Lineups: Atlanta stuck with the same starting five that’s been their regular group since midseason, but Chicago made some changes for the playoffs. Elena Delle Donne came in for her first start since returning from her Lyme disease flare-up, which sent Jessica Breland to the bench (after starting in all 32 of her regular season appearances this year). Courtney Vandersloot also started after appearing in just two games before the end of the regular season since returning from her knee injury. The presence of Angel McCoughtry at small forward for Atlanta would’ve made it difficult for Pokey Chatman to start both Delle Donne and Breland, because neither is particularly suited to guarding McCoughtry. That was Tamera Young’s job for most of the night.
Story of the Game: Chatman and Michael Cooper were battling with each other to find any possible edge throughout the game. Chicago dropped into a 2-3 zone on their second defensive possession, just to set the tone from early on and hopefully begin confusing the Dream. Both Vandersloot and Erika de Souza picked up two early fouls, which also led to more lineup complications, although Cooper took the risk of sending Erika back into the game late in the first quarter, and got away with it.
It was Atlanta who were in front for the majority of the first half, with the game largely being played at their prefered frantic pace. Even with McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle missing a lot of makable shots, they led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter. They’d been helped by an injury to Chicago’s Jessica Breland, who fell heavily on her hands late in the opening period, and appeared to injure her shoulder, possibly dislocating it. She’d played less than three minutes, and never returned. That forced Delle Donne into playing more minutes than was probably intended, but the Sky had few other viable alternatives. They’ve got three backup posts on the bench that Chatman doesn’t want to use, making Young the de facto reserve power forward with Breland out – except that they were trying to match Young up with McCoughtry as often as possible. Atlanta went big early in the second quarter with McCoughtry at shooting guard, Lyttle at small forward and Aneika Henry joining de Souza in the post. Chicago looked unprepared for it and were lost for several possessions, with Epiphanny Prince forced to try to guard McCoughtry – which didn’t go well for the Sky.
But importantly, Chicago ended the first half on a strong note. After some shambolic offensive possessions, largely featuring either dreadful attempts at entry passes to Sylvia Fowles or Prince bricks from the perimeter, everything improved with Vandersloot back on the floor. Finally they had someone who knew where to look and how to make a pass, which led to consecutive buckets for Delle Donne. She added another ridiculous jumper, McCoughtry played some awful defense on the final possession of the half to leave Prince wide open to drill a three, and somehow Chicago were back within a point at the break.
There was a little less playing around with lineups in the second half, as Chatman in particular realised how few usable options she had. Delle Donne got a grand total of 1 minute and 36 seconds of rest in the third quarter, because Atlanta were so quick to recognise that the Sky had gone small with Vandersloot, Prince and Allie Quigley on the perimeter, and Young trying to survive at the 4. The Dream scored consecutive post buckets, and Delle Donne was back in at the next stoppage.
But neither team could take hold of the game in the third quarter, with Delle Donne and Vandersloot keeping Chicago’s offense afloat while Atlanta contrived enough points to stay even . The game was being played more at Chicago’s speed now, but it was still anyone’s to win.
Atlanta threw one more lineup quirk at the Sky in the fourth quarter. They started with McCoughtry sliding to power forward, therefore becoming the primary defender on Delle Donne. And even once Lyttle subbed back in, theoretically pushing McCoughtry back to small forward, Angel continued to stick on Delle Donne (with Lyttle taking Young instead). It actually worked very well to cool Delle Donne off and shut her down as part of the Sky offense in the fourth. McCoughtry was all over her, treading the thin line between constant fouling and smothering defense but getting away with it. Atlanta’s problem was everyone else on the floor for the Sky. Young burned Lyttle for a couple of baskets; Vandersloot hit from outside; Prince actually managed to convert on a drive after a horrible shooting night; and Fowles finally got involved in the offense. They’d struggled to find her throughout the game, but she battled her way inside for a few finishes and a tough reverse gave Chicago a five-point lead with under four minutes to play.
That was when McCoughtry started to put the Dream on her back. That tactic hadn’t gone so well for much of the night, but Atlanta were running flare screens for her, creating separation between her and Young, and she drilled three huge perimeter jump shots. With a couple of free throws in the middle of that run as well, a 9-2 run with all the Dream’s points scored by McCoughtry gave them the lead back with under two minutes to play.
