Last night the WNBA finally offered up an opportunity to concentrate on a specific matchup, rather than splitting our attention between at least three games. The Chicago Sky made the trip down to Atlanta in a desperate state. They’d lost seven games in a row, and 11 of their last 12. They’d also been beaten at home by New York only the night before, a defeat that left them perilously close to giving up their playoff position in the standings. Not helping matters, leading scorer Epiphanny Prince twisted her right ankle late in that game, in only her second game back after breaking a bone in the same foot. Star center Sylvia Fowles limped off in the final minute as well. Both started against the Dream, but neither looked 100% healthy.
Atlanta had their own issues. They’d beaten this same Chicago team in their first game after the Olympic break, then been turned over fairly comfortably by Indiana the following night. Given New York’s level of performance for the first half of the year, and Chicago’s collapse, Atlanta’s playoff spot had begun to look fairly secure. But a glance at the standings showed that if they dropped this contest, the Sky would move within half-a-game of them and seal the tie-breaker over the Dream. It was a big game for Atlanta to cement their position in the East.
Matters were complicated when it was revealed that star scorer Angel McCoughtry wouldn’t play for Atlanta, for what were described only as ‘personal reasons’ by head coach Marynell Meadors. McCoughtry was at the game, and smiled happily through a pre-game ceremony honouring her and Meadors for winning gold in London. Backup center Yelena Leuchanka was also in street clothes (no one seems to have bothered to ask or report what’s wrong with her). However, while Leuchanka sat with her teammates on the bench and cheered along with them, McCoughtry was on the other side of the floor sitting opposite the Sky bench throughout the game. She didn’t even join the player huddle after the game finished, as far as I could see. Asked afterwards if McCoughtry would play in Atlanta’s next game, Meadors said “I don’t know. I can’t answer that.” So no one outside the organisation seems to know what the hell is going on. McCoughtry’s rubbed coaches and teammates the wrong way with her attitude in the past, so it could be that this is a tacit suspension for something she did, without officially suspending her. It could be a health issue that wasn’t obvious, which the team don’t want to reveal. Maybe there actually is some kind of personal reason that allowed her to attend but not play. At this point, your guess is as good as mine.
Anyway, on to the basketball. Rookie wing Tiffany Hayes replaced McCoughtry in the Atlanta lineup, as she did several times in the first half of the season. Sky coach Pokey Chatman shuffled her pack yet again, going to her third different starting point guard in the last three games. Veteran Ticha Penicheiro came in, replacing power forward Le’coe Willingham, shifting everyone back over a spot compared to the previous evening. Prince was back at off-guard, Tamera Young back at small forward, and Swin Cash slid back down to power forward again.
Cash was the star for Chicago in the early minutes. She made a series of jumpers and threw in an occasional drive for variety, carrying the offense for the Sky. As per usual, they were having little success trying to feed Fowles down low. The first quarter stayed fairly tight throughout, thanks largely to Cash’s offense and Courtney Vandersloot hitting a couple of jumpers once she entered the game, but there was a startling difference between the style of attack from the two teams. Even without the steals and breaks that Atlanta always look for to ignite their running game, the Dream were attacking at every opportunity. They were constantly looking to create shots near the rim, either by penetrating off the dribble, or moving the ball and feeding it in to Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza. Chicago, on the other hand, were surviving from outside. So Atlanta led only 22-19 at the end of the first quarter, but they were up 16-4 in points in the paint. That was a glaring sign that the Sky were unlikely to keep up as the game progressed. They’re not a good enough shooting team to compete by firing jump shots.
The chickens came home to roost for Chicago in the second quarter. Atlanta kept attacking the basket and creating high-percentage shots; Chicago kept settling for jumpers – inevitably, the Dream kept scoring, while the Sky’s points dried up. Once they’d built their rhythm with high percentage shots, even the efforts from range started dropping for Atlanta. Sancho Lyttle, who was the one Dream player guilty of occasionally settling for jumpers she shouldn’t have taken, was knocking down virtually everything anyway. Then Cathrine Kraayeveld joined in from the bench, and nailed a couple of threes. By halftime, Atlanta led 48-31, and it was no less than they deserved. Their penetration and attack mentality was forcing the issue and had led to 58% shooting from the field. Chicago’s predictable and sluggish offense had led to endless jumpers, and 38% shooting. That wasn’t going to cut it.
Chatman clearly spent the halftime interval harping on the same issues I’d been bitching about throughout the first half. The Sky came out for the second half with greater purpose, Cash and Young both driving into the paint, and Fowles doing everything she could to get hold of the ball inside (although often her only route was to crash the offensive boards). The gap was down to single-digits less than three minutes into the second half.
It became a rollercoaster third quarter. Atlanta reestablished their big lead with their running game, grabbing steals and long rebounds to run right past the Sky for buckets. Then they went cold again, Chicago remembered their plan to attack the rim, and the gap drifted back down. After 17 points in the first half, Lyttle was again settling for too many jumpers, taking the Dream out of what had worked earlier in the game. The Sky were within 8 points at 61-53 to end the third.
