The Daily W, 09/04/2014: Sky finish off Fever on the road, head to WNBA Finals for the first time

 

Chicago Sky 75 @ Indiana Fever 62

 

Lineups: Starters were the same as in previous games. Elena Delle Donne was still struggling with her back problem, but fit enough to get out on the court and at least play a heavy decoy role, even if she was no longer carrying the offense.

 

Story of the Game: After the Lynx and Mercury started the previous night’s Game 3 smoking hot, the Sky and Fever went with an ice cold shower instead. There was a lot of messy basketball played early on, a lot of bricks tossed up from the perimeter, and Indiana looked oddly nervous while committing several unforced turnovers. There wasn’t much worth talking about from the first quarter, except that Epiphanny Prince actually hit her first perimeter jump shot, and while Shavonte Zellous hit a couple from outside as well, the Sky were doing a better job of cutting off her flex-cut post-ups. That’s the play where she starts out in the corner, then uses a screen to dive into the space under the rim, looking for a pass deep in the paint to finish over her smaller defender. Prince was battling well to keep her from getting position in the first place, and the other Sky players were getting hands into the passing lanes as well. Basically, the play was no longer working. However, Indiana were already showing signs of dominating the offensive glass yet again, which kept the scores close.

 

It wasn’t until late in the second quarter that we saw the first meaningful lead of the night, and it came thanks to the play of the woman who’s been increasingly stealing minutes away from Prince this season. Allie Quigley was the first player who’d managed to discover a consistent run of accuracy on her jumper all night, which helped the Sky turn a tied game into an eight-point lead by halftime. At times, Quigley’s still a shaky ballhandler, and she’s not a natural point guard at all despite being used by Pokey Chatman at that spot many times in the last two years. But she can shoot, and having that scoring threat on the ball sometimes pays off more than her negatives leave Chicago vulnerable. Lin Dunn called a timeout in the middle of her scoring run, and both Zellous and Tamika Catchings attacked the basket for Indiana on the series of possessions that followed, resulting in better shots and points for the Fever. But with Briann January coughing up yet another pair of unnecessary turnovers on their closing plays, Chicago went into the break on top.

 

Catchings had struggled with her jump shot throughout the series, and Game 3 was no different. The Fever tried at times to feed her the ball inside, but she’s not a natural post-up player. She’s been the nominal power forward for the Fever for several years now, but at her heart she’s still a perimeter player on offense. She gets her points in the paint off drives or hustle plays for rebounds and putbacks, rarely on true low-post moves. And with her jump shot failing to drop, Tamera Young could afford to give her a little more room to shoot, and play her for the drive. After three games chasing Angel McCoughtry, Young spent three more covering Catchings, and did an admirable job.

 

And the central problem Indiana had in the second half continued to be their offense. Marissa Coleman was poor all night, but continued to toss up shots as if the next one would fall; January never really got going either, with the distribution of opposing point guard Courtney Vandersloot having a bigger impact on the game; and while Zellous would occasionally hit one or two to make you think a hot streak might be starting, it never lasted for long. Chicago’s defense did an impressive job of keeping the Fever on the perimeter, and Indiana grew increasingly static in the second half, with the shot clock repeatedly winding down and forcing them into heaved efforts to beat the buzzer.

 

The quirk for Chicago in the second half was that they managed to stay in control with Delle Donne spending the vast majority of the time lying on the ground on the sidelines with a heating pad on her back. She played the first three minutes of the half, then returned briefly towards the end of the third quarter, but that was it. Maybe she was in too much pain and told Chatman that she needed to come out, but mostly it felt like her team were doing well enough without her so that she could continue to rest. Indiana managed to hang around in contention in the third quarter, but they weren’t really cutting into Chicago’s lead. The Sky had Quigley and even Prince hitting a few shots, and Fowles finding a little space inside, and that was enough to stay at least five points in front, usually a little more.

