WNBA playoffs: Betnijah Laney powers Liberty; Satou Sabally, Wings rally to beat Dream

The second night of the 2023 WNBA playoffs brought all the heat and then some after the first night lacked any of it.

The No. 7 Washington Mystics, beset with injuries throughout the regular season, gave the No. 2 New York Liberty a test until Sabrina Ionescu lit up Barclays Center in Brooklyn. New York won 90-75 for its first home playoff win since 2015.

Within the hour, the No. 5 Atlanta Dream shot out to a surprising, 20-point lead against the No. 4 Dallas Wings, favorites to upset the super-teams. Instead of the postseason’s first win by a lower seed, the Wings climbed back 94-82 in a battle of high-scoring, young superstars at College Park Center in Arlington, Texas. It was the largest comeback in the WNBA playoffs since 2014. Teams went 2-89 (.222) in the regular season after they trailed by at least 20 points.

Here’s how each side won their opening games. The playoffs continue Sunday, when the No. 1 Las Vegas Aces and No. 3 Connecticut Sun can clinch semifinal berths.

Liberty aren’t a super-team without Betnijah Laney

It’s wrong to say Betnijah Laney’s importance to the New York Liberty hasn’t been covered enough, given a full, 40-game season was played with the super-team discussion at the center of it. Still, even a diehard New York fan listing the Liberty starting five would likely name her last.

In Game 1, the 6-foot wing showcased that even if she’s the fifth named, she is just as important to the team’s success. Laney kept the Liberty afloat early while they struggled to move the ball around, a problem they’ve experienced against the Mystics all season. New York had two assists in the first quarter and seven in the first half, though they averaged 24.1 per game this year. Their 75% season assist rate set a WNBA record, and they’re most dangerous when giving up a good shot for a better one.

Washington’s length, even without Shakira Austin in the lineup due to a hip injury, closed the lanes and gave New York issues. The Liberty had five turnovers in the half, which Washington turned into nine points, and their superstar names struggled to find their games. The sides split their season series 2-2, and the Mystics came in with momentum after their buzzer-beating win that ended the season and sealed the Liberty as a No. 2 seed.

Betnijah Laney, shown during a regular-season game, was the key to the New York Liberty's Game 1 win over the Washington Mystics in the first round of the 2023 WNBA playoffs on Friday. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Betnijah Laney, shown during a regular-season game, was the key to the New York Liberty's Game 1 win over the Washington Mystics in the first round of the 2023 WNBA playoffs on Friday. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Laney’s efforts on both ends of the court were crucial. Courtney Vandersloot didn’t have an assist until the 4:35 mark of the second quarter. It was the team’s fourth of the game. Ionescu didn’t make a 3-pointer until 2:14. It was her fourth attempt and only make of the first half. And Breanna Stewart didn’t score her first field goal until there were 58.1 seconds left on the clock before halftime.

It was Laney, with a hefty dose of help from center Jonquel Jones, who kept the Liberty in it until those stars started clicking. She was 6-of-9, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range, for 14 points and six rebounds at the half. Her putback at the buzzer gave the Liberty not only a 46-42 lead going into the locker room but also the “momentum [and] good energy” to fuel them in the second, she said.

As the rest of the team found their spots in the second half, Laney scored only five more points to finish with 19. She was 3-of-6 from 3-point range, flashing a large smile on her final make off an assist from Vandersloot with 5:58 to play and a 13-point lead.

Laney is the lowest draft pick of the starting five, having gone No. 17 in the 2015 draft. She’s not as decorated but would still be (and has been) a higher option on almost any other team. Laney won Most Improved Player in 2020, made the All-WNBA Defensive Team that year and earned an All-Star nod in 2021.

When general manager Jonathan Kolb, who won Executive of the Year honors this week, put together this roster, Laney’s inclusion was as purposeful as the rest. She’s known best for defense, but her offensive skills as the oft-referred “fifth-best” player make New York dangerous.

More Sabrina Ionescu 3-point records

It took a full half for the Liberty to find their spacing, and when they did, Ionescu took over, as she is wont to do. The guard set the franchise record for 3-pointers in a game with her sixth late in the fourth quarter. She was 7-of-13 from 3 (10-of-18 overall) for a game-high 29 points, 20 in the second half. It’s the third-most in a playoff game in Liberty history.

Ionescu’s first signature deep 3 came at 5:12 in the third quarter and gave New York its largest lead of the game at 58-50. It brought the sold-out 8,789 fans at Barclays Center to a roar.

