Breanna Stewart, Liberty ready for next step in WNBA playoff journey
The seeds for the Liberty’s super-team were sown in January.
Back then, the Liberty could only pitch the vision of a giant championship lead. They started with a recruiting trip to Turkey to chase former WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart. Then, a second former MVP, Jonquel Jones, saw a chance to play with Stewart and forced a trade to make it happen.
Stewart, Jones and the rest saw the Liberty’s vision clearly, and are determined to make it a reality.
Of all the things about the Liberty, who will host the Connecticut Sun in Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals on Sunday, their focus has surprised Stewart the most.
“I think just the hunger and the awareness to know the moment that we’re in and the potential that this team has,” Stewart said after practice Saturday. “And making sure that no matter what we do, we do it to the fullest and realize that these opportunities don’t come often, and making sure that we just make the most of it.”
That opportunity is why Stewart joined the team.
In January, the Liberty sent a delegation that included co-owner Clara Wu Tsai, coach Sandy Brondello and general manager Jonathan Kolb to Istanbul to recruit Stewart, who then was playing for Turkish team Fenerbahce during the WNBA offseason.
The trip included a two-hour boat ride through the Bosporus Strait with Stewart’s wife, Marta Xargay Casademont, and their toddler daughter, Ruby.
Stewart had already won two titles, but she saw the chance for a third — or more.
“Oh, it was pretty clear, being a championship contender and knowing that we’re going to have the pieces, but we still have to put them together, and understanding that,” Stewart said. “But with what happened in free agency and obviously the players that’d been here before, we knew if we could trust and build some chemistry, we could do something special. And we’re excited and motivated by it.”
Jones had the same vision.
The 6-foot-6 center, who won the 2021 MVP award with Connecticut, led the Sun last season to a second crushing Finals loss in four years. After a coaching change, she decided she needed a change as well and requested a trade to the Liberty — for the chance to link up with free agents Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot, and holdovers such as Sabrina Ionescu.
“I just felt like it was time for me to make that change in my career and go to go to a new place,” Jones said. “Then I had the opportunity to join Sloot and Stewie and the members of this team already. I just felt like it was something that was going to be extremely special, and a team that would be able to reach that mountaintop in something that I haven’t done in my career. So I feel really good about that.”
Jones will be a huge key against a Sun team that is missing center Brionna Jones after an Achilles injury. Jonquel Jones averaged 19.5 points and 13 rebounds in the first round, and the Liberty are 13-0 when she has a double-double.
“[She’s] big time,” Brondello said. “You have to go at her until they stop her.”
Jones now is on a team she’s convinced can reach the mountaintop, and her former Connecticut squad is the one standing in the way, beginning Sunday.
“I know, right? It’s weird. It’s like a movie or something,” Jones said with a laugh. “But at the end of the day, we came together with a common goal. And for us, Connecticut is that next step that we’re focusing on. And we understand that, like I said, it’s going to be a fight. It’s going to be a lot going on. But it’s not really about me, it’s about our team together and us putting our best foot forward.”
Joe Tsai’s other Barclays Center superteam didn’t manage that. The Nets’ Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden could never stay on the court together or on the same page. The Liberty can show they are able to do that.
“You can have great players, and if they don’t buy in you can have not much success. … In the beginning we had to learn how to play together in a new system and how to work it out — coaches, too,” Brondello said. “So credit to the players, they bought in from Day 1. When your best players buy in, great things can happen. And that’s what we had.
“You want to coach the best, put the best team out there to win. And it’s never been done in New York. So that’s what we’re trying to throw out there; how cool would that be? They’re all playing a really high level and hopefully we can continue that.”