 

Chicago produced an important run early in the fourth, with Fowles the key figure. Virtually all her good looks on the night came off two plays – the point-guard screening for her out of the horns set that I detailed in the Game 2 recap, and the high pick-and-roll. The former worked a couple of times, even with Erlana Larkins and the Fever knowing it was coming, and the latter was always an option (and made you wonder why Chicago hadn’t used it more in the previous games). Larkins showed so hard on those high screens that Fowles was left to roll down the lane with only much smaller defenders trying to slide across and hold her up. Occasionally it was Catchings, but they ran it when she was off the floor or in the first half when she had Delle Donne to worry about. So any high feed the ballhandler could get past Larkins into the lane was Fowles’s to gobble up and finish at the rim. It’s a play that won’t be nearly as easy to run against Phoenix in the next round, but for now it worked pretty well. Fowles had two buckets deep in the paint, Breland added a layup off another nice drive-and-dish from Vandersloot, and suddenly Chicago were up by 12.

 

There were still eight minutes left in the game, but from there it really became an uphill climb for the Fever. The created some decent looks from the perimeter, but couldn’t knock them down for love nor money. Some 50/50 calls went against them, but that tends to happen when the momentum of the game is already rolling in the other team’s favour. When Quigley hit another three, then Breland turned a Fowles miss into an offensive board and putback with three minutes left in the game, Chicago were up by 14 and the contest felt like it was over.

 

Indiana turned up the heat in the closing minutes, using a full-court press to try to make a late run, but they still couldn’t get the calls and still couldn’t score well enough to make a real comeback. Nine points was as low as the gap ever came, and the Sky held on to make the Finals for the first time in their history.

 

Key Players: Offensively, Quigley led the scoring effort for Chicago, going 7-9 from the field for 24 points. She hit four threes on the night, and Prince added three more, combining to give the Sky a more effective perimeter attack than the likes of Catchings, Zellous, January and Coleman managed for Indiana. All with Delle Donne only playing 21 minutes and only scoring four points. The Fever were the better rebounding team throughout the series, but Fowles dominated Larkins at times to offer Chicago a real threat inside. Dunn tried an unusual Larkins/Lynetta Kizer post pairing in the second half, but never gave Krystal Thomas a shot in this game, which seemed slightly surprising. She might’ve been able to defend Fowles a little more individually, rather than depending on their team rotation concepts to cover her, allowing them to avoid leaving as much space elsewhere around the floor.

 

But it was really Indiana’s lack of offense that killed them in this game. Zellous led their scoring with 16, but was the only player in double-digits, with Catchings producing a 2-9 effort. For the series, the Fever’s star and leader shot 11-43 (26%) from the field, and they couldn’t hit enough shots from elsewhere to make up for it. Unfortunately for Chicago, they’re likely to find that Phoenix will be a little more accurate both inside and out.

 

Notes of Interest: She wouldn’t have wanted it to be, but this turned out to be Lin Dunn’s final game as a head coach. She goes out with the respect of everyone in the women’s basketball community, having done a remarkable amount for the game in a long and impressive career. She’ll still be working in and around women’s basketball, helping out young coaches in the college game and offering her wisdom where it’s requested. Stephanie White has been learning under her for several years and will slide over from the assistant’s seat, hopefully making it a smooth transition for the Fever franchise next year.

 

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League News

 

Understandably, considering the Sky’s history, Allstate Arena didn’t keep the dates of the WNBA Finals clear in their calendar just in case they were required to host a couple of basketball games. So Garth Brooks will be playing there when Games 3 and 4 of the Finals are scheduled. With Disney on Ice at the United Center where the Bulls play that wasn’t an option either, and Davis Cup tennis will be occupying the Sears Centre, so the Sky will be heading back to their old home at the UIC Pavilion for Game 3 and (if necessary) Game 4. It’s not the greatest venue in the world – hence the Sky moving out a couple of years ago – but if enough Chicagoans show up, the home-court atmosphere could be just as good.

 

There will, of course, be an in-depth WNBA Finals preview coming from me. Check back before the games begin to read that.

 

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WNBA Finals Schedule (best-of-five, 2-2-1 format)

 

Sunday September 7th

Chicago @ Phoenix, 3.30pm

 

Tuesday September 9th

Chicago @ Phoenix, 9pm ET

 

Friday September 12th

Phoenix @ Chicago, 8pm ET

 

Sunday September 14th

Phoenix @ Chicago, 5.30pm ET (if necessary)

 

Wednesday September 17th

Chicago @ Phoenix, 9pm ET (if necessary)

 

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