Indiana Fever (#2 seed, 16-18) vs. Chicago Sky (#4 seed, 15-19)
Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.64, 5th in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.76, 7th 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: Fever won 3-2
05/16 @Chi: Sky won 74-71
06/20 @Chi: Fever won 83-75
07/17 @Ind: Fever won 82-64
07/22 @Chi: Sky won 82-64
08/16 @Ind: Fever won 71-67
While the Western Conference Finals matchup has looked inevitable for quite some time, the East has been an entirely different story. A whole morass of teams have been playing at similar levels all season, Atlanta deteriorated back to the pack, and ultimately two sub-.500 teams have arrived in the Eastern Finals. But none of that matters now. The Indiana Fever have been here many times before, and know exactly what it takes to battle it out in the latter stages of the playoffs. The Chicago Sky just completed their first ever playoff series win, with a morale-boosting and shocking comeback to finish off the victory. There’s a little history between these two as well, after Chicago’s strong regular season last year was brought to a crashing halt in the first round of the playoffs when the experienced Fever stomped all over them in a two-game sweep. So can Chicago gain a little revenge and make their first ever visit to the WNBA Finals, or will it be Indiana returning for the second time in three years?
As with yesterday’s Western preview, this piece will focus on the direct matchups between the two squads (more detail on their inherent strengths and weaknesses in the first-round previews here and here). Both these teams had rocky regular seasons. Indiana were without their leader and driving force Tamika Catchings for the first half of the year with a back problem, and have still been up and down even since her return. Chicago have had a variety of health issues all year, with Elena Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles, Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot all missing significant time, before Jessica Breland suffered a shoulder injury in the first round of the playoffs to leave them shorthanded again. So cohesion and depth have been inevitable problems for both teams all season. The core of Indiana’s team has been together long enough that they’re reasonably smooth in working together at either end of the floor. Chicago are relatively healthy now, apart from the problem with Breland (which we’ll get to later). Part of the reason both sides have made it this far is that they came together at the right time.
Chicago’s offense is rarely the smoothest-running machine you’ll ever see. They try to use Sylvia Fowles in the low post, but their lack of ball rotation and Fowles’s own lack of range often makes it difficult to feed her. Indiana will have Erlana Larkins battling with Fowles inside and fighting for position, plus double-teams will come whenever Chicago do manage to get the ball into their big center. Then Fowles’s passing comes into focus, and she’s essentially terrible at it. Unlike someone like Brittney Griner in Phoenix, who draws double-teams and then shifts the ball away to open teammates, the play is usually over when Fowles touches it inside. She’s either going to score or turn the ball over.
That leaves Chicago heavily reliant on their perimeter scorers. Elena Delle Donne just illustrated in the charging finish to their win over Atlanta that she’s in solid health again and capable of carrying this team. She can score inside and out, is an expert at drawing fouls, and her size makes her a difficult cover for any opponent. Indiana have Catchings, a five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, directly opposite her at power forward, but she’s unlikely to be the first option to guard Delle Donne. The Fever like to put Catchings on weaker offensive players so that she can maraud around the floor a little. If Indiana start what’s become their regular lineup, Marissa Coleman will probably open up trying to cover Delle Donne, with Karima Christmas seeing a lot of minutes as the alternative (just starting Christmas instead is also an option). Just as we saw Angel McCoughtry slide onto Delle Donne in the previous series, Catchings will probably take her turns when necessary, but it’ll be up to the Fever role players to do the best job they can on her most of the time.
The energy and activity of the Indiana defense has shut Chicago down in the past. So much of Chicago’s offense relies on Delle Donne, Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley creating their own shots or just firing away from the perimeter, and Indiana’s physical defense and aggressive help will challenge them to hit under pressure. Courtney Vandersloot’s return has made Chicago’s offense run more smoothly and move the ball a little more, but Briann January will be all over her to make her life difficult. That’ll translate at the other end as well, where January went by Vandersloot at will in the final regular season matchup between these teams. Vandersloot made herself into a decent defender in the last couple of years, doing a much better job of staying in front of her man, but since returning from her knee injury she’s barely stayed in front of anyone. January needs to attack in this series, even though she’s usually more comfortable – and more efficient – gunning away from outside.
Especially because Indiana’s offense is always a question mark. When they were still fighting to make the playoffs late in the regular season, they had a few outstanding sequences where they played with real pace and hit everything from outside, and looked great. But when the perimeter shots for Catchings, January, Shavonte Zellous, Christmas and Coleman stop dropping, sometimes they can fall into ugly ruts where they grind to a halt and can’t buy a bucket for long stretches. They’ll look to push the ball whenever they can. As Atlanta showed in the last round, when you can keep the Sky on their heels and attack them – ideally before Fowles has even made it back down the floor in transition – you can score on them pretty easily. Indiana like the idea of pushing the ball, but rarely manage it with any consistency. Picking up cheap points with quick offense will be important for them in this series.
