Just about a third of the way into this WNBA season was the perfect time for New York to get an eight-day break between games. Now let's see what the Liberty have in store.
"I think we've done a pretty good job so far," Liberty guard/forward Essence Carson said. "There's room for improvement, and I think that will come, especially with this long break we have. A lot of practice time, and I believe after this you should see something pretty special with New York."
The Liberty are 6-4, with their most recent game an 89-81 victory at Chicago on June 30. They're next in action Thursday, with a day game at Washington; the Mystics and Liberty are tied for second place in the Eastern Conference. That's followed by a trip to Atlanta on Sunday.
New York will be on the road a lot in July. The Liberty play just two of their eight games this month at Madison Square Garden, and those are on back-to-back days, July 15 and 16.
Team chemistry and unity come into play quite a bit with all that travel. And it appears those are things the Liberty possess.
"Everybody is capable of speaking up and is receptive," said center Tina Charles, who leads New York in scoring (15.1 PPG) and rebounding (9.0 RPG), and is also second in assists (3.3 APG). "Everybody is willing to take constructive criticism."
Charles, the 2012 league MVP, says the presence of veteran players who have won WNBA titles has been helpful to the Liberty. Guards Tanisha Wright (Seattle) and Candice Wiggins (Minnesota), plus forward Swin Cash (Detroit and Seattle) bring that championship experience, as does Liberty assistant coach Katie Smith, who was a key part of two Detroit title teams as a player.
Smith, of course, played in Detroit for current Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer, and she now does a lot of work with New York's guards. With Epiphanny Prince back on the team after playing for Russia in the EuroBasket tournament overseas, the Liberty have an even stronger group on the perimeter.
"We've got a lot of players who can contribute, so you have to keep everyone ready and understanding when it's going to be their night," Smith said. "That's the way they've approached it."
Prince was with the Liberty at Chicago last week, but did not play because she felt a bit dehydrated and achy after all her travel. It's a bonus that the schedule is such that she and the Liberty have had this extended time to work together in practice before she jumps back into WNBA game action.
Prince was acquired in a February trade with Chicago for Cappie Pondexter, and is very happy to be playing again in her hometown of New York City.
"I'm just super excited to be closer to my family," said Prince, who was able to celebrate her grandmother's birthday in person last Wednesday. "As for Tina, we grew up playing against each other all the time. We make each other better and we push each other."
"This year, this team is in tune with the process of winning. I think before, we sometimes cut corners. We didn't go as hard. Now, everybody is focused." Tina Charles on the Liberty
Charles, also a native New Yorker, said she and Prince have known each other since both were around 10 years old. Charles, 26, is about 11 months younger than Prince, and they were former rivals in the old Big East at UConn and Rutgers, respectively.
They are both seeking their first WNBA title, and appreciate having the other experienced players around them, along with the younger developing players.
"This year, this team is in tune with the process of winning," said Charles, who is in her second season with the Liberty. "I think before, we sometimes cut corners. We didn't go as hard. Now, everybody is focused. Having people like Swin and Tanisha who know what it takes, who are continually encouraging and motivating, getting people out of their comfort zone -- that really helps."
The Liberty appear a little short on true forwards -- Australian rookie Rebecca Allen is out this season with a knee injury -- and long on guards. But it works because of the versatility of post players Charles, Cash, Kiah Stokes, Carolyn Swords and Avery Warley-Talbert, plus the defensive range of New York's perimeter players.
Wright, who is in her 11th season, and third-year WNBA player Sugar Rodgers are both able to effectively guard the 1-3 spots, Smith said. Carson and Wiggins are also energetic and disruptive defensively. And rookie Brittany Boyd is also in the guard mix, too, averaging 8.2 points, behind Charles, Rodgers (10.2 PPG) and Wright (9.1 PPG).
"Tanisha is the leader of the pack for the most part," Smith said. "She really locks in, and she's probably our biggest talker -- her and Swin. They demand of themselves, and then they can demand of others. Everybody listens to them."
Prince being back is going to change the dynamic somewhat; for her career, she has averaged 14.1 points and nearly 28 minutes per game. But the Liberty hope the gains made by other players in Prince's absence are things they will continue to bring to the team.
Connecticut is surprisingly in first in the East at 7-3, while preseason conference favorite Atlanta is tied in last place with Indiana at 5-6. So, no surprise, it's again shaping up to be the standard logjam in the East. Meaning right now, it looks like New York has as good a chance as anybody of finishing first.
"Everybody wants to play and do their part," Charles said. "I trust Bill and the coaching staff; they'll figure it out with playing time and putting people in the right spots."