By Albert Samaha
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When the imposing pipe organ at Madison Square Garden starts tolling in ascending minor thirds, Liberty fans chime right in with what well might qualify as the squad's theme song: "DEEE-fense! DEEE-fense!" The crowd wails as if its incantation might propel feisty floor captain Teresa Weatherspoon into one of the two-and-a-half steals she averages each game, or launch forward Sue Wicks toward the boards to snag one of the seven rebounds she typically pulls down.
Mass-manipulated chanting or no, players agree, it's the team's defensive rhythm that has carried the Liberty to the top of the Eastern Conference this season. And after last week's emotional 66-54 drubbing of the Washington Mystics, Weatherspoon trotted out that old truism, "It's defense that wins championships." The victory clinched the Liberty's first-place spot, and thus a first-round bye in the playoffs. "It's our defense that gets our offense going."
Weatherspoon shrugged off suggestions that the team had made major strategic changes this season under its new coach, Richie Adubato. "We're not any different. We've always been an intense defensive team," she said. From the point of view of the WNBA's two-time defensive player of the year, that may feel true enough. But after the Liberty didn't even make the playoffs last year, something has to explain this year's success. And it sure isn't the team's erratic offensive play, which has produced some barrel-scraping field-goal percentages as low as .219 in one game and dry spells as long as 10 minutes. Indeed, the Liberty closed the regular season last week with an overall shooting percentage of .418 lower than 1998's .425, despite the addition of Crystal Robinson's hot hand and the continued reliability of stealth shooter Vickie Johnson.
According to Adubato, Johnson is the only Liberty player consistently capable of setting up her own offense. So, he explained, "We've been dedicated to defense the whole year. That's always our key, to use it to free up our shooters. As for offensive execution, we're still working on that."
Ironically, though, it may be the Liberty's lack of individual offensive superstars and thus its well-oiled, team-focused, fundamental style that makes it so tough to beat, at least on a good day. And saying so can be exactly what makes a good day. According to Liberty players, some of the Mystics were trash- talking before their final match-up last week. And that, said Weatherspoon, was just "throwing gas on the fire," as her own explosive play, which featured eight assists and three steals, demonstrated.
"They said our team doesn't have any talent," complained Robinson, after contributing 12 points, five rebounds, and two steals to the Liberty's triumph. "We took that really personally. We come out to play hard and expect to be respected for that anyway." Emotions ran high for a slew of other reasons as well: Washington had trounced the Liberty in their first three contests this season, and the Mystics are headed by former New York coach Nancy Darsch. The team, and its rookie superstar, had also come to represent an increasingly irksome mantra the Liberty had simply gotten sick of hearing. "Everybody thought we needed Chamique Holdsclaw," Robinson explained. "They said we couldn't succeed without any big names."
Yet there the Liberty sit, conference champs. Never mind that none of them was tapped for the Olympic squad or that not a one was named WNBA player of the week all summer. "What we have is balance," Robinson added. "And chemistry."
If the chemistry is as invisible as it is undeniable, the balance is easy to spot, on the floor as well as in the stat sheet. On any given day the high scorer could be Robinson or Johnson or Sophia Witherspoon or Tamika Whitmore or Kym Hampton and that means opponents take a big risk in double-teaming a shooter on a streak. Besides, said Adubato, his best scorers know how to set up their teammates when they're not getting open looks.
And, he added, they will try anything. Even the old diamond-and-one zone defense he "took out of the closet and dusted off" to shut down the Mystics. (The "one" took out All-Star Nikki McCray; the diamond forced Washington to shoot, miserably, from the perimeter.) "I played the top of the zone and spent the whole game running from side to side," Johnson reported with a laugh. "I enjoyed it it worked!"
But it's not a strategy anybody's likely to see if the Liberty make it to the finals against Houston (let's just assume they'll win the Western Conference), the only team in the league with three players who can take the ball to the hoop all alone Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson. New York vanquished Houston 74-71 on August 10 with a relentlessly aggressive press that forced 15 turnovers. In addition, Adubato shifted some positions to improve the matchups. For Wicks, it's the defensive flexibility Adubato has demanded that has put the team in the playoffs. "He's willing to try things in practice," she said, distinguishing his openness from the rigidity with which Darsch had coached the squad. "If it doesn't work, he tries something else. Sure, we were always a defensive team. But Richie turned it up a few levels." That, added Wicks, was a necessary response to the influx of ABL players this season, who lifted the level of play in the league (and also ratcheted up the physicality). Houston, for instance, is so deep now that ABL sensation Jennifer Rizzotti has spent most of the season on the Comets bench.