Lineups: Probably the most exciting moment of the night for Sky fans came before the game even began, with the confirmation that both Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles would be returning to the lineup. Delle Donne had missed five games due to illness related to the Lyme disease she’s suffered with in the past; Fowles had been out all season recovering from surgery on her hip. They both came straight back into the starting group, putting together the five that Pokey Chatman had been hoping to use all season. Connecticut were still without guard Allison Hightower due to her knee problem, while Danielle McCray is also going to be out for a while after breaking her right thumb. Kelly Faris was expected to be out due to a sprained wrist, and surprised even the Sun commentator when she appeared on the floor.
Story of the Game: Chicago came flying out of the gate, energised by their returning players, and dominated the early stages. They looked for Fowles in the post immediately, and she spun right by Kelsey Bone for a layup. Big Syl’s size and length under the basket continued to provide a target for her teammates to toss the ball up to as the first quarter wore on. Delle Donne looked a little further away from her best, and they kept her minutes restricted all night, but it was a strong, positive start for the Sky as a team. Backup point guard Jamierra Faulkner came off the bench and kept their momentum going by attacking the rim, and even hitting a jump shot (which really showed the basketball gods were smiling down on the Sky in the first quarter).
But the biggest the gap ever became was 12 points, and the Sun kept hanging around despite Chicago’s speedy onslaught. A few hustle plays, some transition points, and a couple of messy turnovers from Chicago, and Connecticut were right back in it. Delle Donne found some energy to provide a burst of offense for the Sky late in the first half, enabling Chicago to lead by six at the break, but Connecticut were very much involved in the contest despite Chicago’s quick start.
And then in the second half, it was all Sun. Chicago had lost their flow entirely, and there were too many possessions with a scary resemblance to their stagnant, static offense from the past – where the desperate focus on trying to feed Fowles in the paint drags all movement to a halt. The impressive thing about the early stages was that Chicago were playing with the same pace that we’d seen from them early this season, only with all the stars back involved. As the game wore on, that pace and fluency completely disappeared.
But credit the Sun for forcing many of Chicago’s problems. From the second quarter on they played with much better energy and focus on the defensive end, and the second half saw them constantly forcing the issue against an increasingly nervous Chicago team. Alyssa Thomas had probably her best half so far as a pro, using her strength and size to attack the basket from the wing. She also combined with the rest of Connecticut’s frontcourt players to overwhelm Chicago on the glass. With Fowles, Delle Donne and Jessica Breland all involved for Chicago, they should’ve been able to battle it out on the boards, but they were utterly dominated.
Connecticut led by as many as 16 in the third quarter, but their lead dropped to six in the fourth when Epiphanny Prince finally woke up and started providing some off-the-bounce offense for Chicago. Then Katie Douglas stepped up and made two huge back-to-back threes to reassert Connecticut’s dominance and halt the comeback. Against a perimeter of Thomas, Douglas and point guard Alex Bentley, Chicago didn’t have anywhere to hide Prince defensively. Thomas is too big and strong for her, and Bentley too liable to go off, so she stuck in her spot guarding the shooting guard – Douglas. That came back to bite the Sky on those shots, and the Sun held on fairly comfortably from then on.
Key Players: Thomas and Douglas were the most noticeable offensive figures for Connecticut, with Thomas illustrating how effective she can be even without having much of a jump shot. But the team rebounding swallowed Chicago whole. The Sun finished the game with a staggering 21 offensive boards, and a 44-27 advantage overall on the glass.
Chicago’s offense fell apart after that early burst. Fowles faded when the movement disappeared, rarely touching the ball. Delle Donne only played 17 minutes, and mostly wasn’t that effective when she did. Prince couldn’t hit a shot until the final quarter. Give the Sky time – it would take any team a while to shake off the rust and rebuild their cohesion with star players returning – but this was a little worrying once the initial enthusiasm wore off. On the bright side, their defense was better than it has been in recent weeks for long stretches of the game – they just couldn’t end possessions by actually grabbing rebounds.
