When Sandy Brondello was hired by the Phoenix Mercury ahead of the 2014 season, most of their key pieces, the ones that every successful team needs, were already intact for the head coach.
There was a core, They had proven stars, from Diana Taurasi and Britney Griner to Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor. All Brondello needed to do in her inaugural season was implement her system. And the Mercury reaped the benefits of that continuity, winning the title in ’14 and advancing beyond the first round of the playoffs in each of Brondello’s first five seasons.
“That was easier,” Brondello said on Monday, before the Liberty defeated the Aces, 95-84, to trim the gap between the second- and first-place teams in the WNBA, respectively, to 1.5 games. “It’s just me coming in with a new system. They knew how to play with each other.”
This year, it has been a different challenge for Brondello. Having taken over as the Liberty’s head coach in 2022, Brondello’s system was already in place before thoughts of a superteam residing in Barclays Center became legitimate.
Then, Breanna Stewart arrived in free agency. Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones were acquired, too. When they paired with guard Sabrina Ionescu and other role players, the Liberty had everything they’d need to push for the franchise’s first end-of-season title.
“Here, we brought whole new players in, and then we talked about sacrifice,” Brondello said. “But for me, it’s just when your best players buy in, great things can happen anywhere. And they want to play the right way.”
At the start of the season, the Liberty were just a collection of superstars, and those don’t correlate with success.
Just ask the Mets, whose record payroll under Steve Cohen only led to a trade deadline sale.
Or the Rangers, who acquired Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane — with a combined 13 All-Star appearances — at the deadline but then suffered a crushing first-round exit. Or the Nets, whose Big 3 dwindled to two and one before becoming nonexistent.
But unlike those New York City teams that fell short of their colossal expectations, the Liberty are actually starting to jell. They’re actually playing off each other. In five meetings against the defending champion Aces, including four in August, they’ve won three. They’ve won four consecutive games with five remaining.
Maybe the other superteams didn’t work. But maybe this one, with a 28-7 record and legitimate championship hopes, can.
The Liberty have the league’s third-best defensive rating at 99.2 (behind Las Vegas and the Connecticut Sun), indicative of a commitment Brondello said is fueled when they’re “locked in and playing aggressive.”
It was evident in their Aug. 26 win against the Minnesota Lynx, when they forced 13 turnovers and only committed a season-low six.
And in the first quarter Monday. With the Liberty crawling back from an early deficit, Ionescu stole a pass and drew a foul while driving for a layup. Then, Stewart poked the ball away; at the other end of the court, she collected a pass from Vandersloot for another two points.
“When we’re being active, I think it’s where we can be disruptive and we get out and run and then we’re pretty good in the open court,” Brondello said.
It’s an approach Ionescu illustrated Monday night, when she stopped looking to pass while driving, instead recognizing open shots earlier around the paint and that “if I can apply pressure and get into the paint, it opens up the floor for everyone,” she said after the game..
But for as much as the Liberty’s first 34 games were about their superteam’s introduction, about their trio of players acquired in the offseason and how anything — or, if it all worked out, everything — could be possible, it, really, all centered around Stewart.
She was the headliner. The two-time WNBA champion, and arguably the league’s best player, who chose the Liberty. She broke record after record. Thirty- and 40-point outputs became a normal occurrence. Her 806 points are creeping toward Tasuri’s WNBA season record of 860, set in 2006.
The Liberty, however, found a way to win with Stewart limited on Monday. She shot 3-for-9 from the field in the opening half, including 0-for-4 from 3, but New York still held a double-digit lead. Instead, Stewart had four assists, three steals and was a plus-11.
“She’s impactful because she’s changing shots,” Brondello said. “She’s guarding the best player on the other team. She’s rotating. She’s rebounding. She’s running, creating for others.
“It’s not always about scoring. We obviously love it when she scores, too, but I thought she played really poised. She gets us so much because she demands so much attention, too. So it really does open for other people as well.”
That adjustment will become pivotal in the postseason, with opponents looking to shut down Stewart through a variety of defensive schemes. That became evident over the course of their five-game season series with the Aces, a potential preview of a postseason matchup — maybe the WNBA finals — that Stewart said pregame certainly reflected a playoff-esque setting.
There were back-to-back games. There was one meeting, the Commissioner’s Cup final, with more than just standings at stake. There was time for adjustments, time to concoct the best counters, time to do it all over again before the next game.
That made Monday night reflect a deciding Game 5. It’s a scenario that could happen again — almost exactly — in October. Both teams were tired, with Vegas nearing the end of a road trip and the Liberty playing their third game in five days. Any tweaks and changes and strategies had all been implemented.