They erupted in the fourth when Ionescu, angry about the referees not calling a shooting foul, nailed back-to-back transition 3s to snap a 7-0 Mystics run. The Liberty’s six-point lead shot back to 12.

“If you give up transition 3s, especially [in] this building, you’ll have an uphill battle,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault said. Mystic guard Ariel Atkins said buckets like that take “the air out of the room.”

Ionescu shot the Game 1 dagger in a fitting finish. The Mystics missed a jumper that was rebounded by Vandersloot as the Liberty held a 12-point lead and fewer than 40 seconds on the clock. The Liberty ran through their offense to kill time, and Stewart passed it back off to Ionescu on the perimeter, who closed the night with a 33-foot 3 for the 90-75 final.

“They waved us off our home court last game, [and] we’ve got to show them what that feels like,” Ionescu said in the broadcast interview, referencing Natasha Cloud waving bye after the buzzer-beater secured the No. 2 seed for the Liberty.

“They punked us, and we had to come out here and prove what we’re made of, and we did that tonight,” Ionescu said.

Jones had a 20-point, 12-rebound double-double split perfectly by half. She added two blocks. Stewart scored 10 with eight rebounds and three blocks in another quiet scoring night for her against Washington and Elena Delle Donne. Vandersloot finished with seven points, six rebounds and six assists.

The Liberty were the first starting five to have more than 85 points, 40 rebounds and 10 made 3s in a postseason game, per Across the Timeline. They assisted on 18 of 33 baskets (54%), and their nine blocks set a franchise record. Five players combined for the total. The previous high was eight, set during the 1999 Finals.

Glimpse of playoffs to come

The way the Dream’s Rhyne Howard and Wings’ Satou Sabally lit up the scoreboard Friday is a sign of what’s to come in future postseasons — not to mention how they’ll follow up their incredible performances on Tuesday.

Howard, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft, set the record for scoring in a playoff debut with 36 points. Her eight 3s on 15 attempts (53.3%) were also a record for a debut. She added four rebounds, three blocks and two assists. Her 19 points in the first quarter tied the WNBA record for points in a quarter of any playoff game. Dream star Angel McCoughtry scored 19 in the third quarter of a 2011 contest.

Sabally, the No. 2 overall pick in 2020 behind Oregon teammate Ionescu, was nearly as good. She had 32 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals, shooting 55% overall and hitting three of five 3-pointers. It was Sabally’s fifth playoff appearance and her first in a fully healthy season. Her scoring output set the franchise record for a single postseason game.

It is the fifth time in postseason history that two players scored at least 30, per Across the Timeline.

In 73 career games going into Friday, Howard scored 1,233 points for a 16.9 career point per game average. She holds the Dream franchise mark for quickest to 1,000 points. Howard’s rookie contract runs through 2024, with a team option for ’25.

Sabally will be a restricted free agent in the offseason. When she entered the league, many analysts saw her as having the highest ceiling of any in the class — including Ionescu. But she has dealt with various injuries over the years and missed time while with overseas clubs. She is a favorite for Most Improved Player.

Wings’ perimeter defense

The Wings have the tallest frontcourt in the league, and it causes matchup problems. They doubled up the Dream in the paint 48-24 but it was the team’s defense on the perimeter that stood out for a long run in the postseason.

The Wings are the second-worst playoff team in defensive efficiency (105.8) in the regular season behind the Minnesota Lynx. It was their third-best offense (109.5) that propelled them to a No. 4 seed and a favorite to knock the super-teams out of championship contention.

Against Atlanta, they had 12 steals and missed tying a season high by one swipe. Arike Ogunbowale had four of them, none more important than her takes from guard Allisha Gray in the final minutes of the game to pull away. It tied her season high set four times. One of those games was their July win against the Aces.

The Dream rushed their offense at times, and head coach Tanisha Wright said composure became an issue. They often gave the ball away or tripped over their own ball handles in the fast-paced and physical contest. Credit to Dallas for pressuring them into miscues.

Ogunbowale scored 24 with nine rebounds and seven assists. Teaira McCowan controlled the paint with 17 points and 14 rebounds, seven on the offensive glass. Nine of those rebounds were in the pivotal fourth quarter, and her clean up on the boards late kept the Dream from coming back. She shot 6-of-7 overall.

Gray scored 21 for Atlanta, and center Cheyenne Parker added 11. The team shot 10% worse than Dallas, even though they had five more 3s, thanks to Howard.