Just the one game in the WNBA last night, but it was crazy enough to entertain all on its own. Chicago made their yearly visit to Seattle to face the Storm, but took the floor without rookie phenom Elena Delle Donne. Her mid-foot sprain, suffered in their previous game against Los Angeles, is expected to keep her out for a couple of weeks. The chances of losing their top spot in the East look slim, simply because there aren’t any teams in the chasing pack who look capable of stringing together a run to catch them. But with the Sky’s history, where they’ve consistently found ways to miss the postseason from whatever position they happened to be in, their fans aren’t taking anything for granted. Tamera Young came into the starting lineup again as Delle Donne’s replacement.
Seattle continue to sit in fourth place in the West, where they’ve been for quite some time now. Whether a playoff spot and likely first-round exit is actually preferable to owning some ping-pong balls in the lottery remains open to debate, but they continue to fight their way to enough wins to hold that spot. San Antonio and Tulsa aren’t dead yet, but Seattle remain in pole position.
With Delle Donne out, the likely focus of Chicago’s offense was obvious. Epiphanny Prince hasn’t been able to hit water from the side of a boat lately, so finding Sylvia Fowles in the paint was always going to be their primary option. However, the one thing Seattle have been good at year after year after year under Brian Agler, is preventing teams from taking layups. They consistently force opponents into taking a smaller proportion of their attempts from inside 5 feet than any other team in the WNBA. With Fowles as the first, second and third option for Chicago, their defensive focus was going to be pretty damn obvious. Everyone sagged into the paint for Seattle, making passing lanes to even get Fowles the ball difficult in the first place. Whenever she did touch the ball inside, defenders swarmed all over her immediately, forcing it back out unless she managed to score within moments of receiving the pass. And in case you haven’t noticed over the years due to Fowles being such an athletic and effective finisher inside – she’s a terrible passer. She has 9 assists this season. All season, in total. That’s not helped by the limited number of players on her team who can shoot, but it tells the story. Force her to pass out, and you’re more likely to create a turnover than give up a bucket.
The other problem that Chicago had offensively in the first half was that Epiphanny Prince continued to play like she has for at least a couple of months. She’s been awful. Her jump shot accuracy has disappeared, and she was shooting a miserable 31% in July and August combined coming into this game. This team was meant to become an unguardable 3-headed monster with the addition of Delle Donne, but lately Prince hasn’t been holding up her end.
So Seattle were in control for the vast majority of the first half. They had some early success on the pick-and-pop, because Chicago’s bigs were dropping back into the paint on screens, which left Tina Thompson and Camille Little in acres of space outside. The Sky fixed that in the second quarter and on into the second half by hedging on the picks instead. But Seattle were successful in plenty of other ways. They were moving the ball well, Shekinna Stricklen hit some shots from outside, and several players completed remarkable acrobatic finishes. Little, Temeka Johnson and Tanisha Wright all had at least one apiece that somehow found their way into the basket when that result seemed unlikely. That allowed the Storm to press home the advantage that their defense had been creating from the start, and take a 39-29 lead in at halftime.
Chicago made a quick start to the second half, forcing turnovers on three consecutive possessions and converting them into layups back the other way. It was exactly the kind of energy they needed to turn the game around. But they wasted it as the third quarter progressed and Seattle responded. Chicago had more stagnant possessions as they looked for Fowles, committed multiple shot clock violations, and at the other end Seattle continued to produce through Stricklen and Wright. Credit also had to go to Little in particular for the screens she repeatedly set to break her teammates open. It doesn’t show up in the individual line in the box score, but creating that extra inch or two of space for your teammates can be vitally important. Little’s extremely good at it.
It had been a strange night on the perimeter for Chicago. Prince had her struggles, Courtney Vandersloot occasionally looked too slow to stick with Temeka Johnson, and Tamera Young was benched for her inability to stay with Stricklen. Allie Quigley came off the bench and hit a couple of shots, but also destroyed two odd-man breaks late in the third quarter with terrible decisions when Fowles was running hard and begging for a pass. Basically, they looked like they really missed Delle Donne. With the perimeter players performing like that there was no punishment for the Storm collapsing in on Fowles. Then the fourth quarter happened.
Chicago trailed 60-47 heading into the final period. They were still down by 13 with 8:14 left in regulation. The Storm had essentially dominated the game by shutting down the Sky’s interior and playing smooth enough offense to succeed at the other end. It looked like being one of those games where you came away saying that the Sky just couldn’t survive without Delle Donne, and no one had stepped up to replace her production away from Fowles. But the final eight minutes changed all that. Epiphanny Prince exploded, knocking down all those jumpers that had barely even looked like troubling the basket for weeks. Quigley joined in, doing what she does best – shooting – without thinking or trying to dribble or pass. Fowles got a couple of baskets, one on a lucky break, one on a nice feed from Prince – whose confidence was sky-high by that point – but Chicago were no longer desperately searching for a way to feed her. Instead they were playing with speed and confidence, creating turnovers with their defense so they could run, and taking over the game.
