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Liberty Clinch Playoff Dream vs. Atlanta

A clutch effort put the New York Liberty back in the WNBA postseason.

Even if the New York Liberty dropped their Sunday afternoon showdown with the Atlanta Dream, they could've nonetheless clinched their second consecutive WNBA playoff spot with some help from the Phoenix Mercury later in the day.

New York, however, wasn't willing to leave anything to chance and instead made its own dream a reality. 

Granted control of its own destiny at Barclays Center, the Liberty (16-20) formed their first playoff streak since 2015-17 with an 87-83 triumph over the Dream. With the win, they finished off a regular season-ending sweep of a doubleheader with Atlanta and locked themselves into the eight-team WNBA playoff bracket. 

Stef Dolson's 15-point, 12-rebound double-double, along with five assists united with the efforts of Marine Johannes, who put in six triples off the bench, to give the Liberty a consistent lead throughout the game until Atlanta started to creep back into the affair. Natasha Howard tied Johannes for the team lead with 18 points, which included a clutch fourth quarter showing that included 10 tallies and five rebounds over the final five minutes. 

The crucial victory came on an afternoon when Sabrina Ionescu shot 1-of-12 from the field, though she did supply a team-best seven assists. 

It was Howard, a 2022 All-Star, who wrote the Liberty's name in pen on the playoff schedule: with Atlanta (14-22) trying to stave off elimination, Howard's clutch rebounds partly negated the Dream's 13-4 advantage on the offensive glass as she denied second chances while the lead exchanged hands throughout the final frame. When those boards came in the final minute, desperate fouls from the Dream put Howard at the foul line, where she hit 3-of-6 to give the Liberty a slim 80-79 lead with under a minute to go. 

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Off a feed from Johannes, she sank the clincher from the corner, a three-pointer that served as the Liberty's 15th successful triple of the night. Atlanta got the deficit back to two but no further, as final free throws from Howard and Ionescu put their signature on the win. 

This new playoff berth differs from last year's clinch in the sense that New York fully controlled its own destiny: while the Liberty won their regular season finale to stay alive in last year's final stages, they needed a loss elsewhere to officially punch their playoff ticket. 

The team was more than happy to embrace making its own path.

The Dream, under the direction of first-year head coach and former Liberty guard Tanisha Wright, were thus denied their first playoff appearance since 2018. Top overall pick and Rookie of the Year favorite Rhyne Howard was primarily responsible for keeping the team's hopes alive, putting in 24 points (anchored by a 5-of-12 output from three-point range) and seven assists.

Locked into the seventh seed, New York's playoff journey will begin on Wednesday night when they battle the second-seeded Chicago Sky on the road (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Under the new WNBA playoff format, the opening round will consist of best-of-three series sets, with the higher seed hosting the first two games.

The defending champion Sky (26-10) went 3-1 against the Liberty this season, with New York's victory coming on July 23 at Barclays Center.