Notes of Interest: Jessica Breland’s situation is a bit tricky now that Prince, Delle Donne and Fowles are all involved again. She’s gone from being a primary piece seeing a lot of the ball to a fourth option who still needs to be aggressive and involved – but also feed the stars. Her passing was decidedly poor at times in this game, failing to kick or rotate to open shooters when she should have, maybe because she was afraid she’d never see the ball again if she gave it away. The Breland/Delle Donne/Fowles frontcourt has the potential to be the best in the league, but it’ll take some work.
Lineups: Tulsa went with their regular starting five, with Riquna Williams once again sitting out on the sidelines rather than providing offense off the bench. Indiana changed up their starting group again, benching Natasha Howard and going small with Karima Christmas and Marissa Coleman at the forward spots. Christmas has looked relatively viable as a small-ball power forward this season, after only being used there in dire emergencies last year. It may well have been down to Indiana feeling more comfortable with Christmas’s veteran smarts trying to guard Glory Johnson than Howard’s raw athleticism.
Story of the Game: The Fever were on top of this game for most of the night. Shavonte Zellous was hot, and more aggressive offensively than we’ve seen for much of the season, scoring on Odyssey Sims for most of the game without much trouble. Many of Zellous’s buckets came when reasonably well covered, but she was rising up for jump shots and hitting them even when closely contested.
With Tulsa playing some pretty dismal transition defense, and giving up too many wide open lanes to the hoop even when set up in the halfcourt, the Fever stretched their lead to 15 at halftime. Skylar Diggins had helped inject some energy into Tulsa’s offense during the period, but Indiana answered and continued to press their advantage.
But on the opening possession of the second half, Tulsa went right to Courtney Paris in the low post, and she scored on Erlana Larkins at the rim. It signalled a clear intent from the Shock to attack the paint in the second half, and they kept it up. When they weren’t feeding Paris for post-ups or hitting her when she rolled to the rim after picks, Diggins and Sims were penetrating to attack the basket. It led to much better focus and production for Tulsa offensively in the second half, and Indiana had trouble slowing them down.
But the Fever were holding on. Behind Zellous’s continuing accuracy and a vast number of free throws, they were still up by nine with under three minutes to play. They were even repeatedly up by four in the closing seconds, until Zellous was the one to miss a free throw with eight seconds remaining in regulation. On the ensuing possession, Larkins was on Diggins after a switch and made a mistake, taking a step back to cover the drive that Diggins would usually have gone to. But Tulsa were down three, and the only thing that really hurt the Fever was a triple – which is exactly what Diggins hit after stopping on a dime and firing over Larkins’s despairing arm. Larkins was blocked on a fadeaway at the buzzer, and Tulsa had fought their way to overtime for their second consecutive game.
After an awkward fall for Glory Johnson late in the fourth quarter – when her energy running the floor and finishing the rim had been huge in pulling Tulsa back from the brink – Jen Lacy started the extra period at power forward. Lacy then proceeded to finish a post move and drill a three to get the Shock off to a great start in the extra period. Sometimes luck just shines on you. When Paris fouled out halfway through OT, Johnson had apparently recovered enough to replace her.
After that quick burst from Lacy, Indiana never quite came all the way back in overtime. Zellous and Briann January had great looks from outside that would’ve pulled them right back into the game, but they missed and Sims finished a nice feed from Diggins to make it more comfortable for the Shock. Once again, they’d stolen a game on the road against an Eastern Conference opponent – the kind of game they’d have invariably found a way to lose in the past.
Key Players: Diggins scored over 30 again, mostly on layups and free throws. Her increased ability to finish at the basket is also getting her more calls. Officials expect her to convert, so if she misses they’re more likely to believe she was fouled, and opponents challenge her harder because they’re worried about her just making the bucket. It’s the exact reverse of a vicious circle. Paris, Johnson and Sims all contributed to the strong second half effort that pulled this game out of the fire as well.
Indiana wasted Zellous’s best offensive outing of the year, as she finished the game 12-17 for 33 points. It was a shame that she had to be the one who missed the free throw that gave Tulsa life in the final seconds, after carrying the Fever offense for much of the game. While Tulsa have become a strong offensive team, Lin Dunn will be horrified that her squad gave up 107 points, and they really struggled to stop Tulsa in the second half. They’ll be working on defense in practice a lot in upcoming days.
Atlanta @ San Antonio, 8pm ET