Lineups: The starters were the same as in Game 2. Celine Dumerc was wearing warmups rather than street clothes this time, but never made it onto the court after the knee injury she picked up in Game 1. So Jasmine Thomas continued to deputise at point guard for Atlanta. Once again, Jessica Breland was out due to her injured shoulder for Chicago, leaving them short on the front line behind Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles.
Story of the Game: Atlanta dominated the first half. It looked a lot like Game 2, with the pace and energy of the Dream utterly overwhelming the Sky. It wasn’t all Angel McCoughtry this time, but with Thomas, Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza joining in, everything was working for Atlanta. They grabbed defensive rebounds and streaked immediately to the other end of the floor and directly to the rim. They drilled open shots on the rare occasions they were forced into halfcourt sets. They were dominating the offensive glass, so that when they did miss it typically ended up with a bucket anyway via the second chance. All the energy, all the hustle plays, all the momentum was in Atlanta’s favour. They were up by double-digits at the end of the first quarter, and by as many as 20 in the second period.
Offensively, nothing much was working for Chicago. Tamera Young was surprisingly effective making jump shots in the space Atlanta afforded her, but the Sky were never going to win a game behind the scoring of Tamera Young. They weren’t penetrating the Dream defense at all, constantly ending sets with perimeter jump shots. Delle Donne hit a few early in the second quarter, and she and Young combined to hit a couple more late in the period, but it felt like someone was going to have to get ridiculously hot from outside to shoot Chicago back into the game. They couldn’t find Sylvia Fowles inside, and even when Delle Donne posted up much smaller guards after defensive switches, they couldn’t feed her either. And it all ran together. The inability to score or penetrate led to long rebounds, which created momentum and speed for Atlanta’s offense on the break. The Sky trailed by only 13 at halftime thanks to those late jumpers, but it felt like a chasm.
There weren’t many signs of hope for Chicago in the third quarter. Atlanta started it with another burst of energy, fastbreaks and offensive boards, just to twist the knife a little further. From there, the Sky did manage to slow the game down, but their offensive opportunities continued to come from the perimeter, and the likes of Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley weren’t hitting. Atlanta had been mixing up their defenses on Delle Donne all night – a little Sancho Lyttle, plenty of Angel McCoughtry, some of that 1-2-2 zone we saw debut in Game 2 – to try to keep her off-balance, and she faded into the background in the third. Her help defense had also been a problem for much of the night. With Fowles frequently rotating over to help on penetrators or off screens, Delle Donne was often a step late with the second layer help behind Fowles, which left too much room inside. Atlanta were up by 16 heading into the final period, and there didn’t seem to be much hope for the Sky.
In fact, I checked the in-play betting odds between the third and fourth quarters, and Chicago were 22-to-1 to win the game (so bet 10 bucks to win 220, for the non-gamblers out there). Those are long odds in a two-horse race, and it still didn’t seem like enough. Which is all a prelude to saying that we witnessed one of the more remarkable comebacks you’re likely to see in a WNBA game in the fourth quarter.
With 8:12 left in the game, Pokey Chatman sent the three starters who’d been resting back into the game, just as Tiffany Hayes hit a free throw to take Atlanta’s lead to 17. The next five minutes of action saw a 19-2 Chicago run that just hadn’t looked plausible through the opening three periods. The difference offensively was that the Sky finally got deep into the paint, against a visibly tiring Atlanta team. Delle Donne was aggressive attacking the rim, finishing through contact and drawing fouls. The rest of her teammates chipped in around her, with Young continuing to work her backside off like she had all night, and both Prince and Courtney Vandersloot converting drives in the lane.
The creeping disintegration of McCoughtry’s offensive production was a problem for Atlanta in that run. She couldn’t get by Young any more, after running the floor hard all night and covering Delle Donne for much of it on the defensive end. But she was still trying to make plays, so forced up a lot of contested jumpers with Young right in her face, or Fowles showing hard to cover her with double-teams. None of the shots went in. As in the first half, everything was interconnected, but this time working against the Dream. With Chicago finally managing to score consistently, the breakaways weren’t there for Atlanta, and their speed and rhythm fell apart. A three from Delle Donne over de Souza – Chicago’s first points in the entire run outside the paint or the free throw line – tied the game with under four minutes remaining. It was the first time Atlanta hadn’t led since the opening two minutes of the game.
