All season long, the New York Liberty have thrived on their defense.
The top overall seed in these playoffs went to the team with the best defensive efficiency of any WNBA team since 2007. And while four Liberty players finished in the league's top 10 in defensive rating, no single member of the Liberty was more responsible for the defensive versatility of the team than Kiah Stokes.
So it was concerning to Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer and Stokes' teammates when the 6-foot-5 rookie force seemed out of touch early on in Tuesday's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Washington, what turned out to be New York's 79-74 win to advance.
"Tonight, when she started the game, she'd be the first one to tell you, she was a deer in headlights," Laimbeer said of Stokes. "She was nonexistent. I was on her, our trainer was on her, our players were on her. She's a much better player and competitor than she was showing in the first five minutes."
Stokes' virtual absence was obvious early on. The Mystics hit 5 of 7 3-point attempts in the first quarter, including a trey from Ivory Latta, the third coming over Stokes to help extend the Washington lead to 25-13.
Stokes was at a loss to explain the early trouble connecting to the game. With Carolyn Swords, a strong interior defender herself, out with a foot injury, the Liberty needed their ace defender and rebounder to recover in a hurry.
Stokes found her game just in time to help limit the Mystics to 1-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc over the rest of the game. Unlike Friday night, when a Latta 3-pointer sent Game 1 into a pair of overtimes and eventually, a Mystics win, Stokes galloped out to the perimeter and blocked Latta's shot with seconds to go to seal Tuesday's victory.
"I just knew that we were going to switch everything," Stokes said, reclining in the chair in front of her locker following the win. "They swung it to [Emma] Meesseman, I was ball watching, and I saw, well, I'm closest to her, so I got out to contest. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't the one who gave up the open 3."
This was not some kind of aberration. All season, Laimbeer has enjoyed the luxury of switching his bigs on the perimeter players, with Stokes able to handle the defensive responsibilities and quickness that comes with covering guards, while skilled and tough enough to defend interior players. She avoided the rookie trap of overly aggressive defending, too -- it's how she finished with roughly as many blocks (67) as fouls (76) all year.
Yet this was far from her only impact on Tuesday's game. The Mystics totaled six offensive rebounds. Stokes collected a game-high 13 rebounds, including five on the offensive glass. Those potential five extra shot attempts in a game decided on the final possession caught the eye of Mystics coach Mike Thibault.
"At this level, the average [margin of victory] throughout the season is about four points," Thibault said following the game. "That's a turnover each half, or an extra offensive rebound each half. I wasn't thinking about the Stokes block so much as I was thinking about all the Stokes offensive rebounds that got them extra possessions."
Even on the offensive end, where Stokes says she still isn't as confident as she is in her defense, she finished a layup on a feed from Sugar Rodgers that ultimately put the Liberty ahead to stay 73-72 with 1:45 left. Considering she also finished top 10 in the league in true shooting percentage, that shouldn't come as any surprise, either.
"I'm not sure," Stokes said, when asked if she thinks the Liberty would have gone to her in that critical spot earlier in the season. "I just know when you're called upon, you answer."
That has been true of Stokes all year, and a few minutes later, that's just what she did to stop the preternaturally confident Latta from forcing another overtime. Still, Stokes insisted that the fact she was the player who provided the game-saving block was simply a coincidence.
"He didn't really send me," Stokes said. "He just switched, and I happened to end up on her."
When it was pointed out to her that she just happened to win another game for the Liberty earlier this year with a late block of a Kara Lawson shot, Stokes laughed about the coincidences that are piling up around her, block by block, stop by stop, win by win.
"Yeah, just switch everything!" Stokes said, laughing. "That's just how it is."
There was something poetic about the Liberty advancing at home on a night they shot less than 40 percent as a team, Epiphanny Prince finished 2-for-12, and Tina Charles needed 22 shots to score 22 points, thanks to defense -- specifically a defensive play from Stokes.
"I don't know if it's been announced yet, but we have three players on the all-defensive teams, and Kiah's one of them," Laimbeer said. "And all three of them were out there at the end of the game defending. That's who we are. Can we score some points? Yeah, we can score some points. But if we don't defend, we're not going to win."
Now, thanks to a schedule altered by the Pope's visit, the Liberty will turn around and face Indiana, third-best team in the league in offensive efficiency, and best at shooting 3-pointers. Stokes on the perimeter will be key to the Liberty returning to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2002.
"We get to soak it in, know we did something pretty amazing, considering this team didn't make the playoffs last year, the last couple of years," Stokes said. "Once tomorrow morning hits, you've got to be ready, because it's a whole new team, a whole new series, and you've got to be ready to go."