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A Winning Return For Sylvia Fowles Depends on Efficient Guard Play

It’s safe to assume that the Chicago Sky will be a better team when Sylvia Fowles returns to the lineup tomorrow night.

Fowles was one of my favorite rookies this year even though she hasn’t played many games. There is a really strong opportunity for her to redefine post play in the WNBA with her strength and athleticism in the post.

I’m also excited not only because I think the Sky have unlimited potential with Fowles, but also because I think Fowles return is a victory for WNBA parity. From Mike Thibault after the Sky’s last game against the Sun:
"There are no 'gimme' games anymore in this league. None. When (center Sylvia) Fowles comes back (from a knee injury), Chicago is going to be a lot better.''
The league’s parity and Fowles’ return also means that Chicago still has an outside chance at making the playoffs, if they come together quickly. That puts a lot of pressure on them to win tonight’s home game against the Indiana Fever, which is ranked fourth in the east and four games ahead of the Sky. With only 12 games left in the Sky’s season, they cannot afford to fall five games behind, especially since Indiana has already won the season series.

But beating Indiana is no easy task for the Sky.

Fowles should make this team better because she fills one of the Sky’s biggest needs: offensive rebounding. And her defensive presence should give this average defense a boost. On offense, her post presence is the perfect complement for Candice Dupree’s versatile game.

Unfortunately, there’s one thing Fowles cannot do – dribble the ball up the court and initiate the offense. A post-player's effectiveness depends upon good guard play. And that’s where the Sky’s biggest question mark is right now with Dominique Canty out due to injury. If the Sky want to beat the Fever – arguably the best defense in the league – Jia Perkins and K.B. Sharp will need to have the type of game they had on Friday against the Sun: 0 turnovers.

Ball security is key

Fortunately, we have a nice way of understanding the Sky’s performance lately because they just played the Sun twice in three days and split the pair of games. In comparing the stats from the two games (I didn’t actually see Sunday’s game), one statistic jumps out at me: turnovers: their turnover percentage doubled in Sunday’s loss (20%).

In Friday’s home win over the Sun, the Sky had 7 turnovers as a team and neither Perkins nor Sharp committed a turnover. In Sunday’s loss they had 5 turnovers between the two of them. Considering that their other team dynamics numbers were relatively similar, it’s safe to assume that their turnovers were a critical problem.

According to Matt Stout at the Connecticut Sun blog, pressure defense and forcing turnovers was a focal point of the Sun’s game plan on Sunday.
But, in what differed greatly from previous weeks, the Sun finished strong, thanks in large part to Amber Holt, they rebounded well and played pressure defense the entire game. Right from the start, Thibault was urging his players to get up in the faces of their opponents. It produced a a good amount of turnovers (16), something the Sun have struggled to do this season, but more importantly, it set a tone for the entire game.
Since the Sun are not a particularly strong defensive team, this does not bode well for the Sky’s chances against the Fever.

The Fever play outstanding pressure defense and have three players in the top 10 in steals per game (though Tully Bevilaqua -- #6 in the league -- has left for the Olympics). This could pose a major problem for the Sky and the burden is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of Perkins and Sharp.

This is one of those games when you don’t necessarily want your guards to win the game, you just don’t want them to lose it by taking too many risks. There’s not much to do strategy-wise except get the ball moving up the court as quickly as possible and hope the guards are able to make quick and efficient decisions with the ball.

Coaching will determine the outcome

With the Sky playing with inexperienced point guards due to Canty’s injury and Bevilaqua absent due to the Olympics, the outcome of this game will be heavily determined by coaching strategy, not talent. Despite Fowles’ return, the pressure is still on Coach Steve Key to prove his worth.

One strategy is to run with three ball handlers at times, maybe bringing in Quianna Chaney along with Perkins and Sharp to distribute some of the pressure across multiple players.

Another strategy would be to create offense from defense. The Fever’s offense has struggled this season and without Bevilaqua at point guard, they’ll be trying to run a point guard by committee strategy. So the Sky could mask their own weakness at point guard by exploiting the Fever’s biggest weakness. In fact, this is the perfect situation to use every single aggressive defensive scheme there is.

If the Sky trap whenever Latoya Bond crosses half court in the first half and then come out with a full court press in the second half, they could really keep the Fever off balance and build a big lead going into the fourth quarter. With Perkins currently ranking 6th in the league in steals, they might be able to create turnovers with such an aggressive defensive strategy.

Of course, this is predicated on the conditioning of their players – if Key doesn’t feel like they have the depth and stamina to keep up a game plan like that, then there’s no point running it. But in ideal circumstances, I think their best chance of winning is to exploit the Fever’s biggest weakness and putting pressure on the offensively challenged Fever to step up their game.

It’s hard to predict a game like this with so many unknown variables (e.g. how the coaches adjust to personnel changes), but it’s a very winnable game for the Sky and a dangerous one for the Fever. Although common sense might dictate that the Sky should be a half-court team to maximize Fowles’ talent, getting the Fever in an up tempo game in which the pressure is one their ball handlers would seem like the winning strategy.

The marquee matchup of the night will be the Shock vs. Sparks game on ESPN 2, but this one will worth watching in the webcast archives from a strategy perspective. I look forward to watching -- it's a great opportunity for the Sky to build up some energy for a potential playoff run.

Transition Points:

From Fowles’ blog:
Today I had a chance to run with my teammates and I felt great just to be going through drills with the team. I am so ready to get back and I am even more ready to start playing so that I can give my team that extra lift over this hump we're goin through. I have been blessed with great talent and it is just a matter of time when you guys will see Sylvia back in action!!!
The Bill Laimbeer/Michael Cooper, Detroit/L.A. story just doesn’t get old to me. The Detroit News has a nice story about them.

Relevant Links:

Fowles expected back