But it was Chicago who’d make the final run of clutch plays, and Cooper who’d lose the last moves of the coaching chess match. Delle Donne had airballed a forced three when she stepped out to long distance searching for a shot, but on the Sky’s next possession Young drove past Lyttle and tied the game. Shoni Schimmel missed a pullup jumper at the other end, de Souza was blocked from behind by Delle Donne on the putback attempt, and the scramble that followed led to a jump ball when the officials couldn’t decide who touched it last. Cooper could’ve subbed out Schimmel at that stage, in the expectation that his team would be playing defense. But he left her on the floor, and when de Souza lost the jump ball to Fowles his rookie guard was left trying to cover Vandersloot. The Sky point guard eventually used a Fowles screen, Schimmel got desperately lost in traffic while trying to go under the pick, and Vandersloot drilled a wide open 17-footer for the lead.
Schimmel was at fault on the possession that followed as well, picking her dribble up too early and then forcing a pass towards Lyttle that was tipped and led to a scramble. The ball eventually worked its way back to McCoughtry, who forced up a deep three that wasn’t close, and that was just about it. Although Atlanta still had time to screw up once more. A couple of Dream fouls put Vandersloot at the free throw line, and she made the first before missing the second. Lyttle grabbed the rebound, and every Atlanta player and coach should’ve been screaming for a timeout while she was still in midair. Instead she landed, heaved the ball up from about 90 feet and inevitably missed by a mile, and that was it.
Key Players: Delle Donne led the scoring for Chicago, with all the other starters in double-digits as well. While she was smothered in the final period – and it’ll be interesting to see how early Atlanta go to McCoughtry as the defensive option on her in Game 2 – her shooting and finishing carried the Sky offense for much of the game. But the other player they missed for much of the second half of the season shouldn’t be ignored. Vandersloot was huge, bringing a calmness and precision to the Sky offense that was noticeably lacking whenever she was off the floor. You can understand why a coach might sometimes want Quigley (or Prince) on the ball as a more obvious scoring threat, but Vandersloot’s the only actual point guard among the bunch. And she shot well too, even before making the big jumper for the crucial basket at the end.
Atlanta won’t be happy with their defense, but they also missed too many shots that they’ve been converting for most of the season. Lyttle finished 3-15 from the field, and while McCoughtry stepped up in the fourth she was 8-22 over the entire game – which Chicago will happily settle for. The Dream aren’t out of this series – they can certainly win in Chicago – but they’ve made things tough for themselves. They did a good job of keeping Fowles quiet, but de Souza was also fairly ineffective on the other side of the interior matchup. Tiffany Hayes too was in the shadows for much of the game. They need other players to step up and balance out the offense so that it’s not all down to how McCoughtry converts.
Notes of Interest: If Breland’s out for a while – and her fall certainly looked like it could be serious – it’s a worrying problem for the Sky. Gennifer Brandon is an absolute last resort as a backup power forward, and Chatman has used Markeisha Gatling and Sasha Goodlett almost exclusively as centers all season long – i.e. backups to Fowles, and almost never alongside her. Young at the 4 worked okay at times during the regular season, but Atlanta have the size to dominate that matchup, or post up whoever it forces in at the 3 while she’s sliding over. And we don’t know how much play Delle Donne’s body is physically ready for, after playing limited minutes since returning from her illness. Unless Breland makes a very quick recovery, that could be an important edge for Atlanta in the upcoming game(s).
Lineups: As anticipated for both teams. No surprises in the starting lineups, or in the limited use of the bench on either side. Essentially one reserve made any impact on the game all night.
Story of the Game: Phoenix made an ugly, messy start to the game, and it continued for much of the first half. LA managed to unsettle Brittney Griner in the post, bodying her up hard with Nneka Oogwamookey, occasionally Jantel Lavender, and later Sandrine Gruda. They sent double teams as well, with speed and aggression, and Griner panicked more than usual under the pressure and made some poor passes on top of the missed shot attempts. It was an impressive defensive effort from the Sparks against her throughout the game.
LA’s offense wasn’t exactly flowing smoothly, but they had enough success to lead for much of the first quarter and stick with Phoenix in the second. Candace Parker was trying to attack and help carry her team forward, with occasional success, and her teammates were chipping in where they could. The Sparks had a big edge on the glass, where Phoenix were typically terrible on the offensive boards (preferring to concentrate on getting back as quickly as possible to prevent transition chances for LA) and also gave up several second chance attempts. LA had visibly shaken the Mercury, and made a clash many expected to be a blowout into a tight contest.