Then the Dream finally came up with a response. They ran their old pet high-low play from Lyttle to de Souza, which ended in yet another strong finish from Erika (there’d been a lot of those over the course of the night). Then they got a break when McCoughtry ran over a Vandersloot screen – for what would’ve been McCoughtry’s sixth foul if the officials had called it – before sneaking behind Delle Donne for a steal and a breakaway layup. As so often happens with comebacks, it looked like the Sky might’ve expended all their energy making the run only to come up short right at the very end.
After a timeout, Prince missed a three from the corner. McCoughtry got by Young for possibly the only time in the entire fourth quarter, only to be met by Prince and Fowles who forced her to lose the ball on the way up. Then Prince missed two more attempts at threes, with the Sky now the team showing all the energy and getting all the breaks to track down offensive boards. Prince’s second miss led to a putback for Fowles. McCoughtry forced up a three, which was very reminiscent of the one she jacked at the end of Game 1, wanting to win the game and be the hero. Just like that attempt, it was well short.
The back-and-forth excitement continued. Delle Donne missed for once, but Fowles was fouled in the fight for the rebound, and went 1-of-2 at the line. At the other end, Shoni Schimmel pulled up for a tough leaner at the free throw line over Vandersloot, and made it for her first basket all night. That gave the Dream a three-point lead with only 30 seconds left. And from there the Delle Donne show took over again. The Sky tried to clear out the left side of the floor for her, and she drove left and hit a tough pullup off the glass over McCoughtry and Lyttle. Thomas was fouled intentionally, looked desperately nervous at the line, and missed both shots. Chicago set the ensuing play up differently, but essentially ran the same thing again. They cut everyone to the right side of the floor, creating space for Delle Donne and trying to make it as difficult as possible for help to arrive in time to stop her scoring. Lyttle still should’ve been closer – you’re not scared of Young beating you from the corner, and the referees were never going to call a defensive three-seconds violation – but it was a smart play-design. Once again, Delle Donne drove left, and hit another banker over McCoughtry on the run to give Chicago the lead. Their first lead since the opening two minutes of the game, with eight seconds remaining.
Inevitably, Atlanta put the ball in McCoughtry’s hands. She took it from Schimmel up high, then used a de Souza screen to drive right. But the Sky knew as well as anyone else that McCoughtry wanted to take the shot. Fowles stayed with her off the screen (with Delle Donne rotating properly under the rim for once to cover de Souza), while Young chased over it. McCoughtry still managed to pivot back and put up a leaner from 15 feet that bounced on the rim… bounced on the rim again… bounced a third time… and fell off. The comeback was complete, and Atlanta had been eliminated in agonising fashion.
Key Players: Delle Donne was obviously the star. She scored 17 points in the fourth quarter – including 13 in the central 19-2 run – and dragged her team back from what seemed like an impossible situation. Fowles stepped up her defense in the final period as well. But a mention has to go to Tamera Young, who hit a series of jumpers early in the game when her teammates were sleepwalking, continued to make lots of little effort plays throughout the game and in the crucial late stages, and defended McCoughtry impressively to the end. She got very little rest, and always gets minimal credit amongst Chicago’s star-studded lineup, but the Sky wouldn’t have had a chance without her.
Atlanta will be sick about losing from such a dominant position, on top of the obvious disappointment about their season coming to an end. Fatigue was clearly a factor in the fourth quarter, and maybe Michael Cooper needed to make more effort to rest his key players over the course of the game, but they seemed in complete control. McCoughtry could’ve shown more faith in her teammates in the final period, especially when she was constantly being cut off by Young and extra defenders, but those are the shots you know you have to live with when she’s your star. They were all falling in Game 2 and everyone was over the moon. After three years where they made the Finals from a lower seeding, they finally had the #1 seed and home-court advantage, and lost both games on their own court. They’ll spend the offseason thinking about what might have been.
Notes of Interest: The whole series was an entertaining chess match between Cooper and Chatman from the start, with both teams shifting defenses from man-to-man to zone, switching matchups, trying to steal rest for key players, and generally manoeuvering at every turn. It easily could’ve gone either way in the end.
Chicago go on to meet Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals, a team that have had their number in the vast majority of their meetings. The Fever will have home-court advantage in the series which starts on Saturday night. The detailed WNBAlien preview will be up in the next day or two to examine the matchup, along with the preview of Phoenix-Minnesota from the West.
Conference Finals Schedule
Friday August 29th
Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET
Saturday August 30th
Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Sunday August 31st
Phoenix @ Minnesota, 3.30pm ET
Monday September 1st
Indiana @ Chicago, 4pm ET
Tuesday September 2nd
Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET (if necessary)
Wednesday September 3rd
Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET (if necessary)