Also, in the same way that Indiana have to worry about who’s going to guard Delle Donne, Chicago have to consider how they’re going to cover Catchings. Delle Donne has been playing almost exclusively power forward since returning from her illness – and is essentially Chicago’s only viable option there if Breland’s still hurt – but they probably won’t want her using all her energy trying to cover Catchings in this series. She needs to save that for offense. So once again it’ll likely be Tamera Young’s job to try to cover the most dangerous opposing player. It makes things interesting because often the advantage Catchings has at the 4 is that she’s quicker than the player trying to guard her, so stepping out to the perimeter gives her the option to shoot over or drive by her defender. If Young’s on her, then her advantage is strength rather than quickness. Chicago’s help defense has been pretty poor in the latter weeks of the season – Delle Donne isn’t an instinctive interior help defender, so Fowles gets drawn to drivers with no assistance behind her. Chicago are going to have to be strong and quick to help cover Catchings if she takes Young inside (as she should) – and then it’s once again down to those Fever shooters to knock down open shots when the ball rotates back out.
Important Notes, and Aspects to Watch
Depth (and health). There’s been very little information out of the Sky camp about Breland since her shoulder injury, so we don’t know if she’s going to be available for any of this series. If she’s still out, Chicago’s rotation is down to basically six players and a couple of very occasional bit-parts judging by who Pokey Chatman trusted in the Dream series. In some ways, that’s less of an issue than it was against Atlanta. Young will be virtually playing power forward anyway if she’s guarding Catchings, so going small and using Young as an actual 4 when Delle Donne sits won’t leave them as vulnerable as it did against the Dream. But it still means that the Sky stars get very little rest. Indiana have also had an entire week off since sweeping Washington in the first round, while Chicago had to battle to the final second on Tuesday night to get through. Indiana’s bench is always questionable – players like Natasha Howard and Layshia Clarendon might give them something on a given night, but often won’t – but Lin Dunn has safer ways to get her starters some rest than Chatman does.
Rebounding is going to be important in this series, and an interesting one to watch. With Fowles and Delle Donne inside, Chicago have a significant size advantage – but they’ve been a far worse rebounding team than Indiana this season. Obviously the Sky’s injuries had an effect on their rebounding numbers during the regular season, but losing Breland also hurts them on the glass in this series. Indiana are undersized, but Larkins and Catchings both work their backsides off fighting for boards and loose balls, with help from their teammates on the wings. It’s key not just to keep possessions alive with occasional offensive boards, but because dominating the defensive glass leads to transition and speed for Indiana’s offense. Chicago need to come close to even on the glass. They don’t need to win, but it has to be a fight.
Chatman’s just emerged from one chess match with Michael Cooper in the first round, and this series could be just as interesting in terms of the coaches trying to out-think each other. We’ll see the Sky try some zone at times, especially if Indiana’s shooters aren’t hitting. We could see different defenders on Catchings besides Young, including Delle Donne, if Catchings picks them apart enough to demand it. We’ll see ball pressure and trapping from Indiana, especially when Vandersloot’s resting, because Allie Quigley isn’t a secure ballhandler or passer under pressure. Then Chatman will have to respond either with Jamierra Faulkner, or with even heavier minutes for Vandersloot, or by letting Prince play on the ball even more. There are a lot of options and alternatives, and their use will largely be determined by how well the initial plans flow or break down.
Fouls. Indiana foul a lot, and they draw a lot of fouls themselves. Chicago were in the top half of the league in both categories as well, and Delle Donne in particular is an expert at drawing contact and whistles. It’ll be a physical series, with Indiana likely to be the aggressor and Chicago needing to stand up for themselves. But expect a lot of free throws, and probably some foul trouble for someone important in at least a game or two.
Part of the reason Chatman played a heavily understrength team in Chicago’s final regular season game was to avoid playing Indiana in the first round of the playoffs. She’d have been delighted if Washington had removed them from the equation. Now Chicago have no choice but to face up to the team that’s given them a lot of problems in recent years. The Sky certainly can beat this team. Fowles will be fighting with Larkins in the paint from start to finish, but she has several inches on her and ought to be able to score at times, even if most of her points come off broken plays or offensive boards. Delle Donne can score on anyone. Prince or Quigley will hit some shots at some point. But Indiana are going to come into this series with a lot of confidence. They know how to beat this Sky team, and their defense tends to knock Chicago off-balance and unsettle the Sky. When the game slows down into a halfcourt battle, the Fever will struggle to score at times, but they’ve got the veteran smarts and character to fight through those stretches when necessary. And in Lin Dunn’s final year as head coach, maybe that tiny extra impetus to produce when necessary.
Indiana 2-1, in another close contest. Chicago won’t be as scared of the Fever as they were last year, and player-fr-player they’ve probably got more talent. But Indiana have been here many times before, and know what’s required to come away on top.