A new season begins tonight for the Chicago Sky.
That’s the mantra as the team readies up for its first-round, single-elimination bout with the seventh-seeded Connecticut Sun (10-12) Tuesday evening.
“Once we get to the playoffs, it's a new season. Nothing matters anymore what you did in the regular season,” Courtney Vandersloot said Monday morning. “Everyone's 0-0.”
So, take with a grain of salt that this is the Sky and Sun’s third matchup of 2020 — particularly given how much has changed since the two sides’ last meeting on Aug. 14, a 77-74 Sun victory. The Sky have since lost Diamond DeShields and Azurá Stevens, who exited the WNBA’s bubble at IMG Academy on Aug. 29, for the season; the Sun will be without reserve guard Bria Holmes Tuesday after she tore her right meniscus on Sept. 9.
DeShields, who was battling nagging knee troubles even while with the team, and Stevens’ departure sparked a bumpy final third of the season for the Sky. They lost five of their final seven games down the stretch, including losses to four playoff teams. A 95-88 victory over the Dallas Wings in the regular-season finale snapped a four-game schneid. They enter the playoffs the No. 6 seed.
But even understaffed, the Sky clinched their second postseason bid in as many years twelve days before the regular season’s end. Their 12-10 record marks the fourth-best by winning percentage in franchise history. Vandersloot finished the best season of her illustrious career the only player in the history of the league to eclipse a 10 assists-per-game average over a full campaign. Kahleah Copper and Cheyenne Parker enjoyed breakout years. As a team, they shattered the WNBA record for team-wide field goal percentage for a season (49.1%).
All of which is to say, this is a prideful, resilient and experienced bunch whose brand of high-octane offense can still be devastating, especially with Vandersloot at the controls, Copper, Allie Quigley and Gabby Williams running the wing, and Parker, Stefanie Dolson and fast-rising rookie Ruthy Hebard down low.
“We're feeling the best we've felt all season, to be honest,” Quigley said Monday. “There's just a good energy, good vibes going on. We're locked in on our defensive schemes and our purpose tomorrow. We're just ready.”
They won’t be an easy out.
But the same can be said for the Sun, who turned an 0-5 start into an unlikely playoff berth behind All-WNBA-caliber seasons from DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas, stifling team defense, and a commitment to tough-minded, physical basketball.
Plus, anything can happen in a winner-take-all elimination game. The Sky learned that the hard way in 2019, when a last-second heave by Dearica Hamby sent them packing in a second-round, single-elimination defeat to the Las Vegas Aces.
“It's all or nothing,” Vandersloot said. “It's a little stressful, but it should be, it's the playoffs. All playoff games should be a little stressful.
“I've been on both sides of it, so when you go into the game, we just have to put 40 minutes together and win one game and we're on to the next round. That's the benefit of the one-game elimination. So you just got to go in there knowing that if you play your best basketball and give it everything you got, then you've got a good shot to move on."
Here are three keys to Sky-Sun:
Keeping Connecticut off the free throw line
Asked the areas of focus when preparing to face Connecticut, Sky head coach James Wade was direct.
“We can't send them to the free throw line,” he said. “They embellish a lot of calls, and we just have to make sure that we're solid and that we show our hands and we don't let them initiate the contact and get away with it. We don't want to give them anything by putting our hands in actions that are not supposed to be there.”
Indeed, the Sun took 20 trips to the free-throw line per game as a team in the regular season, a mark that ranks third in the W, bolstered largely by Bonner and Thomas, who finished fourth and fifth in the league in free-throw attempts per game (5.6 each), respectively. Over the Sun’s last five contests, the two combined to average 14.9 charity tries per night, which, on its own, matches the Sky’s season-long average as a team.
In the Sky’s 100-93 victory over the Sun on Aug. 8, they took 32 free throws (12 by Parker alone) to the Sun’s 21. When the Sun got revenge six nights later, they out-attempted the Sky 24-17 from the line.
Which play style wins out?
That point bleeds into the next one. Not only are Bonner and Thomas too good to allow free points, a whistle-heavy game is a slower-paced game, which works to the Sky’s detriment.
“We're better when the game isn't slowed down,” Vandersloot said. “So if we keep them off the free-throw line, it's not only going to benefit them (not) scoring, it's also going to benefit us getting into transition and being at our best.”
