only have fresh legs after a week off, but Phoenix will also be on their third game in five nights and in the middle of a dense stretch of their schedule. Above all – however – the Liberty will need solid bounce-back performances from the reigning WNBA Most Improved Player, Betnijah Laney, and 2020 No.1 overall draft pick, Sabrina Ionescu, if they want to get back to their winning ways.


The New York Liberty had a blistering start to the season as they eclipsed their 2020 win total by the third game and quickly raced to a 5-1 start through their first six contests. Now nestled amongst the top teams in the conference standings, the squad’s early success has not only been keyed by All Star-level play from Sabrina and Betnijah, but also by the play of rookie Michaela Onyenwere. Onyenwere took home Rookie of the Month honors for the month of May and looks like a not-so-sneaky lock for Rookie of the Year consideration with averages of 11.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game on a mind-blowing 44% shooting from the field and 45% from beyond the three-point arc.

With nine players averaging 37% or better shooting from three-point range, it is no shock that New York leads the league in three pointers made and three-point percentage. Plus, they are amongst the top-5 in field goal percentage and top-6 in points per game.


Phoenix is still sans their third-leading scorer, Diana Taurasi, who is still out nursing a fractured sternum, and the Liberty are looking like they will be without the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year in Natasha Howard. Despite this, we will still be treated to a marquee matchup in the backcourt between Sabrina and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

Ionescu has posted a strong start to her sophomore season. The 5-foot-11 guard is averaging 13.7 points, 7.1 assists, and 6.4 rebounds per game. Her 7.1 assists per game rank her top-2 in the league in the category. Plus, she is draining shots from beyond the 3-point arc at an impressive 41.5% clip.

As a 4x All Star and a 4x All-WNBA selection, Skylar Diggins-Smith has been amongst the league’s upper echelon for years. Currently in the midst of her second season in Arizona, Diggins-Smith is playing like an All-WNBA performer in 2021 – especially in the absence of her backcourt mate in Taurasi. Now in her eighth season in the WNBA, the 5-foot-9 veteran leads the Mercury in both points and assists per game. Additionally, her averages of 18.8 points and 5.2 assists per game place her in the top-10 league-wide in both categories.

With these two lead guards going toe-to-toe in the backcourt, there will undoubtedly be some impressive dimes and bombs from deep as both are capable playmakers and average north of four three-point attempts per game.


A noticeable absence during the Liberty’s three-game skid has been that of Natasha Howard, who is in the midst of a 4-to-6-week absence after the team announced that the 6-foot-2 forward suffered a sprained MCL in her left knee. The Liberty’s last two losses have been characterized by a huge 30-point double-double from a member of the opposition’s frontcourt. It is a tough task to fill the kicks of a former 2x WNBA All-Defense selection and a former All-WNBA performer; however, the Liberty will need to find a way to stymie this trend of giving up a huge night on the inside – especially against the 6-foot-9 Brittney Griner, whose averages of 18.2 points and 9.9 rebounds per game are top-10 and top-2 in the league, respectively. With the likes of Kylee Shook and new-addition Reshanda Gray at second-year Head Coach Walt Hopkins’ disposal, the team will have more than enough size to throw at the 2019 All Star.


This Sunday’s matchup against Phoenix will mark the first time this season that New York will face Kia Nurse and Megan Walker since their departure from the Liberty in the off-season. Nurse and Walker were both members of the 2020 New York Liberty’s roster down in Florida where Nurse averaged 12.2 points per game and started 18 games. The Liberty will also face former players in Bria Hartley (out due to injury) and Kia Vaughn. Before landing with the Mercury in 2020, Hartley spent three seasons with the Liberty. Vaughn was drafted to New York No. 8 overall in 2009 and had a four-season stay before returning for a two-season stint later in her career.


Although the Mercury swept last season’s two-game series in the “Wubble,” New York is an all-time 27-26 versus Phoenix. Against the Mercury, former Liberty franchise players Cappie Pondexter and Tina Charles hold the all-time regular-season single-game points record of 31 points. Charles is also tied for the Liberty’s single-game total rebounds record versus Phoenix with 15 boards. Impressively, Teresa Weatherspoon hit the franchise’s single-game assist mark against the Mercury of nine dimes on three occasions. With Betnijah Laney being the walking bucket that she has been this season as a top-5 scorer in the league and Sabrina Ionescu being a triple-dub threat on any given night, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that these records get eclipsed on Sunday.