Rosemont, IL — Strolling into their home arena Sunday afternoon, the minds of every Chicago Sky player buzzed with one nerve-wracking, but adrenaline boosting thought: With Angel McCoughtry coming off a transcendent performance, and the return of Tiffany Hayes from suspension, would they carry the Dream above the “Skies” into the semifinals?
If that wasn’t enough, most “prediction” sites putt Chicago 2 ½ points behind Atlanta, which carried an underlying message: that the Chicago Sky could not possibly hope to come away with a win without Elena Delle Donne.
Plus, with the Dream’s efficiency — and propencity — in driving to the hoop regardless of defensive difficulty, get bonus points from the line — they reap an average of 25% of their points off of free throws, another scoring advantage was given to Atlanta to win.
The Sky’s best hope going in, was to play smart, but utilize aggressive defense, to shut down McCoughtry, and most of all, prove the critics wrong — all the while activating their annihilating offensive prowess, despite the absence of their own hoop angel, Delle Donne.
The first step in accomplishing that feat meant disabling McCoughtry’s magic touch. In the first half, they struggled to stop her detonation, as McCoughtry’s firepower was on full blast — she walked off the floor at halftime with 21 points, and it looked like she was on her way to reenacting her epic play from Wednesday night.
Head Coach Pokey Chatman said the Sky knew the force they were dealing with.
“Every coach in the history of basketball, who’s played against her wants to [stop her]. So, we have these great (defensive) plans, but when players can go out and execute, then that’s the next level, becoming a better team,” she said.
And execute they did.
Once the time began ticking in the third, Chicago had a new strategy to terminate Atlanta’s lethal weapon.
“We wanted to limit her touches, we had three things that we were doing, but we had Tamera (Young) be more aggressive, and we took her out of the help,” Chatman said. “We said, you don’t have to help anybody else, we’re just gonna come help you. […] It started there, and then, we just became a little bit more disciplined.”
Young and company pumped up the aggressive defense and just like that, McCoughtry became less of a threat to them.
However, the question remained, could a Delle Donne-less Sky also conquer the Dream on the boards? Did they have the innate capability to not just function, but monopolize the Allstate Arena floor without the reigning MVP?
Yes, Chicago could beat the Dream on the boards, in fact, they ended the game plus five on the boards, 41-36 and controlled the game the entire 40 minutes.
Atlanta Dream Head Coach Michael Cooper responded that playing a team lacking a leading player is actually a toxic undertaking: “Usually when a team is missing their best player […] that team is really, really dangerous. Truly in the WNBA, this is a team sport, and when one of your pieces are missing, that’s an opportunity for other players to step up, and I thought they did that well,” he said.
Lots of fans, game predictors, and WNBA fans, regardless of their level of support for Chicago’s team did not foresee a playoff game, without their Delle Donne skyscraper, ending this way.
But, as Cooper stated above, teams are very dangerous.
In the face of this adversity, one player didn’t step up — instead, they all did. Courtney Vandersloot and Jessica Breland each scored 21 and 20 points respectively, to take the team to victory. Cappie Pondexter and Young followed not far behind, adding 16 buckets a piece.
“[I’m] not surprised—I think what’s most important is that they’ve known that [they can] and part of that is, we’ve had to play without Elena,” Chatman said. “The fortunate thing, you know her missing games, so it’s not this ‘oh my god’ panic—it’s not easy, but there’s no panic in those players, and I’m never surprised…It’s fine being the underdog.”
Chatman said in Delle Donne’s place; she saw a lot of vocal leadership from both Vandersloot and Pondexter. As one of the team’s leading motivators, Pondexter affirmed — her and her teammates don’t need Delle Donne to make sparks fly.
“I think people tend to forget that basketball is a team sport — you know, it’s not necessarily about one player, you know she is our face, she is a superstar, she is a great all-around player but that’s what makes basketball special,” she replied.
“There are so many wonderful players out there and you saw that on the floor today you had Jessica Breland with a double-double you had Vandersloot with a double-double and then you had other players contribute so it was beautiful to see and it’s going to make it that much more special when she does return to play with the team.”
For now, Chatman said there is still no timetable on whether or not Delle Donne will return to play in the playoffs. She also acknowledged the challenges they might face in the semifinals against the Sparks.
“Length, candidates for MVP, players that maybe should’ve been on the Olympic team but were not on the Olympic team, veteran players, veteran coach,” she said.
But after the energy she saw on the floor today, Chatman believes her players have it in them to keep advancing.
“Going into [the semifinals], it’s nice that we have some momentum, and we’re doing some positive things,” she said, commending her players’ tenacity.
Now reigning victorious over the Dream, winning 108 to 98, Pondexter recognized Los Angeles’ strengths are big, but she still believes her squad can make sparks fly on Wednesday.
“It’s gonna be tough,” she said. “But it’s zero, zero, so the important thing is to have that mindset.”