Refocused Liberty make playoff push

Cappie Pondexter and the Liberty beat the Sun and Sky in a five-day period. Rob Grabowski/US PRESSWIRE

The New York Liberty are working to right a dismal first half of the season with a playoff push in the second. Get there and who knows what could happen?

"It doesn't matter which spot we get, we just want a spot," said Liberty guard Cappie Pondexter, who will lead her team on the floor Thursday night in Phoenix against her former team, the Mercury. "If you get to the playoffs, everybody is even, 0-0."

To get to that coveted 0-0, the Liberty are going to have to put a dent in a start that was lot less even-Steven than that. Injuries, adversity and bad defense put New York in a hole: The Liberty headed into the WNBA break with key injuries and a 6-12 record.

Post Plenette Pierson missed eight games (something actually closer to 11) with a right leg injury, and Kia Vaughn missed six games with a concussion. And coach John Whisenant acknowledged that he was struggling to focus while his wife was going through chemotherapy treatments after a breast cancer diagnosis just as the season was about to begin.

"I was not focused and obviously, on top of that we had players playing for championship teams in Europe who came back late and injuries," Whisenant said. "We are healthier now. And we are not taking our start in stride; we are trying to do something about it."

Tuesday night's win over reeling Chicago was a step forward as the Liberty have opened the second half with two wins in three games. The Sky are the team that currently stands between New York and the Eastern Conference's fourth and final playoff position. After Chicago lost for the eighth straight time on Wednesday night against Atlanta, the Sky and Liberty were tied at 8-13, fourth place in the East.

New York has not missed the playoffs since 2009 and only once since 2006. Whisenant acknowledged that it will be difficult for New York to catch conference-leading Connecticut (currently 17-5) and perhaps even second-place Indiana (12-8). Atlanta sits in third at 11-11 after beating the Sky on Wednesday without All-Star Angel McCoughtry on the floor.

Still, in a conference that appears to have only one dominant team, the door remains open for New York, despite the early stumble. That's why there's optimism from a team that has won only four of its last 10 games and has won consecutive games only once this season (a three-game win streak in early June).

"We have an opportunity," Pondexter said. "Nobody was happy with our record in the first half, but our goal for the second half is to get 11 wins (in 16 games). If we get more, that's awesome, but our focus is on winning, making some noise and gaining some momentum."

Pierson said it was difficult to sit on the bench and watch her team struggle in the first half, especially when her absence exacted such a high cost in the post, where New York doesn't have depth or the talent level of Connecticut's Tina Charles or Chicago's Sylvia Fowles.

But she said the Liberty have brought back a defensive mindset, which is a hallmark of Whisenant-coached teams.

"Our energy level is high and we are taking care of the ball on the other end," Pierson said.

Meanwhile, Whisenant said he has found his balance as his wife moves through treatments with a good prognosis.

"It's still scary, because it can come back and it's like trying to kill weeds in your garden," Whisenant said. "But while we are on this trip, she has a friend staying with her from New Mexico and she's calling me and watching games and telling me what I did wrong, so it's just like the old days.

"We are feeling a lot better about it. I think it damaged me more than her all along. I was having a hard time at first, and it showed."

Whisenant is depending on his star, Pondexter, to lead his team in this stretch drive.

"She got on the bus today and I told her I rested her too much when I gave her those 44 seconds off," Whisenant said. "We need her to be aggressive, and we believe we can get there."

New York will come off its current eight-day, five-game trip -- which includes stops in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Seattle -- to play seven of its final 10 games on its home court at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

"This trip is very important for our momentum," Pierson said. "No game is going to be easy, but our backs are against the wall and we have to step up to the challenge."