The Daily W, 09/11/2014: Mercury on the brink of a title thanks to another dominant win over Sky

 

Chicago Sky 68 @ Phoenix Mercury 97

 

Lineups: The same fives that opened Game 1 came out for Game 2, so Elena Delle Donne was ready to play despite the problems with her back.

 

Story of the Game: There was an immediately obvious switch for the Sky from Game 1, with Tamera Young sliding over to guard Candice Dupree while Delle Donne tried to hide on DeWanna Bonner. It wasn’t the move to having Young guard Diana Taurasi that I’d been hoping for, but it at least made use of Young being on the floor. Of course, the hope for Chicago would’ve been that it put less stress on Delle Donne (and that she wouldn’t give up so many points defensively, after Dupree lit up the Sky in Game 1).

 

The energy and attack mentality of the Sky was a little better in the early stages than we’d seen for much of Game 1, but we also saw Sylvia Fowles blow yet more finishes around the rim under pressure from Brittney Griner, while Griner converted over or around Fowles at the other end. That was the same as 48 hours earlier. Then Fowles inadvertently took Griner out of the game for several minutes after catching her in the face with a swipe of her arm while fighting for a rebound. Griner was left lying on the court for several seconds while play continued, and went to the sidelines for treatment on a scratch near her right eye. Ewelina Kobryn was the choice to fill in, rather than Mistie Bass, due to her greater size and bulk to match up with Fowles.

 

Whether Griner was in the game or not, Chicago still weren’t particularly effective in running anything offensively, but they did have Delle Donne looking relatively mobile and hitting a couple of shots. Phoenix largely scored with the same regularity that they had in Game 1, with Bonner more aggressive in an effort to exploit Delle Donne’s defense. The Mercury were hurt by foul trouble for Taurasi, after she’d taken one intentionally to stop the game for Griner’s injury, then was called for a push-off after barely five minutes of action. But Chicago still weren’t exactly effective in slowing them down. By the end of the first quarter Phoenix were up by seven, and both Fowles and Griner had joined Taurasi on two fouls apiece (Fowles picking up both of hers while defending Kobryn, Griner adding her second on an illegal screen – so all pretty dumb).

 

The early stages of the second quarter were Chicago’s most positive minutes of the series. Griner started it on the bench, and the Sky finally found some success with their pick-and-roll game, working it mostly with Markeisha Gatling and Epiphanny Prince. Without Griner’s movement and long arms there to block the way, either the dump-off pass to Gatling was available, or Prince pulled up and hit shots in space. Even once Griner came back in, the Sky had finally discovered some offensive rhythm, and Prince was joined by Delle Donne and Allie Quigley in hitting some shots from the perimeter. This was the other element the Sky had missed in Game 1 – basic shot-making. Some of them were tough, some were contested, but they dropped and we had a tight contest on our hands.

 

Then everything fell apart in the closing four minutes of the half. Chicago had already started to cool off, and Taurasi was hitting everything in sight at the other end (Courtney Vandersloot can’t remotely guard her, as becomes obvious whenever Taurasi has felt like illustrating it in this series). Then Phoenix got out on the break, and Taurasi drove right at Delle Donne to pick up the Sky forward’s third foul. That sent Delle Donne to the bench, and Chicago’s offense dissolved entirely. Their strong run had come with Fowles on the sidelines, but with Delle Donne out the obvious move would’ve been to bring her back in to solidify the team. Pokey Chatman did that briefly, but after two possessions subbed Fowles right back out again. Even though Fowles hadn’t made a shot all night, it was a strange decision because the game continued to implode around what was left on the floor for the Sky. Their offense had gotten completely stagnant, returning to the reliance on jacking perimeter jump shots (that rarely went in), and Phoenix were drifting straight past them at the other end. Griner was caught in the face by a Sasha Goodlett elbow and appeared to swipe part of her tooth off the court, but even that didn’t slow the Mercury down. The game was tied at 31-31 with four minutes left in the half; Phoenix were up 51-36 at halftime after Erin Phillips rounded things off with a three-point play, when Chicago screwed up an inbounds play for the thousandth time this season.

