The Daily W, 09/02/2014: Sky need double OT, but battle past Fever to force Eastern decider

 

Indiana Fever 84 @ Chicago Sky 86 (2OT)

 

Lineups: No changes from Game 1.

 

Story of the Game: The early stages of this game were pretty dull and very even. Chicago got Sylvia Fowles involved, and got out in transition a little, which were both good signs for the Sky. Briann January and Shavonte Zellous weren’t shooting as well from the perimeter as they had in stretches of Game 1 for Indiana, but the Fever were already picking up offensive boards and second-chance points. It all balanced out.

 

Fowles hurt her own team with silly mistakes early in the second quarter – although Pokey Chatman’s scheme was arguably just as much to blame. As we’ve seen several times before, Fowles picked up a foul 30 feet away from the hoop trying to hedge hard on a screen, only to make too much contact with the ballhandler. That was her second foul of the game, and was immediately followed by an easy Karima Christmas layup for Indiana when Fowles let her go to avoid adding her third. Minutes later, Fowles hedged hard again, picked up that third foul, and spent the last 6:34 of the first half on the bench as a result. When you’ve got a franchise center who you desperately need on the court, it’s insane to have her using up her six fouls – and forcing herself to the bench – by hedging so hard a mile away from the basket.

 

Chicago were down by six when Fowles sat down, and that gap grew as high as 14 in the second quarter with her on the bench. The Sky’s help defense collapsed as Chatman cycled through Sasha Goodlett and Markeisha Gatling in the search for someone to fill the center spot, Erlana Larkins suddenly started scoring inside, and a tight game became one-sided. It also allowed Indiana to be even more obvious in sending extra defenders to stop Elena Delle Donne whenever she tried to attack Tamika Catchings, and slow down Chicago’s scoring even further.

 

Chatman went a little gimmicky with her lineup to close out the first half, using Gatling for the first time in the entire playoffs and going small on the perimeter with Courtney Vandersloot, Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley all playing together. With Quigley hitting a couple of threes in the closing stages, it helped to give the Sky a small foothold back in the game, and pull within eight at halftime. Considering how the second quarter had gone, the amount of time Fowles had spent on the bench and the significant rebounding advantage Indiana had achieved, only being down eight felt like a win for Chicago.

 

It took just under three minutes of the third quarter for Chatman to realise something that had become increasingly obvious to everybody during the first half – that her best lineup on this particular night involved gluing Prince’s backside to the bench. She hadn’t been able to hit anything all night, whether on jumpers or layups, and considering her ability to create her own offense is the main reason to have her on the floor, that made her a liability. Quigley came in instead, and Prince wouldn’t return for a long time.

 

One player Chicago were delighted to have back on the floor was Fowles, and they ran the same play a lot in the second half in an effort to feed her the ball. They would set up in their typical horns formation with Fowles and the power forward above the elbows. The point guard would enter the ball to the power forward, cut down past the posts, then reverse course to set a screen on Larkins so that Fowles could roll down into the paint. Then the ideal result was that Fowles would be open inside and either Delle Donne or Breland could feed her to finish at the rim. It’s a play that attacks the fact that Indiana like to switch and then help or recover later, complicating pick-and-roll or off-ball screening plays. Because when you screen with the point guard, the defense really doesn’t want to switch January and Larkins, and even if they did the pass would just go high and Fowles would likely score right over January. So for a while it worked. But Chicago ran it so many times, even after Indiana knew exactly what was coming, and Larkins was constantly getting round the screen and preventing the entry pass. That meant the ball usually went to Vandersloot, popping out to the perimeter after setting the screen, who rarely managed to hurt the Fever from that position. It was a smart play, and I’ve always liked the idea of running something until the defense proves it can stop it – but when they have proven that, it would’ve been nice to see more variation.

 

All of that said, Chicago started to fight back into the game in the third quarter. Fowles got deep position when those plays worked, and even when they broke down to second or third options Chicago were scoring much better than they had in the first half. Indiana were still outworking them on the glass, but a run of strong defensive possessions for Chicago late in the period helped them pull within a point. Indiana needed a pair of threes from Karima Christmas to stay in front.

 

All of this was happening with minimal offensive impact from either Delle Donne or Catchings. With Catchings on top of her and a second defender always lying in wait if she attempted to drive, Delle Donne couldn’t find much room to breathe, never mind score. She was also constantly being worked on by the trainers during every break, being stretched out to keep her back as loose as possible. It was a tough night for her. Meanwhile Catchings once again couldn’t find the range on her jump shot, or punish Tamera Young in the paint. She was playing a central part in the energy and hustle that Indiana were using to scrape together points off loose balls and offensive rebounds, but not much help in traditional offensive sets.

 

After Chicago’s push late in the third had made the game close, the fourth quarter saw a surprisingly free-flowing and offensive period, that stayed tight throughout. Zellous had been sliding in all night for the post-ups that worked so well in Game 1, and had some success, but both she and January attacked more off the dribble in the final period and got to the rim. But to the credit of Vandersloot, while she got beaten on several of those drives, she was stepping up her game to attack in kind at the other end. With Fowles continuing to work like a demon inside, even without huge production from Delle Donne the Sky were right in the contest.

 

Fowles tied the game up with a tough finish through traffic with two minutes left in regulation, after hustle work from Chicago had kept their possession alive. Then a drive and dish from January for a Larkins layup was answered by a smart hesitation-drive and layup from Vandersloot to tie the game again. After Zellous airballed a three, Chicago tried to run that play I detailed above yet again, it was blown up by Indiana yet again, and the possession eventually ended when Delle Donne tried to swing her arms through under pressure from Catchings and was called for an offensive foul. There was minimal contact, and at least the officials had the decency to leave it as a common foul after review.

