Late in the third quarter on Sunday afternoon, the New York Liberty brought the ball down and ran through a series of their favorite actions. First, a high pick-and-roll with Courtney Vandersloot and Breanna Stewart, but the lane was cut off by a hard-working Natisha Hiedeman. Then, a clear-out post-up for Jonquel Jones, but that was blown up by Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who refused to let Jones get position. Finally, an isolation at the top of the key for Breanna Stewart, but she was trapped and had the ball stripped by Alyssa Thomas.
The Connecticut Sun bench erupted with applause and waving towels, made louder by the silence from the Barclays Center crowd. Down to the other end walked the Liberty, heads shaking in disbelief at what was happening.
If you watched that possession, you watched them all from the Sun's stunning 78-63 victory over the Liberty in Game 1 of their semi-final series. After losing all four regular season games to the Liberty, the Sun are now up 1-0 in this best-of-five series and have stolen homecourt advantage.
Defense was the Sun's calling card in the regular season. Led by Thomas, the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, they flustered teams with their length and physicality, forced turnovers at a league-best rate and rebounded with the best of them. Only the Las Vegas Aces allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than the Sun's 98.8.
Coming into this series, one of the main questions was how the Sun would keep up with the Liberty's historic offense. It turns out they might not need to. Their physicality and activity bothered the Liberty all day long, limiting them to 63 points on 33.8% shooting from the field -- both their worst marks of the entire season. The Sun also forced 14 turnovers, which they converted into 13 points.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the performance was how they shut down Stewart and Sabrina Ionescu. They limited the All-Star duo to 31 points on 39 shots. Stewart, who shot 7-of-25, has taken 20 or more field goals 46 times in her career between the regular season and the playoffs; this was only the second time she's ever shot below 30% in those contests.
Thomas' discipline on Stewart was incredible. She stayed attached to her body whenever possible and bumped and jostled Stewart whether she had the ball or not. Her fellow MVP candidate never seemed comfortable, and even when she was able to get a bit of space her shots often looked flat or rushed.
Here is Thomas standing Stewart up on a drive, then poking the ball away for a turnover.
And here, she stones Stewart in transition -- possibly a foul, but the refs were letting that level of contact go all game -- and forces her to give it up, almost leading to a turnover.
With Ionescu, the approach was similar. The Sun opted for size and gave Allen the primary assignment, which proved to be a smart call by Stephanie White. Ionescu is an awesome player, but she can struggle to create space for herself, and whether it was Allen or another defender, the Sun's length and active hands prevented her from getting clean looks.
It was evident from the opening minutes, when she couldn't get separation from DeWanna Bonner, had to try and step through, and still got swatted.
And by the fourth quarter she was so sped up that even when the Sun made an initial mistake, she couldn't take advantage. Here, Hiedeman and Tiffany Hayes miscommunicate, leaving Ionescu in some space. But as Ionescu catches the ball, Nelson-Ododa lunges out, and Ionescu travels before she can get a shot off or make a play for a teammate.
While the Sun's ability to shut down Stewart and Ionescu stood out, they made life just as difficult for most of the team, save for Jonquel Jones, who largely had her way in the paint when she actually got the ball. The Liberty will adjust to the Sun's style as the series goes along, and will surely shoot better the rest of the way, but this game made it clear that the Sun have a blueprint to beat them.