And Sue Bird was watching.
The WNBA legend had been part of many Finals wins with Stewart when they won the 2018 and 2020 championships together with the Seattle Storm. But now, Bird watched without a jersey from her courtside seat at Barclays Center as Stewart led her new team to its first Finals win since 1999 and, perhaps, one step closer to the franchise's first WNBA title.
Stewart has played plenty in this setting, and has thrived as a two-time Finals MVP. But the circumstances are more unfamiliar than meets the eye: Not only are she and the Liberty trying to claw back from down 0-2, but she is the leader of this team.
That leadership aspect is where Stewart, named the 2023 MVP last month, believes she has grown the most in her first season with the Liberty. New York will continue to count on Stewart's intangibles and tangibles as the Finals resume Wednesday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN), when the Liberty hope to force a winner-take-all Game 5 on Friday.
"Being in Seattle and knowing that Sue was there, you know that you have someone to kind of fall back on a little bit and you know she helped get me to where I was," Stewart said Tuesday. "And now coming here, I'm really taking ownership amongst this team and helping anybody in any way I can. It's something that I can still get better at, but I've been embracing it and knowing that I don't want to leave anything left unsaid."
One of sport's greatest champions, Stewart was ushered into a leadership role when she arrived in New York with a tall task at hand: helping a team with so much talent and new pieces mesh together. Stewart, returning to her home state, and Courtney Vandersloot joined the team in free agency, while Jonquel Jones and Kayla Thornton arrived via a three-team trade. Those four joined forces with a pair of All-Star holdovers in Betnijah Laney and former No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu to form a superteam with championship expectations.
It took time for the Liberty to figure out how they all fit together, although coach Sandy Brondello echoed a mantra "never get too high or too low." The mantra is something that happens to be an attribute of Stewart's, too.
"She's like Sandy," said Vandersloot, who before New York had played with Stewart overseas. "Even on the floor after a great play, she's the same as after a bad play, and I really respect and love that about her because it keeps us stable."
Stewart -- also a four-time national champion and four-time Most Outstanding Player at UConn -- often speaks about showing her teammates what greatness looks like on and off the court. She certainly did that for the Liberty this season, averaging a career-high 23.0 points per game to go along with 9.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.5 steals.
Even as the Liberty have become a more balanced group, Stewart has been viewed as the leader. "They look to her," Brondello succinctly put it. Stewart will often have a different viewpoint on a situation and share it with teammates, Jones said. Stewart is approachable and open, which isn't always the case with players, Thornton added, and is humble despite her lengthy résumé and star power.
Stewart became the second WNBA player to win MVP with multiple teams, along the way guiding the franchise toward the best winning percentage in its history (.800). And even amid a bit of a shooting slump earlier in the playoffs, she helped the Liberty to their first Finals appearance since 2002, averaging a team-best 38.0 minutes per game in the postseason.
But when the Liberty went down 0-2 in the Finals, losing by a combined 45 points in the first two games, Stewart, having suffered her first losses in a championship setting across both NCAA and WNBA competition, was faced with her biggest challenge yet as a leader: helping her team make history by becoming the first WNBA squad to overcome an 0-2 Finals deficit to win the title.
And unlike 2018 and 2020, she won't have Bird to lean on.
The Liberty still have a ways to go in that effort, but Sunday was a start. Stewart's 20 points (on 8-for-16 shooting) were second on the team behind Jones' 27, and she corralled a team-best 12 rebounds and dished out four assists. Her defense -- in the third quarter, especially, when the Liberty outscored the Aces 18-10 -- helped swing the momentum in New York's favor for good.
When Stewart spoke after Game 2 of the team needing to look within to figure things out, she didn't spare herself from that accountability, acknowledging she wanted to get off to better start and dictate how the game went. She rallied others, making sure that someone like Ionescu, who is playing in her first Finals and had a rough start, knew she had her back. The intention to do whatever she can to help everyone else is a quality she learned from Bird.
Stewart reminded teammates of the importance of seizing the moment -- making the Finals is never a given -- but also to make sure they weren't discouraged from their ultimate goal.
"Now's my opportunity to continue to lead and help show this team what is possible," Stewart said. "Even though we were down 0-2, it is still possible, and we still have to fight."
Bird did offer some advice to Stewart, too: that you can't even discuss X's and O's until the team's mindset is in the right place.
"This is a fight," Stewart said Bird told her, "and you have to make sure that everybody is doing whatever they can, even if it's something different than you've been doing all regular season, to go out and make sure that your presence is felt."
Part of Stewart's approach is guided by the perspective gained now that she's a wife and mother (in fact, a soon-to-be mother of two -- Stewart and her wife, Marta Xargay Casademont, are expecting a son by the end of the month).
Stewart's 2019 Achilles injury helped her appreciate every second on the court, because you never know when the game can be taken away from you. "There's tons of things happening in our world today," she added on Friday, but perspective is also something she thinks about daily when she comes home to her 2-year-old daughter, Ruby. Ruby has been present for Stewart's big moments the past month, from her MVP speech to Sunday's postgame news conference, sometimes making herself busy by walking up and down the stairs of the stage while Stewart talks, sometimes simply watching her mother in awe.
That's why no matter what happens for New York over the next few days, Stewart knows she has something to fall back on. She knows who she is and who she can still become as a leader, especially after this season. And now more than ever, she knows who she is as a person, something that has crystalized in recent weeks as she thought back to where she was in 2018, when she won her first MVP, compared to now, winning her second.
"In 2018, it was my third year in the league. I was still trying to find my footing on and off the court," Stewart said. "In 2023, I've found it. I understand who I am, who I love, the family I have, how I want to be on the basketball court and just embracing it all as a whole and making sure that not only am I continuing to be great for this league and what's to come, but also for Ruby so that she can see me and understand that she can do whatever she wants."
Added Ionescu: "Who she is as a person is far more superior than what she does on the basketball court."