All-Star MVP and 2010 WNBA MVP candidate Sylvia Fowles has quite literally become the center of attention for the Chicago Sky this season.
To take it a step further, Fowles has also become "the best back to the basket player there is right now in the women's game" according to Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler after a "short, sharp" practice yesterday.
"She's a problem," said Seattle Storm forward Swin Cash who has played with Fowles as a member of USA Basketball during both the Stars at the Sun showcase and during the off-season. "She's a problem. When Sylvia gets her mind set to dominate, there's really very little you can do. Just try to keep the ball out of her hands. I've seen her growth over the past few years and she's really worked at it and that's what's impressed me about her: I think that the reason why she is where she is because when people challenged her she went out worked on her game and got better."
So it would be perfectly reasonable for one to suggest that a large part of why the Sky have been more successful than other opponents against the Seattle Storm -- the Sky handed the Storm their first loss of the season -- is because Fowles's athleticism and physicality bother center Lauren Jackson in a way that most opponents simply can't.
"Sylvia played real well and Lauren didn't hit as many shots," said Storm coach Brian Agler of the team's first loss of the season in Chicago. "I do think that Sylvia battling Lauren down around the basket is probably an advantage for Sylvia."
Offensively and defensively, it is certainly true that Fowles is both an interior force and the most likely candidate to give Jackson a hard time. However, as the Sky make their first and only regular season visit to Key Arena tonight, it's also worth noting that although they rely heavily on their dominant center they're at their best when she is setting up her perimeter teammates on the perimeter to knock down three point shots thus opening up lanes for the Sky's athletic guards to attack the basket.
"They do a great job of playing inside-out," said Agler when asked about Fowles setting up shooters on the perimeter. "It's a good balance between the two: Sylvia scoring, Sylvia getting touches. The ball's going through her."
The impact of the ball going through Fowles is probably still best illustrated by their first 8 games of the season: their 0-4 start stood in stark contrast to their 4-0 win streak. During their 4-0 win streak, the team showed dramatic improvement (nearly 14%) from the three point line and turned the ball over less, making them a much more efficient team. There is certainly a chicken and egg debate to be had about it, but Fowles was no small part of that success during that early season winning streak -- she shot nearly 70% from the field, 77% from the free throw line, and she cut her turnover percentage in half. As Cash alluded to, when she's playing like that there's very little that a defense can do to contain her.
During the Sky's more recent three game mid-July win streak in which they won 4 of 5 without 2009 All-Star wing Shameka Christon, a similar pattern emerged from beyond the arc. In their wins against the San Antonio Silver Stars (twice), Los Angeles Sparks, and most notably the Washington Mystics in DC they shot a scorching 45% from the three point line, more than 10% above their season 3 point percentage of 34.4%. Among the players to watch is reserve guard Erin Thorn who shot 7-16 during their 4-0 streak and hit 5-6 on July 16 against the Sparks.
"One, we have to not let her get low catches," said Cash when asked about their approach to stopping the Sky's inside-outside game. "Two, it's like pick your poison -- do you let her dominate inside or do you give her opportunities to kick out to shooters? So we'll try to find a happy medium and I think that's where the game will be won."
When the Sky can get Fowles touches and spread the court with hot three point shooting, that opens up lanes for guards like Dominique Canty, Jia Perkins, rookie Epiphanny Prince to get to the rim and -- particularly for Canty and Prince -- get to the free throw line. With a spread court and a set of athletic guards attacking the basket, the Sky can become as hard to defend on the perimeter as they are on the interior.
"They're really good athletes and they know how to put the ball in the basket," said Storm guard Tanisha Wright when asked about defending the Sky's guards. "So they're good -- we can't just stay so focused on one thing that we don't worry about the rest of the players that's out there. So it will be a whole team effort in order to get them stopped."
So although the individual matchup between Fowles and Jackson is certainly pivotal, the Storm's perimeter players will have a significant responsibility to shut down this chain reaction that has hurt them and multiple other Sky opponents.
"It seems to be their game," said Wright. "Talk about inside-out, it's really what they force. Put the ball inside, once it goes inside if people come, put it back outside. Then they knock down shots. So it's just gonna be us having to be active and be aggressive, trying to get our hands on it a little bit. Trying to get deflections to slow them down whenever they do that kind of action."
In addition to the perimeter players pressuring the Sky's guards and playing passing lanes, stifling Fowles demands the Storm keeping the Sky off-balance. That will likely include a mix of showing help and individual defense in order to keep Fowles as uncomfortable as possible while setting up on the low block.
"You wanna keep the defense switching so sometimes maybe we'll do a trap, maybe we won't," said Cash. "But it'll give her different looks and make her have to make a decision. And I think that's the one thing you want to do with a player that's so dominant inside is to keep question marks in her head. Because that split second that they have a question mark gives you the opportunity to recover."
None of this is to diminish the very central role Fowles plays on the team -- as Agler and the players told media yesterday, the Sky attack will still likely revolve around her. Yet while it might be true that the Fowles-Jackson matchup could take on a central role in this game, the Storm's success will ultimately come down to their ability to shut down this chain reaction of inside-outside play with both their interior and perimeter defense.