Atlanta Dream (19-15, #1 seed) vs. Chicago Sky (15-19, #4 seed)
Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.06, 7th in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 95.05, 2nd in WNBA
Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.00, 8th in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 99.51, 9th in WNBA
Season series: Sky won 3-2:
5/24 @Chi: Sky won 87-73
6/7 @Atl: Dream won 97-59
7/13 @Atl: Dream won 81-79
7/25 @Atl: Sky won 79-75
8/10 @Chi: Sky won 80-69
This is one of the more intriguing 1-4 matchups in recent memory in the WNBA playoffs. Taking the regular season as a whole, Atlanta were comfortably the best team in the Eastern Conference. They were dominant in the first half of the year, broke out to a huge lead, and finished as the only team in the conference above .500. But their second-half swoon was scary, losing 10 of their final 14 games of the season. While head coach Michael Cooper was absent for a little while dealing with surgery for tongue cancer, and the urgency for wins was removed by the big gap over their Eastern rivals, the drop-off in performance and energy was definitely worrying. Meanwhile Chicago spent the year scraping out just enough wins, and trying to get everyone healthy. Heading into the playoffs, it’d be a stretch to say they’re 100% again, but they do have all their key players back and available to play. For a team that won 24 games in 2013 when they were in one piece, that makes them a dangerous underdog going into the postseason.
Atlanta were once again the fastest-paced team in the WNBA this year, extending their lead in that category over the rest of the league from previous years. They love to run, and they love to attack. Angel McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes are at their best in the open court, flying to the rim, although both can also drive and attack the basket within halfcourt sets. Erika de Souza is outstanding at running hard from basket-to-basket, contorting her body to take any kind of pass and finish at the rim. And with Sancho Lyttle’s consistency from mid-range along with more three-point shooting threats than they’ve had in the franchise’s history, they can still score when teams manage to get back in transition and slow them down. Turnovers have been a big problem, and the uncertainty at the point guard spot hasn’t helped that, but this is a team that can score in a variety of different ways. Sometimes McCoughtry or Shoni Schimmel get a little too focussed on just one or two of those ways – their own gunning – but when they move the ball and take what defenses are giving them, they’re a smooth and talented offensive team.
Which is only burying the lede to a certain extent. Atlanta do a lot of their best work on the defensive end of the floor. They’re quick and very aggressive, striving for steals, but also managing to stay solid and secure behind the gambling with de Souza, Lyttle and Aneika Henry in the paint. Chicago do try to feed Sylvia Fowles in the low post at times – they’re often not very good at it, but they do try – and her physical tussle with de Souza in the paint is going to be one of the main attractions in this series. Even beyond feeding the post, simply taking care of the ball is going to be vital for Chicago, because defense is where much of Atlanta’s best offense begins. Steals feed their running game, and just as importantly create momentum and get the Dream offense flowing. While Chicago would love to get some cheap points themselves on the break, slowing the games down will largely be in their favour in this series.
Exactly what we’ll get from the Sky offense is open to debate. While they have Fowles inside, most of their offense even after she returned from injury has come from Epiphanny Prince, Allie Quigley and Delle Donne firing away from the perimeter and largely creating their own offense. It can be very effective. When she’s on form, Prince can score from anywhere; Quigley is a prime contender for Sixth Woman of the Year and can hit a streak of shots to run up points before you can blink; and even after her illness issues, Delle Donne remains one of the best scorers in the world. She can hit from anywhere, inside and out, using her size to shoot over defenders and her ballhandling and mobility to create looks and draw fouls. Atlanta will use a host of different defenders on her, from Lyttle to McCoughtry to maybe even Hayes, in the hope that it’ll unsettle her and keep her out of rhythm. She’s also been playing limited minutes since returning from her Lyme disease flare-up, and may not be capable of playing more than the 20 minutes or so per game that we’ve seen recently. But she can have a significant impact even if her time is restricted.
The Sky have been a better defensive team with Fowles on the floor, although it took some time to reconfigure themselves once she returned. Obviously the injuries were a factor, but they haven’t been as consistent defensively this season, even within individual games. They can be a solid, competent unit, but they’re also prone to being dragged out of position and breaking down. that can’t happen against Atlanta, who’ll attack off the dribble with Hayes and McCoughtry whenever the opportunity arises. Fowles’s presence in the paint ought to deter some of that, and even the length of Delle Donne will help as well when she’s on the floor, but their rotations and help will be tested by the Dream. Expect Tamera Young to get the McCoughtry assignment most of the time, and try to force her into outside shots, although Chicago’s rotations are going to complicate that depending on how Pokey Chatman uses Delle Donne.
Important Notes, and Aspects to Watch
Running off that final line above, where is Delle Donne going to play? She’s been coming off the bench since returning from her illness, and largely playing power forward in a platoon with Jessica Breland. That may remain the case in this series, because if they try to play Delle Donne, Breland and Fowles all at the same time, one of them would have to cover McCoughtry – which would be a difficult job for any of them. Breland’s season tailed off after a very impressive start, never seeming to click with Fowles as a partnership. If Delle Donne’s ready for more minutes, we may simply see Breland spending longer on the bench in this series.
How much difference can Courtney Vandersloot make? Rookie backup point guard Jamierra Faulkner became decreasingly effective as the league worked her out, and lost minutes to Quigley as the primary ballhandler while Vandersloot was out. Now that she’s back from injury, can the Sky run more coherent sets rather than relying on perimeter scorers to create their own shots and bail out the offense? She looked relatively healthy in the couple of games she appeared in before the end of the regular season, although Briann January drove right by her a couple of times. She’ll probably start in this series, but don’t be surprised if Chatman goes with Quigley as the ‘point guard’ fairly frequently to put a more dangerous scoring threat on the ball.
Talking of the point guard spot, it’s an issue for Atlanta as well. Jasmine Thomas started for much of the season, before being supplanted by French ‘rookie’ veteran Celine Dumerc. Shoni Schimmel is also always lurking in the wings as a speedy, aggressive option who can fling passes around the floor and fire up shots, but is also something of a loose cannon. Dumerc will presumably continue to start, but her shooting’s been terrible for most of the season (as has Thomas’s). Dumerc has a history of stepping up in big moments, but Chicago will sit off her until she hits the shots to force them to cover her more closely.
Atlanta are understandably considered the favourites. McCoughtry often takes her play to another level in the playoffs, and the Dream have made the Finals in three of the last four years – they’re the ones with the pedigree. But they’ve always come from a lower seed in the past, playing the plucky underdog needing to steal games on the road to make it through. And they’re still relying on flipping the switch to play up to their standards from earlier in the season rather than the far more pedestrian play we saw in the second half of the year. It’s frankly difficult to trust either of these teams. They show up some nights, and fall apart disastrously on others. Chicago were terrible in the postseason last year, but that was with all the pressure of being #1 seeds and the matchup they hate against Indiana. Maybe with underdog status on them this time they can perform much better.
2-1 Chicago. My head says Atlanta should win, but my gut says upset. And ignoring my gut is always annoying if it turns out to be right.