After adjustments, Liberty are soaring

Tina Charles has had a break out season this year, averaging 22.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Photo by MSG Photo Services.
Tina Charles has had a break out season this year, averaging 21.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Photo by MSG Photo Services.

What a fun month and a half it’s been for the New York Liberty and their fans.

After a 4-4 season start, the Liberty have returned to their winning ways from a season ago, with defense and rebounding. They have gone 13-3 in their last 16 games, and have two more on tap this week before the Olympic break begins. New York leads the league in rebounds at 54 percent, and they sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference. The Liberty are now one of the WNBA’s favorites to win this year’s championship, along with the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx.

All three teams have separated themselves this year, with New York owning the third overall seed. And though each are very different squads, all have something in common that is very important to any team vying for a title, and that’s veteran leadership.

Much of the Liberty’s success stems from the leadership and experience of their veteran players – many of whom have already won titles. Guard Tanisha Wright helped the Seattle Storm win a championship in 2010; guard Shavonte Zellous was part of the Indiana Fever’s 2012 title team; and forward Swin Cash, who will retire at season’s end, is a three-time WNBA champion and was named one of the league’s top 20 players of its first 20 years. Six-year center Tina Charles leads the league in scoring per game, and is an MVP candidate.

But though veteran-rich, New York had plenty of shake ups to begin the season. Second-leading scorer Epiphanny Prince tore her ACL playing overseas last December, and wouldn’t be healed in time for the season. The team signed Zellous as a free agent in February, and the next month veteran guard Candice Wiggins announced her retirement. During preseason, the team acquired Shoni Schimmel and Amanda Zahui B. in trades.

Cash said the team had an adjustment period.

Sugar Rodgers' offseason work has paid big dividends so far this year, as she is putting in 16 points per game. Photo by MSG Photo Services.
Sugar Rodgers’ offseason work has paid big dividends so far this year, as she is putting in almost 16 points per game. Photo by MSG Photo Services.

“Even though we had the core of our team back, there were a lot of new faces and young faces, and we had to bring them along,” she said.

Cohesiveness was also interrupted by the team’s road schedule.

“We haven’t had a lot of practice time, so we’ve been having more of the conversations, and when we do get shoot around time we try to build on it,” Cash said.

Guard Sugar Rodgers has stepped up, averaging 15.3 points per game behind Charles’ 21.6. Zellous, coming off the bench, is averaging a solid 9.5 points per game.

“I know that my team needs me,” Zellous said. “I have to come out and play my game, even though everything is new to me and I’m still getting used to the plays.”

Kiah Stokes and Brittany Boyd, both in their second year with New York, are solid reserves. Center Carolyn Swords has been an effective starter. Wright said the team is getting better at bringing it all together with each game.

“It’s understanding what we’re good at, understanding our bread and butter and playing up to our potential,” she said. “We’ve been doing a good job of that as of late.”

Liberty players motivate each other at a timeout. Photo by MSG Photos.
Liberty players motivate each other at a timeout. Photo by MSG Photo Services.

Despite the roster changes, expectations of the Liberty were high after last year, when they were heavily-favored to take the Eastern Conference championship. Instead, they were upset in the conference semifinals by the Indiana Fever. Charles said that is a motivator for her this season.

“Being close to reaching the finals last year, that’s still on my mind,” she said.

Charles said this is why New York is focused on the little things this summer.

“The games we dropped at the beginning of the season came in overtime, just focusing on details and having defensive lapses,” she said. “The team that can take hold of the details and the little things and be consistent and have that be their identity can take hold of the league.”

During their rough stretch, it was Wright who got in the ears of her teammates.

“I know that I have to be vocal out there,” Wright said.

“We try to take it one game at a time, understanding every single game in this league is hard, that every team comes out to play their best every time. We have to focus on the team in front of us, the task at hand, to go forward.”

Cash, in her 15th year in the league, takes her leadership role seriously.

“As a vet, part of our responsibility is teaching younger players how to be pros, how to identify with the franchise, about how we play, how we conduct ourselves, how we travel – all those things,” she said.

The team’s growth is apparent to Cash.

“We’re finding our stride,” she said. We understand what we’re trying to accomplish on the floor, especially defensively. We have a lot of trust and confidence in each other, and that’s part of the chemistry we have now. We definitely have that carryover from last year – it’s a mindset. We’re going to get stuff done, playing a certain style and a certain way; Liberty basketball.”

Cash said Charles is underrated.

“Tina has been dominant for a long time, and this year she understands….not only does she have to be effective on the court, but she has to step up her leadership,” Cash said. “She has a little chip on her shoulder, too. When you talk about great players in the game and in this league, her name needs to be in the conversation. She’s proving it every night.”

But for all her dominance, Charles is surprisingly flexible. She said her game approach is to do whatever is necessary, depending upon who is having a good night.

“Anytime I take the court, if there’s any way I could impact on either end, I’m willing to do that,” Charles said. “You have a great player in Sugar Rodgers, so if it’s her night then I facilitate. Just whoever the hot man is.”

At the same time, Charles recognizes her pivotal role with the team.

“A great percentage of the Liberty’s success is determined by my play,” she said. “So knowing how focused I have to be, that’s what you guys are seeing.”

Wright said the offense runs through Charles most of the time.

“In order to be successful we need Tina to touch the ball as much as possible, because her mere presence draws attention,” Wright said.

The Liberty take on the Washington Mystics and the Fever this week before breaking for the Olympics. Charles will travel to Rio as part of Team USA, and remaining players will stay in New York and practice.

Whether or not New York can catch up to the Sparks and Lynx in the overall standings remains to be seen. But they have built plenty of momentum for the season’s second half.