 

That was essentially the ballgame. Chicago had taken their best shot at Phoenix, and the Mercury had answered and gone in ahead by 15 anyway. Phoenix opened the second half moving the ball a little better than they had for much of the first half, and the gap grew towards 20 before surging past it. Dupree had been quiet in the opening 20 minutes, but opened the second half strong and finally took advantage of her size edge on Young. Chicago had both Delle Donne and Prince producing much more effectively on offense than they had in Game 1, and it scarcely mattered.

 

By the second half, Fowles would’ve missed layups under defensive pressure from your average five year-old. For so long, Chicago’s problems in using her have been in getting her the ball, but in this series she’s simply been unable to finish plays in the face of Griner’s size and athleticism. Griner’s dominated her to such an extent that she’s continued to miss straightforward opportunities even when Griner’s been out of the game. The matchup between arguably the two best centers in the women’s game has been thoroughly one-sided, and it’s had a central impact on the course of this series.

 

Although in general, Chicago haven’t been able to stop Phoenix from scoring – so if Fowles had actually made a few layups it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. The Mercury’s ball movement continues to pick the Sky apart, they have threats at every spot on the floor – almost all of whom have a size advantage on their Sky defender – and Phoenix have basically scored wherever and whenever they’ve wanted to. They exploited Delle Donne’s poor defense (and physical limitations) in this game, but were effective all over the floor. There was just as much garbage time as in Game 1.

 

Key Players: Phoenix once again spread the wealth across their starting five, with all of them in double-digits. Griner’s work in the paint has been key, including playing through all the physical contact that she suffered in this game. Taurasi hit big shots at important times, and is in all kinds of rhythm, which translates through to her team. Phoenix also scored 52 points in the paint in this game, illustrating how often they sliced right through Chicago’s defense or found their way behind it.

 

Prince and Delle Donne both looked good offensively in stretches for the Sky, while we also saw flashes of the Jessica Breland from early in the season (before she was playing with a torn labrum). But it was nowhere near enough. Fowles was awful, and yet Chicago’s worst period of play was a passage where they were screaming out for her to be on the floor and Chatman left her glued to the bench. It’s hard to come up with the right answer when there don’t appear to be any correct ones.

 

It’s hard to know what Chatman will change in an effort to extend the series on Friday night. The switch of venue should help a little, but the Mercury have all the momentum and with Allstate Arena booked, the Sky aren’t even getting to play in their regular home arena. I’d still like to see them try Young on Taurasi, just to see if it takes Phoenix out of their rhythm to some extent. Vandersloot’s basically done nothing to stop Taurasi in the first two games, and she gets caught on screens too easily. Young would at least put up more of a fight. And Fowles simply has to do better against Griner. She’s blown too many makeable shots right at the rim, which take all the air out of her own team. Maybe the Sky try some zone as well – it’s not like their man-to-man has been remotely successful. Phoenix are shooting 75-131 (57%) in this series. It’s been a massacre.

 

Notes of Interest: Moments before publication of this piece, the Mercury released a statement about Griner undergoing an outpatient procedure to correct a retinal issue (presumably caused by the hit to her face early in Game 2). They went on to say she’ll join the team in Chicago on Friday, and will be a game-time decision for Game 3. Considering she said after Game 2 “If I lose an eye, I’ll play with one. It’s the Finals”, she’ll probably be on the court for the tip. Griner sitting out would obviously be a huge boost to Chicago’s chances of keeping the series alive.

 

—–

 

League News

 

While you’re waiting for Game 3, there’s a USA Basketball scrimmage on ESPN2 tonight at 7pm ET. After calling up a training squad of 27, they’re down to 17 players for the game due to three withdrawals and seven players involved in the WNBA Finals, but it’s still one of the highest concentrations of women’s basketball talent you’re likely to see on one court. And unlike an All-Star game, players fighting for a spot on the World Championships squad are likely to be taking it pretty seriously.

 

—–

 

Tomorrow’s Game

 

Phoenix @ Chicago, 8pm ET, Mercury lead best-of-five 2-0

 

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