NEW YORK -- It looked like a certain breakaway basket for Breanna Stewart as she tried to will her New York Liberty back from a double-digit deficit early in the fourth quarter of Sunday's Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals. After knocking away the ball from the Connecticut Sun's DeWanna Bonner, Stewart stormed down court with no resistance and scooped up the ball as she approached the basket for an underhand layup.
It could have been a momentum-swinging moment for the Liberty in front of their home crowd at Barclays Center. But in came Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman -- that is, 5-foot-8 guard Natisha Hiedeman -- who didn't care that Stewart is 6-foot-4 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, or that she's one of the winningest players in the sport's history. Hiedeman blocked Stewart's shot with her extended right hand at the perfect point in the air to send the ball flying out of bounds. Hiedeman's teammates immediately rushed over to chest bump her for her outstanding effort.
It was just one play in the Sun's 78-63 win over the Liberty, but it encapsulated so much of what went right for Connecticut -- excellent defense, strong guard play and out-toughing a team that, on paper, is more talented. Hiedeman and the Sun, who are appearing in their fifth consecutive semifinals with hopes of clinching the franchise's first WNBA title, finished out the final eight minutes of the game to snag a coveted road playoff victory and open their best-of-five series with a confidence-instilling, will-asserting performance.
We analyze what else went right for Connecticut, what went wrong for New York and what could change for Game 2 of the New York-Connecticut series.
How did Connecticut steal Game 1?
Philippou: Connecticut played some of its best defense of the season, which led to New York playing some of its worst offense of the season: The Liberty scored 63 points on 33.8% shooting, both season lows. That the Sun were capable of slowing down the Liberty wasn't surprising, though they had struggled to do so earlier this season. Connecticut's 98.8 defensive rating was second best in the league this season, only behind the Las Vegas Aces.
And while the Liberty say their strong offense often derives from strong defense, they didn't really stay disciplined on that end of the floor, either.
Connecticut found ways to make seemingly every New York player uncomfortable and limited their productivity from the 3-point line (8-for-27 shooting) and in the paint (22 points, four in the second half).
The Sun didn't let the Liberty punch them back in the second half, either, instead holding them to just 23 points across the final 20 minutes of the game -- stats we've rarely seen from New York this summer.
Stewart said her team "didn't handle [Connecticut's defense] well," lacking poise and composure.
Which player or key stat had the biggest impact on Connecticut's Game 1 win?
Philippou: Connecticut coach Stephanie White put it simply after the game: "We're going to go as far as our guards take us." On Sunday, Connecticut's guards carried the team offensively, with 12 points apiece from Tiffany Hayes and Hiedeman. And most notably, wing Rebecca Allen had a monster effort with 4-for-6 shooting on 3-pointers, and her defensive versatility manifested itself all over the floor in how she was able to add length and disrupt several different Liberty players.
All three players were stout defensively and helped the Sun win the battle on the glass. For as excellent as DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas have been this season, Connecticut undoubtedly needs its role players, and specifically its perimeter players, to step up for them to win this series.
The Liberty's loss didn't fall onto one player, but Stewart struggled with her shooting efficiency (7-for-25 from the field, 0-for-8 from 3), which has been a factor for the last few weeks, even dating to the end of the regular season. And while she makes an impact in so many areas, and while New York is built so it doesn't need her to score 30 points for them to win every night, they'll need her to start hitting more of those shots, especially from 3, to fulfill championship aspirations.
Voepel: Stewart knows how much is on her shoulders. With the four NCAA titles she won for the UConn Huskies and the two WNBA championships with the Seattle Storm, Stewart led the way in each. If Stewart has to narrow her shot selection range a little, she can do that and still be effective.
What adjustments must New York make for Game 2?
Philippou: One common theme that emerged from the Liberty after the game was how they lacked energy and weren't totally in the right frame of mind. When asked how New York needs to play better in Game 2, Jonquel Jones responded: "More energy, more effort. I don't know, I just feel like mindset-wise it just wasn't there today."
Liberty coach Sandy Brondello agreed, said it was New York's "worst game of the season" and that her team didn't have the right energy "at all." That showed in how the Liberty didn't stay poised offensively against tough Connecticut defense, but also in how they didn't assert their will defensively.
The Liberty have had their struggles with consistency this season, but their inability to make a big run to start the second half, or even the fourth quarter, Sunday felt very uncharacteristic.
Voepel: The whole game we kept waiting for the Liberty to shift into another gear, and they just couldn't do it. The Liberty can't afford that kind of effort in Game 2, and it's not likely we'll see that from New York. This team is too good for two dud performances in a row.
The Liberty forced just eight turnovers, which combined with their shooting and rebounding woes makes it clear why they were essentially blown out on their home court. Maybe the best news for the Liberty is they did almost nothing well, and they know just being their normal selves is going to make a big difference.
That said, as good a 3-point shooting team as New York was this season -- the best in the WNBA -- when you're struggling as much from behind the arc as the Liberty were Sunday, you can't always shoot your way out of it. Odds are we'll see a better performance from long range in Game 2, but if not, the Liberty need to score in spite of that.
You both picked New York in 4 before the semifinals started. Are you changing your prediction?
Philippou: I initially had the Liberty in 4; now I think it'll be Liberty in 5. New York will respond after playing some of its worst basketball of the season with a win Tuesday and will find ways to get its offense clicking again as the series goes on. But the Sun will get a win at Mohegan Sun before Brondello's squad gets the job done home at Barclays.
Voepel: Yes, this game makes it more likely that the series will go the distance. Still, I'm sticking with New York.