Even as the Sky trudged through an injury-riddled regular season, they still finished with the W’s fourth-rated offense (scoring 105.7 points per 100 possessions) and played at the league’s fourth-quickest PACE (98.37 possessions per game). When the tempo is dialed up, the Sky’s sublime ball movement and outside shooting can shine.
The Sun, meanwhile, averaged just 95.81 possessions per game, a mark that ranks fourth-worst in the league. They cut their teeth on the interior. On the glass: The Sun’s 32.9% offensive rebound rate ranked second in the W and their 73% defensive rebounding rate third, meaning they pulled down roughly 1/3 of their own misses, and nearly 2/3 of opponents' misses. Thomas (9.0 rpg, 1.9 offensive), Bonner (7.8 rpg, 1.5 offensive) and Brionna Jones (5.6 rpg, 2.8 offensive) lead the way there. And at the cup: The Sun’s 37.5 points in the paint per night also ranked third. They jacked just 19 triples per game, making 31.2% of them (11th).
Compare that to the Sky’s eighth-ranked defensive rebounding rate (70.4%), 10th-ranked paint defense (allowing 36.6 points per game in that area) and fifth-ranked 3-point shooting, in both rate (21.6 per game) and percentage (35.1%), and a contrast in styles begins to emerge. In an up-and-down affair, advantage Sky. In a slog, advantage Sun.
That makes Parker, the Sky’s leading rebounder with 6.4 per night, and Hebard all the more crucial against Connecticut’s stacked frontcourt. Limiting fouls and controlling the boards will help the Sky dictate pace. Parker topped 20 points in three of the Sky’s final five games, including two double-doubles. Hebard averaged 5.4 boards per game (and shot 75.7% from the field) in the Sky's last seven, making five starts.
Last point here: In Sky wins, they play at a PACE of 99.15 possessions per game, which would rank first in the W. In Sun wins, they average 92.94. No WNBA team averaged less than 94 possessions per game in 2020. If there’s one stat that could decide this one, it’s that.
Turnovers stand out as another possible de-railer of the Sky’s potent offensive attack. This season, the Sky committed 15.6 cough-ups per game, third to last in the W. That not only allows opponents leverage in a potential fastbreak scenario, it also stymies offensive possessions for a team that makes shots better than any team in the league when they get them off.
“We shot a record-high in percentages on offense,” Vandersloot said. “So if we take care of the basketball, the percentages say we're going to score more times than not. So that's one thing going into it that we're going to really, really cherish and make sure we’re taking care of the ball.”
To that point: In addition to breaking the league record for field goal percentage, the Sky were first in the W in effective field goal percentage (54.7%) and true shooting percentage (58%) in the regular season. Largely thanks to Vandersloot, they also slung 21.8 assists per game — second to the Seattle Storm by a tenth of a dime. When they’re in rhythm, they’re really difficult to stop. But allow turnovers and opponent offensive rebounds to reign, and matters could get sticky against Connecticut’s hyper-active, fourth-rated defense.
From the turnover aspect to the defensive end — where the Sky, for their part, rank last in defensive rating among postseason-qualified teams — mustering playoff intensity and energy is imperative.
“I think our consistency, the intensity,” Vandersloot said when asked what the team needs to elevate in the playoffs. “If we play absolutely all-out for 40 minutes, I think things are going to end up going well for us. We have to be consistent, we have to not let a run or a few bad calls or a few bad plays dictate our energy and our execution.”
It should be a fascinating matchup to watch. And a nerve-racking one.
- Sun: N/A
- Sky: QUESTIONABLE: Stephanie Mavunga (knee); OUT: Diamond DeShields (personal), Azurá Stevens (knee)
How to watch
Date: Tuesday, Sept. 15 | 6:00 p.m. CT
Stream: Watch ESPN
Notes: Followed on ESPN2 by the other first-round, single-elimination game between the No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury and No. 8 seed Washington Mystics at 8 p.m. CT
Should the Sky advance, they’ll take on either the No. 3 seed Los Angeles Sparks (who they’re 1-1 against this season) or No. 4 seed Minnesota Lynx (0-2) in another single-elimination game in the second round, depending on the winner of Mercury-Mystics (highest seed left faces Lynx, lowest seed left faces Sparks).
In the WNBA playoffs, the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds get a first-round bye, and the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds get two byes, straight to the semifinals. The semifinals and finals are best-of-5 series.