In fact, if it weren’t for Diana Taurasi shooting the lights out, Phoenix’s offense would’ve barely produced anything in the first half. She went 5-5 from beyond the arc on realistic threes, only blotting her stat line in that category with a 70-foot heave at the buzzer. LA tried some zone, and she happily shot right over it. They tried man-to-man, and she’d use a simple screen and fire. She carried the Mercury to their barely-deserved one-point lead at halftime.
For a few minutes early in the third quarter, it looked like Phoenix were going to assert themselves as they had in the regular season, and take control. Griner scored inside for once, Candice Dupree drilled a mid-range jumper like she has all season, and LA looked like they’d run out of ideas for how to score. The Mercury pulled ahead by as many as ten points in the period. But it didn’t last. Griner picked up her fourth foul on an illegal screen and had to sub out, and her teammates seemed to respond with lethargy rather than increased effort to cover for her absence. LA started picking up points in transition that they hadn’t sniffed all night, and an 18-4 run across the end of the third and start of the fourth quarter took them into a four-point lead. Kristi Toliver had started it with a three, Parker, Lavender and Gruda kept it rolling, and suddenly the prospect of LA stealing Game 1 was very real.
Then Taurasi came back in to join Griner who’d returned moments earlier, and we had a grandstand finish on our hands. Taurasi drilled a three moments after stepping back on the floor. Alana Beard hit a pair of big perimeter jumpers, then made a nice feed to Lavender for a layup when she slipped a screen. Griner was still struggling badly under pressure whenever Phoenix went to her in the post, and other than letting Taurasi fire the Mercury looked unusually short of alternative ideas.
But LA started to make mistakes themselves down the stretch. Beard took a three, which is essentially beyond her range. Parker overthrew an attempted entry to Oogwamkay. Toliver tripped and handed the ball back to Phoenix. Meanwhile Penny Taylor hit a mid-range shot to cut the Mercury deficit to a point, and with under a minute to play Taurasi drew a foul on Ogawhamookeekay to get to the line. She hit both to take the lead back for Phoenix with 40 seconds to play.
LA inevitably went to Parker, who almost equally inevitably went to her pet lefty hook from the left block. It’s a shot she often makes, even if it with her weak hand, but the ball rolled just off the rim. From there they had to start fouling. Eventually, LA were left inbounding with nine seconds left, still trailing by three, and made one final error. The play design was to flare Toliver to the corner, and it almost worked, but Parker tossed the pass to her before she was ready to receive it. The ball went out of bounds, and that was the game.
Key Players: Taurasi, Taurasi, and more Taurasi for Phoenix. She kept them in the game with her perimeter gunning in the first half, and while she got a little more offensive help in the second – mostly from Dupree – Diana was still the centerpiece even then. She finished 10-15 for 34 points. They’ll be hoping they don’t have to rely on her to that extent for the rest of the postseason, because shooting that well for a minimum of seven games is distinctly unlikely, even for Taurasi. It’s not a word you use in relation to LA’s defense very often, but the Sparks gave a masterclass in unsettling Griner, knocking her off her spots and bumping her enough to make her miss on post moves, without drawing whistles. Gruda was so effective in that role that it was a little surprising when Ohgoomahwookee came back in for her in the closing minutes.
It feels like a huge opportunity missed for the Sparks. The Mercury were the better team by such a distance in the regular season, that running them this close and not managing to come away with the win – especially on the road – is desperately disappointing. Parker and Toliver made most of the plays offensively, but they got solid contributions from the other three starters as well, and the defensive effort worked on everyone bar Taurasi. They’ll try to pull the same trick in Game 2, but might not be so successful.
Notes of Interest: Hopefully Nneka Ogwumike and her relatives will take no offense from the monikers used in this piece. As anyone who watched the game will know, veteran broadcaster Al McCoy – ridiculously being used for the first time by the Mercury in such a huge game – continuously mangled her name throughout the game (along with often referring to the Mercury as the Suns, and occasionally using ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ for the players). I was just having a little fun by using some of his variations on Nneka’s surname.
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