By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
Chris Pennant has covered the Chicago Sky since 2015. Follow his “Above the Clouds” column each Thursday to follow the Sky throughout the WNBA season.
After the Chicago Sky beat the New York Liberty on June 15 for their fourth consecutive win and second straight on the road, head coach James Wade had a message for his team during the traditional post-game wrap in the locker room.
“I’m starting to believe. Let’s believe!,” he said to his jubilant ball club.
That belief may have been tested after a close loss to the rival Washington Mystics Wednesday afternoon, but Chicago still sits with a winning record (6-4) and third in the WNBA Eastern Conference standings. If the season ended today, Chicago would have a bye to the second round of the playoffs. However, it’s doubtful Wade would take kindly to the mention of playoffs at this point.
When the head coach was asked about All-Star Game voting after the Washington loss, he replied, “We’re getting ready for Seattle on Friday.”
The Sky’s resurgence may have their fans looking ahead, but the team, as guard Allie Quigley said, is just focused on winning games. A three-game trip to the West Coast against Seattle, Los Angeles and Las Vegas will provide a conclusive test.
Bumps in the Road
Losses to the Mystics and Indiana Fever have put a damper on what was actually a quality week of play for Chicago. The Sky’s shortcomings at perimeter defense and interior length were exposed against the Fever, as Erica Wheeler drained six threes and 6’7” Teaira McCowan notched 10 points and 13 boards in 29 minutes. Veteran Candice Dupree also picked up a double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) as the Sky were out-rebounded for the third time this season. Predictably, the Sky lost all three of those games.
Fortunately, the Sky followed the Indiana loss with their best all-around performance of the season against the Connecticut Sun, defeating the league leaders 93-75. Cheyenne Parker had a career-high 22 points and Courtney Vandersloot picked up seven assists and three steals against only two turnovers. Most notably, the Sky also won the rebounding battle, 40-33, and held Jones to 11 points and 10 boards, well under her 18-11 average coming into the game.
Defense will be a question all season long for Chicago, on the perimeter and the interior. They seem to be up to the challenge so far: while the Sky do allow the most shots in the restricted area (26.8), they hold opponents to 52.5 percent shooting in that zone, best in the “W” (league median is 58.8%). The majority of WNBA three-pointers come from outside the corners (surprising, right?) and the Sky do well defending those as well, holding opponents to 27.6%.
All Roads Lead to the DMV
The Sky made a statement with their victory over the Sun, but while Connecticut remains atop the league standings, the Mystics are the best team in the league right now. Wednesday’s 81-74 loss dropped Chicago to 0-8 versus Washington since the Elena Delle Donne trade.
In the teams’ first meeting on June 5, Washington’s Kristi Toliver hung 19 points and six assists on Vandersloot, and Allie Quigley went scoreless on six shots. This time, the DePaul alum played well on both ends, scoring 21 points, draining four threes and hassling Toliver into missing six of 11 shots and turning the ball over five times.
Coach Wade bristled at the notion that the Mystics have the Sky’s number.
“They’re not the same team. This is a different year. Just note that and stop talking about the past,” he said. “We just have to execute the game plan.”
Even if Chicago isn’t snakebitten against Washington, they will almost certainly have to face them come playoff time. Any doubters can look to their statistical dominance: the Mystics lead the league in points per game, assists per game, true shooting percentage, turnovers and blocks. Their net rating is an absurd plus-13.8 points per 100 possessions, more than twice the next best team.
The Sky have two more chances this season to break their losing streak versus Delle Donne and the Mystics, but for now are firmly focused on their next three road games. A 3-0 or 2-1 road trip (with a win at Las Vegas) would prove Wade’s belief in his team is warranted.
Beast of the Week: In February, Wade signed Cheyenne Parker to a multi-year contract with the Sky. Parker had just set career-highs in minutes, points, shooting percentage and rebounding in 2018 and Wade stated “we [the Sky] plan on building upon that potential in 2019.”
Parker is proving worthy of the praise so far this year, averaging career-highs in points (10.4), rebounds (6.6), free throw shooting (93.1), assists, steals and blocks. She also leads the team in free throw rate (42.6), player efficiency rating and individual defensive rating. In fact, Parker’s 6.6 RPG is 21st in the W as of Monday night, but only two players (Indiana’s Teaira McCowan and Atlanta’s Monique Billings) average more boards while playing fewer minutes per night than Parker does.
One Last Thing: The Sky finished Wednesday’s game with an small lineup of Vandersloot, Quigley, Kahleah Copper, Gabby Williams and Jantel Lavender on the floor. Wade said the Mystics had been able to catch the ball where they wanted up to that point, and having Williams and Copper on the floor would be “more disruptive.” Keep an eye out for that defensive lineup on the floor near the end of close games.
Until next time, keep your head above the clouds.
Stats courtesy of WNBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.
Chris Pennant covers professional basketball for WARR Media