That made the Liberty’s latest convincing win, then, perhaps their most significant one yet.
Today’s back page
⚾ SHERMAN: Yankees must learn hard lesson from major Josh Donaldson flop
🎾 BROOKS: Jessica Pegula ‘can’t’ imagine’ carrying American women’s pressure at US Open on own
🏈 Mekhi Becton thrilled to earn Jets starting chance, ‘really confident’ in knee
⛳ CANNIZZARO: Confident Zach Johnson’s Ryder Cup picks come with intrigue behind Brooks Koepka
🏈 SERBY: Jets defense has everything it needs to be NFL’s best
Back to the Yankees’ future
Near the end of May, with the Yankees still in the playoff conversation and Aaron Judge still a few days from the pivotal toe injury, Josh Donaldson sat in the Double-A Somerset dugout and fielded questions about his future.
The short-term ones questioned the health of his hamstring — the reason for his presence in Bridgewater, N.J. for a rehab assignment — after a setback. “Everything’s been going well,” Donaldson said May 30. He planned to fly out to Los Angeles that week for the series against the Dodgers, which, well, proved to have massive ramifications on the Yankees’ season.
But the long-term topics revolved around Donaldson’s career, which took a turn three months later when the Yankees released him Tuesday. Around his role with the team. Around the fact that the Yankees had younger options that, with enough shifting, could remove Donaldson’s role from the lineup.
“I don’t know if it fuels me,” Donaldson said May 30, when asked if doubts about his future provided motivation. “I mean, I go out there and I try to play as hard as I can and put everything that I physically can into the game.”
At the time, he had manager Aaron Boone’s reassurance about being an everyday player. Donaldson didn’t sense any increased pressure. But then he stumbled in his return, hitting .144 in 28 games and facing constant boos from Yankees fans. After another injury — this one a calf strain — landed him on the 60-day injured list, Donaldson’s tenure with the Yankees remained in flux.
That’s why the Yankees’ transaction Tuesday appeared inevitable, and not only because of the injury that has sidelined him since mid-July.
Donaldson’s numbers didn’t resemble a shadow of the former AL MVP. He hit .207 across 584 at-bats in 165 games with the Yankees after the club acquired him from the Twins in March 2022.
In addition to releasing Donaldson, the Yankees also placed outfielder Harrison Bader on irrevocable waivers, meaning that any team can claim him — with the waiver order determining the destination — before Sept. 1 and he can be eligible for postseason rosters. The Yankees have gotten younger, trying to give prospects at-bats before the end of what appears to be a lost season, and these two moves created opportunities.
The Mets took the same approach with starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco, while the Angels, just weeks after buying at the deadline, placed five players — pitcher Lucas Giolito, outfielder Randal Grichuk, outfielder Hunter Renfroe, pitcher Matt Moore and pitcher Reynaldo López — on waivers.
Venus Williams’ early exit
At this time last year, the U.S. Open centered around Serena Williams and her unknown tennis future. The sport kept getting younger. Retirement, inevitable as it might seem after multiple comebacks and injury recoveries, kept getting closer.
And when Williams lost to Ajla Tomljanović in the third round on Sept. 2 — one year ago this week — it marked the end of a legendary career that featured 73 singles titles and 23 Grand Slams.
For the first time since Serena’s defeat, Venus Williams, her older sister at 43 years old, played a match at Arthur Ashe Stadium, falling to qualifier Greet Minnen, 6-1, 6-1 on Tuesday night in here worst-ever defeat at the tournament.
Together, the Williams sisters captivated tennis audiences for decades, establishing not only a sibling rivalry but also a standard for the rest of the sport to meet. Many times, their competition couldn’t come close.
That’s what made Tuesday, despite the result, a fitting introduction for Venus in just the fourth U.S. Open without Serena since 1998.
The second day of the event had already featured a major upset on the men’s side with Michael Mmoh, and the marquee matchup of the evening — No. 1-seed Carlos Alcaraz, following his Wimbledon title — still followed, but for one hour and 14 minutes, spectators got a reminder of everything the Williams sisters brought to the sport — in their singles and doubles matches, in their appearances away from the court — since their debuts.
“For me, it was incredible to play a legend like her. I have huge respect,” Minnen said following the match, according to the Associated Press. “To be there at 43 years old, it’s amazing really.”
But these types of moments in sports don’t last forever. Venus’ U.S. Open appearances might be numbered, and it was unclear immediately after her match whether retirement had crossed the mind of someone who has won seven Grand Slams and two tournaments in Flushing Meadows.
The U.S. Open crowd didn’t receive a vintage performance from Venus. But the nostalgia — whatever that’s worth in rankings and seedings — was still enough.
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