Storylines and Key Areas
It was covered in the previous section, but health is obviously vital. Delle Donne’s back problem is the major concern, but Chicago also have Breland likely rushing back from her shoulder injury faster than normal because they needed her, and Vandersloot has struggled to stay in front of anyone defensively since returning from her knee problem. Phoenix’s core group have been remarkably healthy all season long, which has played an important role in their dominance. Look back through the WNBA champions, and you tend to find teams whose key players were fit and available all season long. That said, while the Mercury have a few decent contributors off their bench, an injury to Griner or Taurasi would change everything in an instant for them. Chicago can at least claim to be prepared for how they’d play with virtually any injury or absence – because they’ve been through them all at some point this season.
Rebounding. Oddly enough, over the entire regular season, these were two of the three-worst rebounding teams in the WNBA (Seattle were rock bottom, Phoenix 11th and Chicago 10th). Most of the Mercury’s negative numbers came on the offensive glass – they eschewed chasing offensive boards in favour of making sure they got back in transition and set their defense. Chicago were pretty bad on both ends, for a variety of reasons. Fowles missed time hurt, Delle Donne got sick and then played nominal power forward while mostly out on the perimeter, their defensive help schemes often rotate people out of rebounding position, and their perimeter players offer very little rebounding help to their posts. So where’s the edge going to be? When two teams are playing, the rebounding percentages have to add up to 100% one way or another. Chicago won’t want to give up any cheap points, so they’ll be looking to get back quickly in transition as well, but they need to attack the glass. They lost the hustle and energy battle to Indiana at several points in the Eastern Finals, and it almost cost them the series. They’re already likely to lose out in too many areas to Phoenix, so they need to outwork the Mercury for things like offensive boards, loose balls and deflections.
That links into the topic of fast breaks and transition points. Despite both of these teams having some outstanding athletes, neither of them actually runs all that much. And both defenses are based more around containment and contesting shots than forcing steals and getting out on the break. So it’s another area where you could look to surprise. Phoenix will use their length to press ballhandlers like Vandersloot and Quigley at times, while players like Prince and Young will look to poke their hands into passing lanes for steals on occasion. Again, Chicago need cheap points. They have to look for every little edge they can get.
On the other side of that, both teams – especially Chicago – must take care of the ball. The Sky have improved dramatically in the last couple of years in terms of avoiding turnovers, but they still go through stretches where they give up possession far too cheaply. Sometimes they get so locked in on trying to force the ball to Fowles or Delle Donne that they try to pass through a lane that just isn’t there, and hand it to the opposition. And they’ve made a startling number of errors this season on simple inbounding plays. Phoenix don’t force as many turnovers as you might expect them to, considering the length of their starting five. But that size means they have the potential to force the kind of giveaways that have plagued Chicago in the past. The ball must move for the Sky. If the entry pass isn’t there, they have to reverse it and change the angle, or look for a different way to attack. They can’t force passes into heavy traffic and give up possessions without even getting a shot off.
Benches. Neither team is likely to go much beyond seven or eight deep in their main rotation, but in a best-of-five someone could pop up with an important stretch. Maybe Jamierra Faulkner’s speed gives Chicago a jolt, or maybe Shay Murphy hits a couple of threes. Or it could go the other way – Griner gets in foul trouble, and the drop-off to Mistie Bass at center is so significant that it loses Phoenix a quarter in a tight game. Or Fowles picks up a dumb foul or two again and Chatman is left hoping Sasha Goodlett or Markeisha Gatling can survive for more than two minutes without imploding the Sky defense.
Home-court advantage. Phoenix earned it, and will obviously hope to be up 2-0 after the first two games on their home floor. If they are, the series is probably over. Chicago need to steal one of them, because otherwise they’ll be left needing to win three in a row, and that’s very unlikely regardless of the venue. The Sky are already losing out when they go ‘home’ because Allstate Arena is booked for Garth Brooks, so they’re returning to their former home of UIC Pavilion. It’ll still be a Chicago crowd, obviously, but it’s not the building they’ve played in all year long. It’s things like sight-lines and familiarity that make up much of the value in home-court advantage for any given game, and the Sky lose much of that by switching to UIC. It’s just one more thing to add to their difficulties in turning the expectations for this series on its head.
Overview and Prediction
It’s so hard to see Chicago winning this series. After their battles to make it through the first two rounds, you can absolutely see why the team and their fans could feel an element of a ‘team of destiny’ storyline for the Sky. And if Delle Donne’s back has started feeling better in the last couple of days, they’re actually healthier now than they’ve been for the vast majority of the season. But so many questionable areas have to go their way. Fowles has to be able to contain Griner, and produce a decent amount of points in the paint against her. The rest of the Sky players actually have to be able to get Fowles the ball, which has never been something they’ve achieved consistently, even against mediocre opponents. Their rotations defensively will have to be sharper than ever to keep the paint secure while contesting outside shots, which Phoenix knock down as well as anyone in the league. So Chicago will also need some help from Phoenix just missing some shots they’d typically hit. And Delle Donne is probably going to have to win them at least one game with individual brilliance, regardless of her health, because Fowles can’t pass herself the ball and the likes of Quigley and Prince may have their moments but probably can’t do it.
All this, while Phoenix will be well-prepared by Brondello but essentially just have to produce the same basketball they’ve been playing all season. It’s Chicago who are going to have to contort themselves into different shapes to deal with Phoenix, while hoping that the Mercury have relaxed after the Minnesota series, believing the hardest part of their work is done.
The last time we saw a truly competitive WNBA Finals was in 2009, when Phoenix made their most recent visit and squeaked past Indiana. It’d be fantastic to see the League advertise itself with a battle like that again. But it’s hard to envision unless Chatman’s come up with some unlikely tweaks to challenge Phoenix. Teams have been trying everything they can think of all season long, and the Mercury have lost just six times in 39 games. Good luck, Pokey.
3-1 Phoenix, and only because I think the Mercury might be a little complacent and let Chicago sneak in to steal one. My second choice would be Phoenix in a sweep.