Can Liberty return to form in must-win Game 3 of WNBA Finals?

NEW YORK -- The last time a WNBA team won back-to-back titles, the New York Liberty were on the losing end of the WNBA Finals. Can they prevent history from repeating itself?

It will be an uphill climb, but at least the Liberty will have their home crowd to help. Down 2-0 in the best-of-five series, they host the Las Vegas Aces in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC) at Barclays Center.

"We believe in one another," Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu said. "We're on home court; we play really well at home with this fan base, and we understand what's at stake.

"We're not pointing fingers and blaming anyone else for our actions. That's something that we worked on all year long: just taking ownership. Vegas did what they were supposed to do, which was protect home court. Now it's our job to do what we're supposed to do."

It will be the first WNBA Finals game in the Big Apple since Aug. 29, 2002, when the Los Angeles Sparks beat New York 71-63. That was at Madison Square Garden, the Liberty's longtime home before being bought by Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai in 2019, and the Finals were a best-of-three series then.

The Sparks won Game 2 in Los Angeles 69-66 on Aug. 31, 2002. Coupled with their 2001 Finals sweep of Charlotte, the Sparks followed the four-time champion Houston Comets as back-to-back winners. No one would have guessed then that more than two decades would pass without any other WNBA team repeating.

Since 2002, the Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm have each won four titles, the Phoenix Mercury and the Detroit Shock three apiece. But none of those came in consecutive years. If the Aces do it, it will spark "dynasty" talk, especially considering their core four of A'ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young are all under contract with Las Vegas next year, too.

The Aces have been sharp throughout the playoffs, going 7-0, and are looking for their third series sweep this postseason. New York coach Sandy Brondello looked to fire up the Liberty on Friday with some passionate language about their effort in the first two games. But something she said after Game 2 on Wednesday might best bluntly describe what has happened so far in this series.

Brondello, talking about why the Liberty had lost the first two games of the Finals by a combined 45 points, said she wasn't sure why they hadn't played better.

"Was it because of our opponent? Possibly," Brondello said.

The Aces' experience together should never be underestimated; Wilson, Plum and Young have been teammates since 2019, and Gray joined them in 2021. Gray said she can pretty much read their minds on court now. It especially looked that way Wednesday, when the Aces scored a Finals-record 38 points in the first quarter. Their defense was exceptional and flowed into their offense. While the Liberty struggled to make even wide-open shots, the Aces shot 52.9%.

"[We] executed schemes with a high degree of physicality, awareness," Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon said. "And there were things during the course of the season, adjustments we knew we wanted to make. But we didn't pull the trigger because we wanted to save them [for the playoffs].

"It's not like some magical thing. But little tweaks we kind of kept in the bag for a bigger-picture approach."

All that said, the Aces didn't play well in their two regular-season visits to Barclays. The Liberty blew the Aces off the court 99-61 on Aug. 6. It was closer on Aug. 28, but New York won 94-85.

That's the kind of mojo the Liberty hope they can drum up Sunday. If not, what was expected to be a competitive series between the top two seeds in the league will instead be a coronation for the Aces.

"This is the time we want to be our best," New York's Breanna Stewart said. "Just making sure we're doing it for one another. Playing in Vegas is very tough; everyone knows that. And now we're back in New York."