 

With 35 seconds left in regulation, Indiana tried to run Catchings off a double-screen, which didn’t really work as the Sky scrambled and switched. But it did leave her defended by Delle Donne rather than Young, and when she popped up high to take a pass from January, Delle Donne left her feet for no good reason to challenge a shot Catchings was never going to take. That gave her the room to drive to the elbow, pull up, and hit the mid-range jumper for the lead with 12 seconds left.

 

Chicago answered with a play very similar to the ones that helped them close out the series against Atlanta. They tried to clear out one side of the floor for Delle Donne by running everyone else through to the weak side. But Indiana were ready for it, and unwilling to leave the same amount of space that Atlanta had. Christmas stayed on the strong side, and when Delle Donne tried to drive on Catchings, Christmas was waiting for her to make the inevitable pullup jumper even tougher. It went high off the glass, and rimmed out. But one of the disadvantages of sending that extra defender to challenge Delle Donne was that it left more space behind for Chicago’s remaining players to rebound. Young won the battle for the ball, dropped in the putback, and the game was tied with a second remaining. Indiana got a decent look for January in the corner after a timeout, but her jumper missed, and we were headed for overtime.

 

Chicago did a good job of attacking the basket and drawing fouls in OT, which allowed them to develop a narrow lead. Indiana eventually answered with a gorgeous pick-and-roll feed from Catchings to Larkins, and yet more work on the offensive glass to keep possessions alive. A Catchings step-back jumper – one of her rare successes from outside on the night – tied the game with a minute left in the first extra period. The Sky finally came up with a different play – they were still rolling with that same play detailed earlier for much of OT – as Quigley and Fowles ran a high pick-and-roll. Quigley fed Fowles, who was called for an offensive foul when Christmas rotated around to meet her at the rim. It was a desperately tough call on Chicago, considering Christmas appeared to be in the restricted area, and had also arguably not given Fowles enough room to land. The officials oddly chose not to review where Christmas’s feet had been.

 

Neither team managed to produce anything worthwhile in the 49 seconds that remained in the first overtime. Catchings pulled up for another mid-range jumper, and missed. Chicago called timeout, inbounded to Delle Donne right next to the sideline, where she was immediately trapped by Catchings and Christmas and inevitably turned the ball over (while someone should’ve called timeout for the Sky to escape). On the final possession, January used a high screen from Larkins, was cut off by Fowles with a good – legal – hedge, used a second screen from Catchings, and then missed badly on a pullup jumper from 20 feet. Christmas dropped in the putback, but it was clearly after the buzzer, and the game went to another extra period.

 

OT2 saw Indiana’s inability to convert their chances both inside and out finally came back to haunt them. Catchings and Zellous both missed jumpers, before yet another possession where the Fever piled up offensive rebounds one after the other but still couldn’t finish. Delle Donne gave Chicago a four-point lead with another of those drives similar to how she scored on Angel McCoughtry in the Dream series – this time making the move quickly enough that Christmas could only swipe at her rather than come right across to block her with the double-team. Zellous responded with a crazy spinning drive that somehow fell in, but a Quigley jumper answered right back. Indiana wasted far too much time in the final moments looking for something to happen, and January eventually drew a foul on an attempted drive. Her free throws pulled Indiana within a point with 12 seconds left, and when Fowles went 1-of-2 at the line the Fever had yet another chance to tie or win the game. The play was designed for Zellous to cut along the baseline to the other side of the rim, a cut that Delle Donne had been very poor at covering throughout the two games in this series. But Catchings’s pass took Zellous wide and away from the basket, turning the attempt into a tough perimeter jumper rather than a layup. Zellous’s three bounced off the iron, time expired, and everyone was headed back to Indiana for a decider on Wednesday night.

 

Key Players: Fowles was the primary offensive weapon for Chicago, finishing 12-14 for 27 points. The Sky have been outworked on the boards in both the first two games, but it’s hard to blame that on her. She’s giving them everything she’s got, and while she sometimes spins into trouble and turns the ball over due to her complete lack of passing instincts in the paint, she’s finishing a lot more than she’s screwing up. Most of her help came from Quigley and Vandersloot, with Delle Donne playing inconsistent minutes due to the back issue and struggling to produce under all the defensive attention. It’ll be a concern for Chicago that with only one day off before Game 3, her back will probably still be a problem for that vital clash.

 

Zellous led the scoring for Indiana, but needed 21 shots for her 20 points. The Sky were a little better prepared for her post-ups this time, sending help down to cut off her lanes when Prince or Quigley were in trouble against her. With Catchings taking even more shots and only scoring 16 points, while January was cold outside as well, it was another game where Indiana had to scrap for their points rather than score consistently or in rhythm. And if they’d actually been able to finish inside on their staggering 20 offensive rebounds, they might be home relaxing tonight while waiting to see who’d join them in the Finals from the West. They’ve done enough defensively to win both of these games against Chicago, but hitting shots continues to be an inconsistent affair. If Catchings, Zellous and January are even mildly accurate from outside in Game 3, they’ve got a very good chance of winning. But the Sky have already shown this season that they know how to fight, and how to close a series out on the road.

 

—–

 

Today’s Game

 

Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET, best-of-three series tied 1-1

 

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