By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
Diamond DeShields made sure both she and James Wade had memorable playoff debuts. Now, the star player and coach combo will try to keep the Chicago Sky’s breakout season going for another game.
DeShields scored 25 points in her playoff debut, one of five Sky players in double figures, as Chicago defeated the Phoenix Mercury 105-76 in the first round of the 2019 WNBA Playoffs Wednesday night at Wintrust Arena.
Astou Ndour and Stefanie Dolson each scored 16 and Courtney Vandersloot added 11 assists, as the Sky’s team effort overwhelmed the shorthanded Mercury.
“We started out the season with that hunger, that playoff hunger,” said Vandersloot following the game. “If we didn’t make it [to the playoffs], we couldn’t find anything in the season. Now we have to go out and prove it. It’s not enough just to be here.”
The Sky had beaten Phoenix at home by 27 points just ten days prior and Diana Taurasi was scratched before the game with a hamstring injury, setting up a fortunate match-up for Chicago. Phoenix’s luck worsened in the second quarter when Brittney Griner sustained a dislocated kneecap (she would play only 13 minutes in the game). However, Chicago had trouble shaking off a dogged Mercury team and only led by three at the half.
However, the Sky took over from the start of the second half. DeShields drained a three after Dolson corralled an offensive rebound, igniting a 12-0 Chicago run. The Mercury would not get any closer than 10 the rest of the way, as the Sky starters rested for most of the final period.
“We’ve [the Sky] been the higher seed and been beaten by teams when we were supposed to win, because we weren’t prepared,” Vandersloot said. “We had to be our best to win this game.”
Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello has heaped praise on both DeShields and Vandersloot, both of whom received individual honors Wednesday. Vandersloot was WNBA Peak Performer: Assists for the third consecutive season, and DeShields was named to the All-WNBA Second Team.
“I kept saying to James in the offseason, ‘DeShields, she’s going to be pretty special for you’ and she certainly has. Her speed is amazing; we just couldn’t contain her,” she said. “When you’ve got one of the best point guards, Vandersloot, controlling everything–we tried different things, it didn’t really matter. They just handled it and got wide-open looks for their players.”
DeWanna Bonner led Phoenix with 21 points. Phoenix lost their first single-elimination playoff game in franchise history.
Prior to Tuesday’s game, Wade was presented with the WNBA Coach of the Year award. Afterward, he made sure to reserve the highest praise for his players.
“I tell them a lot how much I love them, how much I appreciate them. They’re my family,” he said. “It’s tough to explain in words, but I love my team. I love them.”
Moments to Remember
DeShields Denies: With about five minutes left in the first quarter, DeWanna Bonner raced up the court, trailed by Allie Quigley and DeShields. Quigley cut in front of Bonner to arrest her momentum, then DeShields elevated from behind Bonner to erase the shot. It was reminiscent of the famous sequence in the ‘91 NBA Eastern Conference Finals when John Paxson and Scottie Pippen combined to stop a Mark Aguirre fast break.
Transitioning Into High Gear: The Sky were second in the WNBA in percentage of points scored off the fast break this season, and they were able to get into their running game early Wednesday night thanks to DeShields. Sixteen of her 25 points came in transition, including a sequence in the fourth quarter where she went past every Phoenix player before drawing an and-1. Chicago finished with a 25-7 edge in fast break points.
On to the Next One
Chicago advances to face the No. 3 seed Las Vegas Aces Sunday afternoon at 4 pm central in Vegas. The Aces won the regular season series 2-1, and all three games were hotly contested, culminating in the Aces’ 100-85 victory in Chicago on August 18. There were 52 fouls, 61 total free throws and two technical fouls in that game, which Wade called “one of the most ridiculous games I’ve ever seen in my life.” Las Vegas’ Liz Cambage and Cheyenne Parker had to be separated during the third quarter, and players from both teams aired their grievances via social media afterward.
Many pundits had the Aces as a preseason favorite for the WNBA FInals coming into the season, and while they did lose four of their last six games, they are still a talented team on both ends of the court and rarely lost at home this season. However, they will not be playing at their usual venue, the Mandalay Bay Events Center, due to a scheduling conflict. The game has been moved to the Thomas and Mack Center on the campus of UNLV.
Prediction: Las Vegas led the league in a bunch of defensive categories, including points per 100 possessions and points in the paint. Cambage and Wilson keep the middle clogged and Dearica Hamby is a nightmare for ballhandlers. They also have a balanced attack with excellent rookie Jackie Young and sharpshooter Kayla McBride in the backcourt to complement their two bigs.
Without the typical home-court advantage, the game will most likely come down to pace, ball movement and free throws, and Chicago did give up 26 foul shots to Phoenix. However, DeShields has been on fire the last 10 games (19.3 points on 50.6 eFG%) and Las Vegas was middle of the pack in points allowed in transition. Sunday’s contest is ssentially a coin flip, but give the edge to Chicago, 85-80.
Until next time, keep your head above the clouds.
Chris Pennant covers professional basketball for WARR Media