Despite season-opening win, coach Bill Laimbeer labels Liberty performance 'awful'
Tempers flare in Liberty's win over Stars
NEW YORK -- Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer was about as unhappy as a winning coach can be.
His team's 73-64 season-opening win Saturday against San Antonio at Madison Square Garden was pockmarked by poor defensive play, struggles from bench players and a tougher-than-expected fight from a team missing three of its best players.
"I hope this is the worst game we play all year long," he said. "It was awful. Our second unit didn't take care of business. We had people miss assignments all over, and that's bad."
Liberty forward Tina Charles held up her team's offense in the early going with New York's first eight points from the field, and teammate Cierra Burdick sparked the offense with eight first-half points off the bench. But a game-high 23 points from San Antonio's Monique Currie kept the Stars (0-1) in the game, as did multiple miscues from New York (1-0).
Laimbeer's team led by 17 at one point. That didn't matter, though. He "isn't going to sugarcoat anything" and said his team is "all talk" right now.
Charles, who finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, wasn't surprised by the harsh message. She and her teammates knew Saturday was rough, regardless of the win.
"It's very concerning. It's very alarming," she said. "I mean, we've been in training camp since April 23. We know what each other can do. We've played against practice guys who are stronger and quicker. We've been able to prove it there. It's a choice, fighting through fatigue."
It wasn't a perfect homecoming for Stars coach Vickie Johnson, either.
The former Liberty player began her head coaching career with a loss and has two key contributors, Moriah Jefferson and No. 1 draft pick Kelsey Plum, out with injuries. That slightly soured a sentimental afternoon for Johnson, one of six members of the New York Liberty Ring of Honor.
Nostalgia mixed with the action throughout the game. In the middle of the second quarter, a video tribute to Johnson played at the Garden. She stayed focused on her team but gave a smile and wave when the huddle broke and "We Are Family" played over the loudspeakers.
"It was amazing," Johnson said afterward. "This is where I started at, you know? I played a lot of games in the Garden and played hard. I think I played the right way. I think the fans and the organization appreciate that."
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The Stars had few offensive options, with Jefferson (right knee soreness) and Plum (right ankle sprain) sidelined and Kayla McBride yet to return from overseas play in Turkey. San Antonio made 4 of 17 shots from the field in the first quarter and just 5 of its 10 free throw attempts, and a slow start turned into a 37-28 halftime deficit.
Plum, near the end of the bench, was in a boot during the game Saturday. She and Jefferson have no timetable for return, Johnson said, but will not be playing in Sunday's game at Washington. McBride, meanwhile, will work her way back in soon.
"I think once we add those three pieces, I think our team can really focus, our players can focus on what they have to do as individuals," Johnson said. "I think we'll be fine."
Despite missing three of its best perimeter players, San Antonio managed to hang with New York thanks to Currie. The 11-year veteran attacked from the wing and took over point guard duties for the Stars, and her 10 first-half points on 4-of-6 shooting kept the game close.
Currie opened the second half with another scoring burst, but the rest of the Liberty offense got going out of the break, too. New York's lead ballooned to 15 with just over four minutes remaining in the third quarter, and the Liberty limited Currie by double-teaming off screens and pressuring her up the court off the inbounds pass.
"We changed our defense a little bit on her in the second half. She kind of surprised us. She's normally not that aggressive offensively," Laimbeer said. "Fortunately, San Antonio was short-handed. If they had their full squad, we probably would have lost the game."
Free throws could have tilted the balance in the Stars' favor, too.
San Antonio shot 29 of them but made only 17 in the nine-point loss. That, and some missed open shots, proved to be the difference in Johnson's mind.
"Defensively, we had a couple breakdowns," she said. "The fourth quarter, I think we played aggressive. I think we played with a sense of urgency. We can't wait until the last quarter to do that."
Currie picked it up again with an and-1 with a little under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter that cut the lead to single digits, but consecutive layups by Liberty guard Brittany Boyd, combined with two turnovers from Currie, kept the game out of reach for San Antonio.
Boyd went for the ball after the whistle on that second turnover and got in Currie's face following the play, which led to a dead-ball foul on Boyd. She made up for it with a jumper after the Stars closed within single digits with 2:48 remaining and finished with 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists. She was one of five Liberty players to score in double figures; Shavonte Zellous and Burdick each also added 10, and Epiphanny Prince had 11.
Next up, the Stars head to Washington, D.C., to face Elena Delle Donne and the Mystics on Sunday. The Liberty play at home again Thursday against Minnesota.
The Stars, Johnson said, are just hoping to stick it out until their lineup is healthy and ready to play. The Liberty, meanwhile, have problems of their own to fix before facing the 2016 WNBA Finals runner-up.
"We play like this against Minnesota, we're down by 30," Laimbeer said. "Facts."