WNBA Finals: Jonquel Jones fueled by embarrassment of first 2 games, dominates Aces as Liberty force Game 4

NEW YORK — Anger. Embarrassment. If urgency counts as an emotion, Jonquel Jones said she felt that, too.

For the two weeks since the New York Liberty clinched a spot in the WNBA Finals, Jones has faced questions about making it back here. Again. To the final games of the season, where she had been twice with the Connecticut Sun.

The 2021 MVP has no ring or championship trophy team photo to show for it. A trade to New York that sparked the final blocks of a super-team build was supposed to change that. And then the Liberty lost Game 1 in the best-of-five series. They were blown out and, in Jones’ view, embarrassed in the sold-out Michelob Ultra Arena for Game 2.

The only thing working for the Liberty in that game was Jones, who carried the team to within single digits before it fell to pieces in a 28-point loss. It put the Liberty’s backs against the wall.

She talked to her dad as the series shifted from Las Vegas to New York about her main motivational energy, the pain of not winning yet.

“I get mad, like f***, how many times am I gonna come to the Finals and not win?” Jones said at practice Saturday. “That’s why I just put it all out there on the line, because at the end of the day, that’s all you can do. And just, you try to bring your teammates with you and get that same level of energy.”

She left it all on the court Sunday and will play at least another game this season as New York climbs out of its hole. The Liberty won, 87-73, in front of 17,143 fans and a hefty list of celebrities at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Aces lead the series, 2-1, and Game 4 is in Brooklyn on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). If the Liberty win, the deciding Game 5 is Friday in Las Vegas. No team in 17 tries has come back from down 0-2 to win.

Jones was everywhere on both ends, scoring 27 points on an efficient 75% clip and 4-of-7 from 3-point range. She had eight rebounds, three blocks, three assists and a steal. There was no danger of fouling out with only one to her name. And she took the primary guard of two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, who scored half of her 16 points on free throws and was an inefficient 4-of-16. She had 11 rebounds.

Wilson and the Aces had their way with New York in the first two games en route to what would be their second consecutive title. Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello was blunt in her assessment of Game 2 film, calling New York’s performance “f***ing s***” on Friday.

“We didn’t play the way that we’re capable of and we went away from everything we did [well],” Brondello said. “For me, it’s more like, why? Don’t be wondering why. Just be f***ing aggressive. It’s not that hard. Have some pride.”

The Liberty were timid in the first two games, and in Game 2 specifically, they lacked any real oomph. They were missing urgency and passion and looked outplayed almost from the tip despite defeating the Aces in three of five meetings in 2023. Brondello said repeatedly over the few days between games that it was time for action, not emotion.

Sometimes the right emotion leads to the wanted action.

“Energized and we had a new opportunity,” Jones said of her emotions heading into Game 3. “I kind of drew on the same things. Playing with a lot of passion. Just not wanting to let the moment pass us by and have that ‘what-if’ type of feeling. Those are the things that I came in thinking about and I used to kind of fuel me.”

Brondello said the Liberty began to “find our feet” as a team of players working together for the first time when Jones was integrated into the system. Out of the All-Star break, Jones began to string together double-doubles that took New York to another level. A level that lifted them to a Commissioner’s Cup championship over the Aces where Jones earned the MVP.

It was Jones’ “will to win” and the way she had carried the Liberty that Brondello credited after Game 3. She’s also been a guiding light for a team that has varying degrees of postseason experience.

“We got a lot of great leaders, but JJ’s voice has been heard these last few days,” Brondello said. “And that leadership really does matter to us. And it gives confidence. She’s inspiring by her actions, but also the words.”

New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones shoots over Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes in Game 3 of the 2023 WNBA Finals at Barclays Center in New York on Oct. 15, 2023. (Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports)
New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones shoots over Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes in Game 3 of the 2023 WNBA Finals at Barclays Center in New York on Sunday. (Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports) (USA Today Sports / reuters)

Jones was barely on the boards early and instead gave the Liberty needed offense and necessary spacing to keep it going. She hit both of her first 3-point attempts in the first quarter and finished with a career postseason-high of four.

It was similar to Aces center Kiah Stokes hitting from deep to open up Game 2, though the Liberty big is far more of a regular shooter beyond the arc. Jones has drained at least four 3s in at least one game each of the past five seasons. Her career high is five in a single game.

“In the scheme of things, if you want someone shooting 3s out there, it’s probably her,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said. “I don’t want [Betnijah] Laney or Sab [Sabrina Ionescu] or Stewie [Breanna Stewart]. And she made them. So kudos for her.”

Brondello noted pregame the Liberty were making fewer 3s per game in the Finals than they had in their four regular-season games against the Aces (8.5 to 12.5). The Liberty are 37.4% shooters from beyond the arc and led the league in makes, but were 31% and 22.9% in the first two games.

In Game 3, New York had 3s from all five starters as well as a perfect 2-of-2 from reserve Kayla Thornton. They were 13-of-30 (43.3%) and 52.4% overall, a far better mark than the offensive struggles they encountered in Vegas. Stewart scored 20 with 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Courtney Vandersloot and Laney each scored 12 in back-to-form performances.

Back home in front of an “amazing” crowd of seafoam-green faithful, Jones said the team was “locked in and in sync.” They assisted on 28 of their 33 made field goals, more in line with their season-long 75% mark. The 84.8% assisted shot rate is the second-best in WNBA Finals history, per Across the Timeline.

And their defense buckled down on the league’s best offense by keeping the Aces’ guards largely off the board for the first time. Kelsey Plum scored 29, including five 3s, but the series’ hot hand in Jackie Young had only eight, shooting 2-of-9. Chelsea Gray scored 11 with only two assists. She missed the final minutes with an apparent left foot injury. It was the first time the Aces shot less than 50% in the Finals series (33.3%).

Jones had one of her best defensive efforts of her Liberty career, and maybe even her six seasons with the Sun. Her swat of Plum brought roars and resulted in an Aces shot-clock violation. Stewart’s block on Wilson three minutes later in the third drew Liberty fans to their feet and encouraged MVP chants during the replay. The team had eight blocks, including three from the guard duo of Ionescu (two) and Vandersloot (one).

Most in Brooklyn stayed until the final buzzer and roared when Jones took the court for the broadcast interview. They cheered as she answered questions piped over the speaker and answered her call for showing the atmosphere one last time on national television. This is why Jones came to New York.

“We want to win for her,” said Ionescu, who had nine points and a team-high 11 assists. “She came here to win a championship. She’s been so close so many times and has fully committed herself to being the best she can in her role.”

Ionescu is playing in her first Finals and only her second postseason. The questions she has faced these past two weeks are different, but the goal is the same. To win a championship and avoid the pain. That will likely hinge largely on Jones.

“I’m excited to see her for Game 4, because she continues to get better every single game,” Ionescu said. “Which is scary because I feel like she’s just touching the potential that she has for this team.”