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How Chicago Set the Tone For a Playoff Run With a Win in NYC

If the Chicago Sky are trying to make the playoffs, last night’s victory against New York in Madison Square Garden was a damn good start.

I mentioned yesterday that this game between my two of my favorite teams would help me finally pick a favorite. And being a fan is fundamentally based on emotion, then I have to say my heart was with Chicago from the jump ball.

It’s not just Sylvia Fowles, but Jia Perkins, Candice Dupree and even KB Sharp off the bench that I like about this team. And last night, having the extra scoring punch that Canty provided made a huge difference in the game. Then of course you have Armintie Price providing entertainment off the court that makes her easy to root for.

Having said all that, I didn’t expect the Sky to win this game, though I think I secretly hoped they would. I actually agonized over yesterday’s post in which I picked the Liberty to win. But ultimately, it looks like my reasoning was partially correct although my conclusion was wrong – turnover percentage was certainly the key, but the Liberty were not able to force a high percentage of turnovers past the fourth quarter. I also thought Perkins would have to come up huge to win and it turns out she had a huge game.

But what does this tell us about the Sky’s chances at the playoffs? What might hold them back? I think this impressive road win tells us a lot about what we can expect.

Jia Perkins is playing outstanding basketball

Perkins was one of the five players I was most excited to watch and last night she showed why.

In previewing the game (not realizing the Sky would have Canty back), I thought that the point guard match-up of Perkins vs. Loree Moore and Leilani Mitchell would be a huge match-up. As it turns out, those three players probably did end up being the difference in the game although Perkins spent more time playing the off guard than the point guard.

But what makes Perkins so effective is her decisiveness. When she gets the ball she doesn’t just waste dribbles hoping to create something that isn’t there. Instead she does an excellent job of evaluating her options quickly and making a decision that’s best for the team whether that be to dribble, pass, or score.

A perfect example of that is a play at the beginning of the fourth quarter when Perkins got the ball around the free throw line off a drive from Armintie Price, took a dribble toward the center of the court, initiated contact with Erin Thorn, and hit a fading jumper.

That’s the kind of play great players make – executing the offense, recognizing an opportunity to make a play, and capitalizing on the opportunity with a score for themselves or another player. But fundamentally it’s about having a good sense of one’s own abilities, recognizing what the defense is you, and being able to force the defense to shift position.

Right now, Perkins is having an all-star caliber season and playing her way into the top tier of players in the league.

Imagine if the Sky actually ran plays for Fowles…

Looking at the box score, you could say that Fowles played a good game considering that she’s a rookie who just returned from the Olympics earlier this week. But watching the game, you can’t help but wonder if there’s more that she could be doing for the Sky. And the possibility of her having a break out game during the Sky's playoff run is why I also consider her one of the five most intriguing players to watch right now.

It’s clear that they weren’t running plays for her and that’s been pretty consistent with what they’ve done all year. But there were times when they did an extremely good job of getting her in scoring position that I wonder if they could replicate more often.

In the first half Fowles looked frustrated. She spent a lot of time in the high post, either setting screens or being in position to pass the ball. When the Sky tried to get Fowles the ball in the post, but the Liberty immediately collapsed on her. She ended up scoreless with three turnovers in the first half by my count (although the official count only credited her with two turnovers).

And when Fowles didn’t turn the ball over, she was either missing shots or forced to make a difficult pass. As McCarville said, the key to stopping her in the first half was forcing her to make decisions with the ball rather than allowing her to use her scoring instincts.

But in the second half, things changed for the Sky – rather than just looking to find Fowles by posting her up, they got creative: they found her in transition, cutting to the basket, and even on an alley oop play from Perkins to start the half. What that did is help her avoid the double teams while still having an impact on the games.

By moving Fowles around and allowing her to use her superior athleticism to complement the outstanding perimeter play of Perkins, the Sky took the Liberty out of their defensive scheme and the double teams on Fowles eventually stopped.

I wonder how a high-low offense with Dupree in the high post and Fowles down low would work for the Sky. Dupree’s game is much better suited for the high post and pairing her with Fowles in the post would take some of the pressure off. Right now they play Dupree off the wing a lot but that doesn’t allow her to play off of Fowles as well. There are plenty of very simple double post offenses that they can run even if Fowles hasn’t had the practice time they wish she had.

Armintie Price and Dominique Canty provide a nice boost of energy

The x-factor for the Sky all season has been their ability to penetrate on offense. They seemed to do a much better job of that when Perkins was running the team with Canty out.

Last night, I thought Price and Canty did a good job of shouldering some of the burden to drive and distribute to others. Although both players have the tendency to make bad decisions off the dribble at times, last night they did an excellent job of penetrating and setting up scoring opportunities for others. Ultimately, it helped make their offense more fluid. Price had a game-high five assists and Canty didn’t record a turnover all game.

If they want to continue winning, putting pressure on the defense through penetration to the basket and good decision making from Canty and Price will help them immensely.

They still play New York two more times…

Ultimately what I like about Chicago is that their roster is full of potential and possibilities.

They can play a power game in the half court with players like Fowles and Chastity Melvin. They can play an uptempo game with Perkins and Price in the open court and Fowles running the floor as a trailer. Or they can play a half court offense with Canty, Perkins, and Price driving to the basket and creating that way.

The key is that they need to find their identity. Right now it seems like Coach Steven Key is concerned about Fowles not having the practice time to learn the offense, but it seems like if they just continue playing to her strengths they’ll be better off.

But most interesting in terms of Chicago’s playoff run is that they have two more games against New York before the end of the season. That means that tonight’s performance bodes well for their playoff chances. We can’t expect them to sweep a team as gritty as New York, but if they can take two of three using the strategy of attacking the basket and creatively finding Fowles for high percentage baskets, they will be in good position for the playoffs.

Transition Points

Team defense was solid
: the Sky might not be known for their defense, but they played excellent team defense against the Liberty. In the first half that showed up just by shutting down most of New York’s penetration. In the fourth quarter, it showed up in the form of forcing turnovers – 4 of New York’s 7 fourth quarter turnovers were due to Chicago steals.

New York’s ball movement fell apart: New York had trouble with their synergy all game. A lot of their offense is based on spacing and ball movement to get the open shot. Rather than penetrating into the key, they make smart cuts and score off good passes. Throughout the game, they pressured the Liberty ball handlers and helped off of shooters, essentially daring the Liberty to beat them from the perimeter, which doesn’t seem like the best strategy considering the Liberty are the top 3 point shooting team in the league. But it worked…

Chicago stifled New York’s ball movement for most of the game, but they really put the clamps on in the 4th quarter – New York shot 25% from the field and had a synergy score of 37.5 in the 4th. So it should come as no surprise that they were outscored 20-8 and squandered the 3 point lead they had at the beginning of the quarter.

Chicago vs. Washington has huge playoff implications: Chicago’s next game against Washington tonight will be a big one if the Sky intend to make the playoffs. They’ll have to leap frog Washington to even have a shot so beating the Mystics head to head would go a long way to achieving that goal. Too bad we can’t see that one…

Related Links:

Liberty Lack Execution Against Sky
http://www.spmsportspage.com/published/spmarticles/liberty-lack-execution-ag.shtml