Prince was done for the evening at that point, having played less than 18 minutes and taken only one shot. Clearly, the ankle injury from the night before was bothering her, and had left her a shell of her usual self. Chatman decided that even with her roster, she could find better options somewhere on the Sky bench.
A Cash drive late in the third had drawn Erika de Souza’s fourth foul and sent her to the sidelines, illustrating another benefit of actually penetrating into the defense. Fowles had more room to work with de Souza off the floor, forcing Atlanta to use Kraayeveld or Aneika Henry alongside Lyttle in the paint. The Dream lead dropped as low as 3 points midway through the final period, when Lyttle missed another jumper and Penicheiro charged in for a layup at the other end – made easier because de Souza had returned but was desperate to avoid fouling.
But yet again, the Sky had left themselves too much to do, and had absolutely no ability to close a game out. In the final 5:41 of the contest – from the moment that Penicheiro layup brought them within 3 – Chicago had three turnovers, shot 1-10 from the floor and 3-5 from the free throw line, and Fowles didn’t get up a single field goal attempt. Meanwhile, Atlanta weren’t much better, shooting 1-4 from the floor, but went 11-13 at the stripe. Once again, they were going at the defense, forcing the opposition and the officials to make decisions, rather than drifting around the perimeter failing to feed their key post. It was back to the stark contrast from the start of the game.
In fact, there was one late play where the Dream looked exactly like the Sky. Four Atlanta players were scattered around the three-point arc, while de Souza fought with Fowles in the paint and tried to create an angle for an entry pass. The same thing we see Chicago do constantly, usually resulting in an angry Fowles when she never receives the pass, and an ugly brick from outside to beat the shot clock. Except Atlanta put a twist on it. With the shot clock expiring and the pass to de Souza still cut off, Armintie Price recognised what was happening, cut into the paint from the weak side, and offered an extra angle for a pass. The ball went in to Price, who turned to shoot and was immediately fouled, before knocking down both free throws. Yet again, Atlanta had attacked, found an extra option heading to the basket, and made something happen. Chicago would’ve just jacked up a shot, or tried an impossible entry pass that ended in a turnover.
So Atlanta held on for an 82-71 victory, tying the season series with Chicago at 2-2 (with one game left to play, in the final week of the regular season). That also pulled them 2.5 games clear in third spot in the East. Chicago, meanwhile, dropped to 8-13 and a flat tie with New York, but with the Liberty’s 2-1 edge in their season series, the Sky fell out of the playoff spots for the first time in months. The way they’ve played lately, Chicago will be lucky if they’re favourites heading into Tulsa on Friday night.
To be fair to the Sky, they were much better in the second half. 24 points in the paint in the last 20 minutes, after only 8 in the opening 20, told the story. Fowles finished the game only 7-7 from the floor (they’d obviously like her to take more shots), but also added 8-10 at the free throw line – 8 of those attempts coming in the second half. But their problems remain. There’s a lack of speed, motion and penetration within their offense, which makes everything static and stilted. Fowles isn’t in motion enough, or in space, and they can’t get her the ball. If it wasn’t for Cash managing 6-14 for 19 points, they would never have been in this game. And her performances over the course of the season suggest that the Sky can’t expect that kind of production on a regular basis.
While things went a little pear-shaped in the second half, this was a solid performance from Atlanta in the absence of their primary option. Tiffany Hayes did an impressive job as Angel-lite, attacking off the dribble to create points and firing from deep when the opportunity presented itself (she finished 6-8 for 18 points and 5 assists). Price and Lindsey Harding both pressed the issue and drove when they could as well, each finishing with double-digit points, and Lyttle ended the game 9-20 for 24 points, 7 boards and 5 assists. It was an impressive outing for the athletic post, using her extra inches to score over players like Cash and Willingham, although it would still be nice to see her in the paint more. Just because you’ve worked on your range and improved your jump shot, doesn’t mean that it becomes a better option than a 2-foot hook or a layup.
We’re a week away from the WNBA’s trade deadline, on August 30th. If tradition holds, virtually nothing of import will happen, but it seemed worth mentioning.
FIBA’s 3×3 World Championship started today, with men’s, women’s and mixed tournaments all taking place over the next 4 days. Future WNBA players Skylar Diggins, Chiney Ogwumike and Bria Hartley are joined by former WNBA player Ann Strother on the US team. The official website is here, and you can watch action from Court 1 (of 4) here. Hopefully it’ll get more interesting as the better teams progress, because what I caught today was pretty dull.
Thursday August 23rd (tomorrow):
New York @ Phoenix, 10pm ET
Indiana @ Seattle, 10pm ET
San Antonio @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET
Friday August 24th (tomorrow):
Atlanta @ Washington, 7pm ET
Chicago @ Tulsa, 8pm ET