Liberty begin key stretch in push for playoff spot
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - The New York Liberty entered the weekend one-half game out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With six of their last nine games at home, they know this is the time to make their big push.
The Liberty have struggled for consistency all season, winning three games in a row just once while losing at least three straight three times. However, this final stretch is their best chance for a run with six games against teams owning worse records, and one against Chicago - which is just ahead of them in the East.
"Washington might catch one of us but probably can't catch both of us,'' Liberty coach John Whisenant said. "We've fought through a lot of our hard schedule.''
New York (9-16) has three games remaining with the Mystics, who are last in the East, starting Saturday at the Prudential Center. The Liberty also have two against Tulsa and one against Phoenix, and -along with the Mystics - those three teams are a combined 16-58.
"Sometimes we have as much trouble with Washington and Tulsa as we do with (first-place) Connecticut,'' Whisenant said. "They're still hard to (beat). They have good players. They've had their own injury problems, their own karma problems, and if you catch them at the right time they'll get us. ... We've just got to keep plugging away.''
The Liberty came off a nine-day road trip in which they lost three of five, and opened a stretch of six straight at home with a 76-63 loss to second-place Indiana on Thursday night - giving them their latest three-game skid.
Cappie Pondexter pointed to fatigue from the travel in the recent road swing for the team's struggles against Indiana, in a game New York trailed by one early in the fourth quarter before being outscored 25-12 the rest of the way. New York's trip started in Connecticut on Aug. 18 and went through Chicago and Phoenix before finishing up with back-to-back games in Los Angeles and Seattle last weekend.
"Everybody looked a step slow,'' Pondexter said. "It's hard coming off the road, from west to east, six games in nine days against great teams. ... We had one day to prepare for another great team.''
The star guard also knows this upcoming stretch is critical to the Liberty's postseason chances.
"We need all these games at home because playing at home is a different kind of energy because you're not travelling as much as the other team,'' she said. "Next game against Washington, if we don't think they're going to come in and try to win and spoil our playoff hopes, we don't deserve to be there.''
Rebounding has been a perennial problem for the Liberty, more so the last two years. New York began last season without its top two frontcourt players from 2010 after Taj McWilliams-Franklin signed with Minnesota - helping the Lynx win their first championship last year - and Janel McCarville sat out the last two WNBA seasons.
Also, Quanitra Hollingsworth - the Liberty's top reserve last year - missed this season to train with Turkey for the London Olympics, and top rebounders Plenette Pierson and Kia Vaughn missed significant time with injuries.
"We don't have people who have ever in their history been Tina Charles or Sylvia Fowles rebounders, getting that 10, 12 rebounds a game,'' Whisenant said. "We have to get our rebounds by committee.
"A lot of our defensive frustration that occurs has been based on rebounding. We play good defense for 20 seconds, get the opponent to shoot an off-balance contested shot and then they get the rebound back and we have to play (defense) again, or they score a putback because we didn't get a rebound.''
Getting outworked on the boards hasn't been the problem lately for New York, which is eighth in the league in rebounding (32.52 per game) and ninth in average differential (-3.00). While losing four of seven since the league's month-long Olympic break, the Liberty outrebounded their opponents in three of the losses and were on the short end in each of the three wins.
The more recent Achilles' heel has been turnovers. New York is 10th in the league at 16.7 per game. The Liberty averaged 9.0 in their three recent wins and 20.0 in the four losses - including 26 at Connecticut, 19 at Los Angeles and 21 against Indiana.
"It's something we have been addressing and looks like we need to talk about it some more,'' Whisenant said. "We're not throwing in the towel yet. We're going to keep plugging. We feel like we can make the playoffs if we just correct some of our flaws.''
Pondexter, who previously felt the Liberty needed to win 11 of their last 16 games after the break to have a good chance at the postseason, also remains optimistic.
"We're still alive,'' she said. "We can rack up maybe six or seven games here in this stretch ... and hope Chicago loses and we can ease into that fourth spot.
"We got six games at home, that's a big possibility.''