- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Cappie Pondexter didn't come to New York to sit in last place. When her Liberty team visited Tulsa last week, the players were in put-up-or-shut-up mode. They'd just lost June 22 at home to Minnesota, and it's not as if the Lynx are tearing up the WNBA this year. That was a defeat that, frankly, really ticked off the Liberty. So
"We had a meeting amongst the players," New York guard Leilani Mitchell said. "We said, 'The coaches have given us everything we need. It's up to us.'"
As Nicole Powell, who along with Pondexter is one of the six newcomers this season to the Liberty, said, "No more 'new.' We've passed that point. Do we want more time to jell? Sure. We all wish we could have been at training camp. But almost everybody in the league is in the same boat. We all came from overseas and play our seasons back-to-back.
"The nature of the WNBA is to get in here and compete as fast as you can. No matter how valid excuses may be, you don't have time for them."
So, here we are a week later, and the Liberty really have put up. Three victories in a row have raised New York's record to 7-7 and bumped the Liberty just ahead of Chicago and out of last place in the East.
Of course, with the way things have been this season, being in the East cellar is hardly indicative of what kind of team you are. All six East squads are playoff contenders, and the unfortunate two who get left out are still going to be pretty good teams.
But the Liberty are determined that in the game of "Survivor" that is the Eastern Conference in 2010, they will be among the four who make it through to the postseason.
"I definitely want to lead this team because I believe in myself and this franchise," Pondexter said. "I think we have the right pieces, I really do."
With the parity that comes with having 12 teams and 11-player rosters, several franchises feel optimistic. But, certainly, one thing New York has going for it is that almost all the new players to the franchise this season bring championship experience.
Pondexter won two WNBA titles during her four seasons in Phoenix. Powell won one in Sacramento. Taj McWilliams-Franklin won one with Detroit, while Plenette Pierson -- acquired recently in a trade with Tulsa -- won two with Detroit. And rookie Kalana Greene came into the WNBA after two consecutive undefeated seasons at UConn.
"I couldn't ask for a better place to be," said Pierson, who was dealt from the Shock on June 13 for Tiffany Jackson. "They needed that one person to help get them over the hump, and I hope I'm that person. I want to be the one that helps lower the level of frustration I know some of them have felt."
Pierson picked up on this quickly after joining the Liberty: The players were a little frazzled, but not because the team wasn't good and they didn't know how to fix it. Rather, because everyone really thought the team was good, but it wasn't reflected in the results.
Pierson had been dealing with her own ample frustrations in Tulsa.
"I came into being the player I am now while in Detroit, but I felt like the move to Tulsa was a great opportunity for me to show all the things I'd worked on after coming back from shoulder surgery," said Pierson, who had to sit out last season when she was injured in the first game. "But it just didn't turn out the way I hoped. I was very unhappy. I felt it was best for myself and the team for me to leave.
"I don't deal with chaos very well, and that's what the system was: complete chaos. I'm more of a structured player. Me going to New York and knowing what the next person is going to do helped me out a lot. To know where to set the screen, where to find the open spot it just gives me a sense of calm and direction that I needed."
It also helped Pierson that Liberty coach Anne Donovan already knew her game so well. In drawing up plays, Donovan understood Pierson's proven strengths.
"Anne has a great knowledge of basketball and each player's talents," Pierson said. "I'm put in a position where I can help the team and it doesn't frustrate me."
Yes, back to the, uh, F-word. "Frustration," that is. The Liberty knew they had to put the hammer down on the visit to Tulsa, and they did. A 29-point first quarter propelled New York to a 92-78 victory.
Afterward, Powell pointed out that while Tulsa is, obviously, struggling, there was more to the victory than meets the eye. The so-called "complete chaos" system that Pierson disliked playing in can also be effective because it's potentially very hard to play against. What Powell saw in the game was the Liberty working well together against a style that can lure opponents into feeling everyone must fend for herself.
Subsequently, the Liberty beat Connecticut in New York on Sunday, and then topped the Sparks in Los Angeles on Tuesday. The Liberty aren't over-reacting to this streak; after all, the Shock and the Sparks combined have fewer victories than New York does. But it's still a three-game winning streak, the longest stretch the Liberty have had thus far in 2010.
Next up, though, might be one of the more emotional games for Pondexter: her first trip back to Phoenix as the "enemy." The Liberty face the Mercury on Saturday night in the US Airways Center, where Pondexter celebrated a WNBA title last October.
She requested a trade because she wanted to be in the New York area. It's where she went to college (at Rutgers) and where she hopes to have her post-basketball career in the fashion industry.
But one suspects the competitor in Pondexter also will come to relish being the spotlighted player for the Liberty, as opposed to being "sidekicks" with Diana Taurasi in Phoenix.
It's not to say that Pondexter was really unhappy or chafed in that role, because it didn't seem to affect her or the Mercury as a team. Still, for the Liberty now, it's clear who is the primary alpha dog.
"There's no question it's Cappie," Powell said matter-of-factly. "I think we knew that before we got here. She's a scoring champion, and she's done a lot in this league."
Pondexter said there are some differences in playing without Taurasi, but that it's something she's figuring out.
"It's strange at times, especially when you know you're going out there and you don't have your sidekick," Pondexter said. "I know it's the same with her. But it's a transition, something we've both got to get used to. When we're with the national team, we'll connect again that way. We're still good friends, and that will never change."
The Mercury have been struggling a lot, having lost five in a row while going 3-8 in June. And Taurasi, suffering from a bruised lower back, sat out Tuesday's loss at Atlanta.
What Phoenix misses is not only Pondexter's scoring, but also her defensive ability and her personality. The last was something she was determined to show this season had become a bigger strength.
"Honestly, I want to be a better leader," Pondexter said. "I know this team was lacking that, and I wanted to put it on my shoulders."
The Liberty players who returned from last season -- Mitchell, Janel McCarville, Essence Carson, Kia Vaughn and Sidney Spencer -- definitely have welcomed Pondexter in that role. And as Powell said, the newcomers were expecting that Pondexter would be that player in New York.
After the trip to Phoenix, the Liberty go to league-leading Seattle. Then New York has six consecutive games against Eastern Conference foes.
"What's gonna make the difference is in the second half of the season, the intensity goes up," Pondexter said. "So we have to go out full-force. We can't have any excuses in the second half."
This three-game win streak can be the perfect springboard into July and beyond for New York. Or it could just be a peak before a valley. That's the hard truth in the league. But the Liberty know what it's going to take to stay on the upswing.
"There are so many things that come into play during a season," Powell said. "Being healthy, having continuity -- we're seeing that now with Seattle, and we had it in Sacramento -- but there is a point where it's just about playing hard.
"It's cliché to say, but who is going to play hard every play. In that moment, when it's down to the nitty-gritty in the fourth quarter, what are you going to bring?"
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.