Sabrina Ionescu and Han Xu shine as Liberty upset Aces

Sometimes, everything just clicks. You’ve got your rhythm, you’re feeling good, and everything is going your way. It takes time to get there, but once you are there, beautiful things happen.

On Wednesday night, the New York Liberty began a back-to-back that will carry them into the All-Star break. Waiting for them were the league leading Las Vegas Aces. The Aces are one of the favorites to win the WNBA title and have been one of the best offenses we’ve seen in a long time. The Liberty were MORE than up for the challenge and set a bushel of records along the way as they won, 116-107.

Then, there was the individual performance of Sabrina Ionescu who had the WNBA’s first 30-point triple-double, finishing with 31, 13 and 10.

There were in fact a lot of big and unprecedented numbers in Las Vegas.

Like 35. That is the number of assists the Liberty had, which tied a WNBA record set by the Minnesota Lynx in 2017 and the Chicago Sky in 2018. The Aces play incredibly fast, and the Liberty were able to keep up all game long as this contest had 100 possessions. This one in particular exemplifies everything the Liberty are looking to do on offense:

Attacking downhill? Check. Floor is spaced out? Check. Ball ends in great scoring position with one of your best players? Check! Sandy Brondello has stressed the importance of getting into the paint and moving the ball side to side, and when the Liberty have defenses scrambling and out of sorts, good things will happen. Trust the process, and results will follow.

The thing about the Aces is when they get on a roll, they hit you with a barrage of buckets and next thing you know, you’re down big and out of reach. Vegas went on an extended 14-0 run bridging the first and second quarters and an 11-0 run in the third quarter that got them double digit leads each time. Earlier in the season, elite teams would hit the Liberty with big runs like that and they wouldn’t be able to get back into it. However, the Libs held serve and managed to stay connected and eventually came out on top. It speaks to a level of toughness and togetherness that has been building throughout the season and if they’re able to keep it up while getting more players back, they’ll be able to go even further.

We mentioned the records, and here they are via Across the Timeline:

The 116 points was also a franchise record. Not to be outdone, the team also committed a season low eight turnovers. In the last couple of games against the Atlanta Dream and Los Angeles Sparks, turnovers cost the Libs in a huge fashion and tonight, they got back to what was working for them throughout their outstanding June. When you’re able to maximize every possession, good things will happen.

The team’s excellent performance earned them praise all over the basketball universe, including from team co-owner, Joe Tsai:

Make it happen.

Halftime adjustments

2021 New York Liberty Media Day

Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

After halftime, Sandy Brondello made a subtle, but important change to her rotation. She started Didi Richards over Crystal Dangerfield as the team needed some more size and toughness to combat the 63 point barrage the Aces laid on them. After intermission, Las Vegas only shot .375/.200/.900 as the Liberty defense tightened up. Although this ended in two A’ja Wilson free throws, Marine Johannes’ defense on Kelsey Plum stood out

MJ was able to keep Plum on her weak side, forced her into a difficult floater, and contested the shot as well. In the first half, Plum was locked in as she scored 14 points, made three three pointers and handed out four assists while shooting 56 percent from the field. In the second half, she only scored four points on 2-8 shooting from the field. In postgame, Sandy Brondello shouted out Michaela Onyenwere and Didi Richards, and spoke about the defensive improvements in the second half:

“I thought that with a little bit more size on [Kelsey] Plum, she was getting too many easy things. We didn’t defend her well. We didn’t take her off her left hand like we wanted to in the beginning, and I think Crystal was just a little smaller there. I wanted a little more size, more toughness on [Plum], and Didi did a great job, got us off to a good start in the third quarter. And then Mic came in and it was great to see Mic stay ready, and get a lot of minutes tonight and be really effective for us.”

Richards hasn’t had the season she’s wanted due to a nagging right hamstring injury, but she’s kept at it and managed to make positive contributions to the team:

Richards gives the team another good ballhandler and more importantly, the size needed to combat elite perimeter scorers on other teams. With Rebecca Allen due back later tonight and Jocelyn Willoughby on the road to recovery, New York’s defense has the potential to become elite.

The Han Xu show

New York Liberty v Las Vegas Aces

Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

Han Xu has been one of the best bench scorers in the WNBA this season, and she managed to astound us one more time. The 6’10” Han grabbed eight rebounds and handed out three assists, but that’s not what had the world watching in awe. In 20 minutes, Han scored 24 points on a remarkable 11-of-12 from the field. Han scored from everywhere: the low post, in the elbow area, off of offensive rebounds, from downtown! The bucket here is one thing, but there’s something fun here that you’ll notice:

In the past, Brondello has noted Han has become more assertive when calling for the ball when she has the advantage. She called for the lob as soon as she slipped the pick and roll, and with Johannes being the deft passer that she is, found her with a sweet no look pass. The scary thing for the rest of the league is Han is starting to catch the ball on the move and finish well at the rim. Watch out, world.

In the postgame, Han spoke about the team’s mindset going into this one after two tough losses:

That’s the mindset the team will need to have every night out going forward.

Shining star

New York Liberty v Las Vegas Aces

Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

Sabrina Ionescu was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month in June, and she managed to outdo herself this time. Triple doubles are incredibly hard to come by, and Ionescu got the third of her young career. On the night, Ionescu had 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists on a dazzling .769/.875/1.000 shooting split. What made Ionescu’s triple double extra special was that it’s the first 30 point triple double in WNBA history and it was the first triple double in which the player didn’t commit a single turnover as well. Sab made history in style with this pass to Han late in the fourth quarter

Ionescu made a career high and tied a franchise record with seven three pointers tonight, and in postgame, she said she mentioned her teammates and coaching staff have been putting her in great positions to succeed and she wouldn’t be able to get all these triple doubles without them. The team has gotten more comfortable with each other and knows where to be when the pressure ratchets up

In postgame, she spoke about her mindset every time she steps on to the court and said:

“I’m just trying to be the best that I can every time that I step out on the floor. It’s me vs. me and so I’m just trying to continue to get better, continue to learn from all the situations that I’ve been put in.”

With Ionescu leading the charge, basketball fans in New York have a star and a team that will lead them into the next generation.

Next up

Indiana Fever v Phoenix Mercury

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Liberty are right back at it later tonight as they take on the Phoenix Mercury to wrap up the first half of the season. Late night affair once again as tip will be after 10:00 p.m. ET

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