Seattle just couldn’t stem the tide. They had six turnovers in the final eight minutes, as their composure utterly disintegrated. They took bad shots, the ball stopped moving, and the game went away from them in what felt like the blink of an eye. Agler used every timeout he had to try to stop the Sky’s momentum, but that didn’t help either. He’s usually very good at drawing up plays in those situations, but there’s only so much he can do. Thompson bricked a three out of his first timeout; Little drove baseline and got trapped too deep by Fowles after the second; Johnson missed a floater in the lane after the under-three-minutes official timeout; and Little tried to drive on Fowles and was rejected after Agler called his last one in desperation. By then it was all over bar the shouting anyway. The Sky finished the game on a 30-4 run, blowing the Storm out so severely that they weren’t even within range to start fouling to stop the clock – in a game they’d dominated for 32 minutes. It was extraordinary, but the Sky had somehow won the game, 79-66.
Seattle will be sick about losing this one. Their gameplan worked to a tee for most of the night, shutting down Fowles inside and forcing the Sky into anything else – and Chicago didn’t have anything else, for 32 minutes. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that fell apart for them in the closing stages. Prince started to make shots, Chicago’s momentum started rolling, and the Storm just couldn’t stop it. One thing that would’ve been particularly useful in the closing stages was if Shekinna Stricklen had any kind of post game. She had a great night most of the way, and was one of Seattle’s primary scorers alongside Tanisha Wright, but the Sky were playing Vandersloot, Prince and Quigley together for most of the fourth. That’s a tiny perimeter, with Quigley at a theoretical 5’10” the tallest. Stricklen’s listed at 6’2″, and was being guarded by one of those three at all times, yet disappeared from the game. Yes, she’s a wing, but that means she’s often going to have a size advantage on the players guarding her. When it’s a huge size advantage, she needs to be able to punish teams for that, and right now she can’t.
A glorious eight minutes will allow Chicago to blank the previous 32 from their memories. They were barely in this game for most of the night. Prince was the star in the remarkable comeback, and you could almost see the confidence flowing back into her veins. A couple of shots found the twine and suddenly she was in complete control, bending the defense, driving or shooting at will, creating points for herself and others. Vandersloot had a couple of nice plays as well, and it was another game where Quigley stepped up. I’ve been critical of her in recent weeks, but that’s largely due to Chatman trying to use her as a point guard, where Quigley struggles horribly. Take the ball out of her hands and use her as a shooter – with a short leash, because she’s got no conscience and some nights she just won’t have it – and she can occasionally be of use. She certainly was last night. For a bench that’s been one of the worst reserve units in the WNBA all season long, it’s always nice when one of them actually produces.
As mentioned in yesterday’s column but confirmed since, the WNBA trade deadline passed without any movement. In fact, we haven’t had a single trade since the regular season tipped off. Players can still be signed or waived until the end of the season – you can be signed on the final day of the regular season and be eligible to play for that team in the playoffs – but trading is now off-limits.
Friday August 16th (today):
Washington @ New York, 7.30pm ET. Liberty -2.5 is the line, against a Mystics team that New York have beaten twice already in the last couple of weeks. This could be a big game in the fight for the playoffs in the East, and I’ll take New York to nick it again. But there’s very little between these teams.
Connecticut @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET. The Dream have now lost eight of their last nine, including a heartbreaker to Connecticut on Wednesday night, but are still nine-point favourites to win this game. I’ll take the Dream, because even now I think they’re the better team in this matchup, but nine is annoyingly high. I wouldn’t be surprised if they win but fail to cover.
Tulsa @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. The Lynx are 14.5-point favourites, with both teams hoping to have post players return from concussions. Having lost two in a row, I’ll take Minnesota to come out hard and keep pushing, and cover that gigantic spread. But it’s another one that scares me.
Indiana @ Los Angeles, 11pm ET. LA are seven-point favourites, and I’ll take them to cover that without much hesitation. On their own floor, with an extra day of rest compared to the Fever, the Sparks ought to be able to take care of Indiana, They’re too big inside, and there’s been little suggestion recently that the Fever can produce enough offense to stick with a team like LA.
Saturday August 17th (tomorrow):
Phoenix @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Indiana @ Seattle, 10pm ET