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Liberty need to solve Sun’s top-notch defense that took away biggest strengths

The numbers even surprised Sandy Brondello.

The Liberty coach’s offense has always relied on spacing and ball movement more than anything else.

It’s always been sparked by 3-pointers — a league-high 37.3 percent of their points came from beyond the arc.

Their 13.1 percent rate for fast break points sat sixth in the WNBA.

Their points in the paint percentage (39.8 percent) was 11th.

Those were byproducts of the 3-pointer, as well as backup plans for when the flashy shots didn’t fall.

But the Sun eliminated nearly everything with their second-half defense in Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals, which the Liberty lost, 78-63, on Sunday.

The Liberty averaged 42 points in the paint against Connecticut in four meetings during the regular season — an effective solution against a physical Sun defense — but managed just four across the final 20 minutes Sunday.

The Liberty connected on 29.6 percent of their 3-point attempts, finished with a season-low for points and caved on the biggest stage with what Brondello labeled their worst performance of the year.

The Liberty's dominant output was tested on Sunday in the Game 1 loss, faltering to the Suns' performance.
Michelle Farsi/New York Post

“I mean, that’s a crazy stat, isn’t it?” Brondello said about her team’s 22 points in the paint and zero fast-break points.

That’s why the offense — of all things — sits at the crux of the Liberty’s dilemma entering Game 2 on Tuesday at Barclays Center.

For the longest time, that seemed like an improbable issue to imagine.

The offense was the superteam’s strength, an expected scenario when Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot were on the court at the same time.

But the WNBA’s No. 2 defense unveiled a Liberty blueprint that could counter just about everything.

The Sun, from Alyssa Thomas to Rebecca Allen to Olivia Nelson-Ododa off the bench, provided a reality check at the worst possible time.

“I think we were a little bit indecisive in some of our action,” Brondello said Sunday. “We talked about just getting to the rim, getting into the paint. It’s like we came off, it was semi-open, but then it closed and then we didn’t know what else to do.”

The defensive challenge wasn’t a surprise.

Before their matchup in May, Brondello pushed back on claims that Connecticut would regress after falling in the 2022 WNBA Finals.

Sure, Jones had been traded to the Liberty.

Sure, their head coach, Curt Miller, departed for the Sparks.

Connecticut Sun coach Stephanie White gives instructions to player Tiffany Hayes during the fourth quarter against the Liberty.

Most of their core, though, remained intact, and defense, as new head coach Stephanie White said Sunday, remained their “identity.”

“When we are active, aware and we anticipate actions, we can be at our best,” White said. “I felt like we were really proactive. Our communication was at a high level, and when we had our lulls, we responded.”

Sometimes, those corrections came in timeouts.

Other times, they were on-the-fly adjustments.

White wanted to disrupt the Liberty’s timing and rhythm, and those tweaks materialized in the second half.

Jones scored eight points in the final six minutes of the opening quarter, including one basket where Stewart drew an extra defender to the 3-point line before threading a pass underneath the basket.

Then, the Sun “brought a crowd” to defend Jones in the second half, Brondello said.

“We didn’t put her in [the] best positions, because the pressure that was being put on us,” Brondello said. “I think we handled the pressure as well as we know we can, and we didn’t have great spacing and we just got stuck in and not moving the second and third side and getting downhill to create wide-open looks — like I said, stagnant.”

The Liberty had already succeeded against the Sun’s defense earlier this season, too.

They scored 26 of 32 first-half points inside the paint May 27. Ionescu said at the time that Connecticut’s physicality wasn’t anything the Liberty hadn’t seen before.

But on Sunday, the Sun solved a defensive puzzle that no other team had come close to figuring out since the Mystics held the Liberty to 64 points in the season opener.

The Liberty only had five other games under 80 points.

Connecticut allowed Stewart to still score 19 points, while DeWanna Bonner said they needed to cut down on Ionescu’s open 3-point attempts, too.

They stumped the Liberty and still had room for improvement.

And now, the Liberty need a response to save their season.