A theme has emerged through one-quarter of the new-look Liberty’s renaissance season: It’s going to be hard for them to win when Sabrina Ionescu doesn’t play well.
And after a 94-82 loss to the Las Vegas Aces on Thursday night at Barclays Center, in which Ionescu finished with a career-low five points on 2 of 13 shooting and was unable to deliver her customary late-game heroics, Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins sounded an alarm about Ionescu’s physical condition roughly 10 months removed from suffering partially torn ligaments in her left ankle.
“Sab’s finding her way,” Hopkins said. “As I’m sure everybody can see, she’s just not quite moving the way that she needs to be able to move.”
Asked to elaborate on the notion of Ionescu’s mobility not being 100 percent, Hopkins said, “I don’t know if it’s mobility, I don’t know if it’s pain, but it’s pretty clear to me, movement-wise, that something’s not right. It could just be sore. As simple as it being sore and it really hurts. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I’m seeing.”
The Aces (6-3) — led by the all-world frontcourt of reigning MVP forward A’ja Wilson (30 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and three blocks) and center Liz Cambage — represented the biggest challenge of the season for the Liberty, who dropped their second straight to fall to 5-3. And it seemed like a mismatch early as the Aces went up by as many as 19 in the first half.
But the Liberty chipped away behind Betnijah Laney’s eighth straight 20-point game to start the season (she finished with 23), a 16-point outburst off the bench by Rebecca Allen and the spark-plug season debut of Leaonna Odom. The Liberty had a chance to tie the game on six possessions late in the fourth quarter, and they went like this: Laney missed 3, Ionescu missed 3, Ionescu turnover, Allen missed 3, Laney made 2 (that cut the deficit to 80-79), Ionescu missed 3.
“We need to have her out there in a lot of ways because she still had nine rebounds and nine assists in spite of all that,” Hopkins said of Ionescu. “She just struggled a little bit from the field, and I thought she took a few tough shots maybe that she forced. … Ultimately she was trying to will us into the game like she’s done so many times in her career, and I think sometimes the shots don’t fall.”
The Liberty are 5-0 when Ionescu scores more than 10 points (average of 19.4) and 0-3 when she scores 10 or fewer (average of seven). Overall, the 23-year-old point guard is averaging 14.8 points, 7.4 assists and 6.9 rebounds, with one triple-double on her ledger — all that with movement her coach describes as still “not right.”