Just the one WNBA game last night, but it was an intriguing encounter. Chicago had the most to play for, coming into Thursday half-a-game behind New York for the final Eastern playoff spot. With the season series between the Sky and Liberty tied at 2-2, if they finished with the same record it would go to conference record to decide. New York were at 9-12 (with one Eastern game left in Washington on Sunday) and Chicago at 7-13 (two Eastern games left, against Atlanta and Washington), giving the Liberty the upper hand. An upset win in Los Angeles to pull them level in the standings would’ve been huge for their postseason push.
However, LA had their own reasons to fight for the victory. 1.5 games clear of San Antonio in second place in the West, they still need wins to make sure of home-court advantage in their first-round playoff series against the Silver Stars. But more importantly, the Sparks had lost 4 of their last 5 games, several of them with fairly pitiful performances. This was the start of a four-game home stand for LA to close out the regular season, and they needed to start finding some form before we hit the postseason.
The Sky were still without star center Sylvia Fowles and veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro, but having broken Minnesota’s 11-game winning streak on Tuesday night without either of those players, they should’ve been confident that they could survive without them. Courtney Vandersloot continued at the point, with Carolyn Swords in the paint.
As we saw when these teams played each other a couple of weeks ago, the way each team tries to set up their perimeter defense creates immediate interest. Both teams want their defensive stopper on the other side’s most dangerous perimeter scorer, which means Tamera Young guards Kristi Toliver for Chicago, and Alana Beard tracks Epiphanny Prince for LA. That’s fine for the Sparks, because the shooting guard is simply taking the shooting guard, allowing Toliver to defend Vandersloot, and DeLisha Milton-Jones to cover Young. But for Chicago, their small forward is sliding over to cover LA’s point guard. It leaves the Sky’s small backcourt of Vandersloot and Prince to cover Beard and Milton-Jones. Even on the official rosters (which tend to be generous), Chicago’s starting guards are listed at 5’8” and 5’9”. Beard and Milton-Jones are officially 5’11” and 6’1”. Basic size was going to be an issue for Chicago all night.
However, defense wasn’t the Sky’s main problem early on. Rather than just switching on practically every screen, which tends to be LA’s modus operandi defensively, they were trapping Prince and Vandersloot off ball screens with hard, active double-teams. And Chicago were absolutely atrocious at handling it. Multiple times they simply gave away the ball under LA’s pressure, unable or unwilling to make the pass out of the trap. It’s a pretty basic defensive tactic, which can be negated by quick ball movement, setting screens off the ball instead of on, or simply breaking down your defender without bringing a screen over to begin with. But Chicago didn’t manage any of that for much of the game – certainly not in the opening quarter. Continue reading