The Liberty: Beaten at Their Own Game

The Cleveland Rockers, just one victory away from clinching home-court advantage in the WNBA Eastern Conference playoffs, looked like the mirror image of the second-place Liberty on Saturday when they shut New York down, 58-43. Holding the Liberty to a season-low 28.8 shooting percentage—New York hit 17 for 59 from the field, including zero for 13 from three-point range—the Rockers showed the Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,009 the intricate teamwork that the Liberty like to brag about.

"We've got the opposite of what a team like Houston has to offer," said Cleveland backup point guard Jennifer Rizzotti after adding six points. "Where they've got individual stars, we've got an unselfish group."

Sounds familiar. "They play the same game as we do: hard defense, full press, total teamwork," said Liberty guard Vickie Johnson after struggling to sink seven points. "It's difficult to play against yourself."

But it's a different sort of mirror playing tricks on the Liberty (18-10) as they approach the last four games of the regular season, desperate to gain home-court advantage for the first round of the two-of-three playoffs, with Miami just a game behind: They've become a distorted reflection of themselves. Unlike the last couple of seasons' slow, agonizing process of building steam and finishing strong, this year they came banging out of the blocks and pooped out in mid July, sinking into a four-game losing streak—their worst in three years. True, they came back and put Houston away 64-61 on a three-pointer by Crystal Robinson with 19.3 seconds left to play on July 28, and then cobbled together an ugly 66-63 victory over Detroit on August 1, but emotional stalwart and blue-collar scrapper Sue Wicks went out with a sprained ankle and was still on crutches on Saturday. "It's like missing a leg" to play without her, Johnson said. And it doesn't help if the ball just won't drop. On Saturday, coach Richie Adubato put it simply: "We were ice-cold."

While displaying ravenous defense on Saturday—five rebounds and two steals—Robinson was 0-8 from downtown. But she expects to get another crack at Cleveland in the conference finals. "There's only one thing you can do when you keep missing shots," she said with a shrug, when asked how the Liberty will prepare for tonight's home game against Utah. "Keep shooting."

 
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