The 2016 WNBA Semifinals have arrived with the new playoff format featuring the top teams regardless of conference affiliation. This is precisely why each team played with a sense of urgency during the regular season, because overall records make all the difference now.
The No. 4 Chicago Sky crushed the Atlanta Dream 108-98 on Sunday to advance to the semifinals even without the 2015 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne on the court, who is out with a right thumb injury -- her exact return is still up in the air. Players like Courtney Vandersloot and Jessica Breland stepped up tremendously for Chicago and despite Delle Donne’s absence, the Sky did not seem fazed at all.
But, there’s no rest for the weary, because up next is the No. 2 Los Angeles Sparks in a best-of-five playoff series. Los Angeles will hit the court with fresh legs after nearly two weeks since their last game against San Antonio.
During the regular season, the Sparks swept the series against the Sky, winning both games at the Staples Center and on the road. Those games in May, June, and July were also during the same time the Sparks had a record 20-1 start.
Before the Olympic break, the Sparks were playing some of the best basketball in the entire WNBA. However, somewhere down the stretch, Los Angeles lost its step after the break, going 5-5. Luckily, the Sparks have had time off to readjust and try to fix what went wrong.
Looking back at the last meeting in mid-July, the newly named 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike, led all scorers with 20 points on 10-of-11 from the field, while also snatching 11 rebounds. This type of explosiveness in the paint will put pressure on Chicago’s Imani Boyette, to limit Ogwumike’s touches and keep her numbers down.
As versatile as Ogwumike is, Candace Parker completes the puzzle for a true dynamic duo. Parker is scoring 15.3 points per game, snagging boards at 7.4 rebounds per game, and shares the ball well with nearly five assists per game.
Protecting the Ball
There’s one area where the Sparks have fallen short all season long — turnovers. The last 7-of-13 games were dropped mainly due to the lack of protecting the ball. In those seven losses, the Sparks averaged 14.5 turnovers per game. Head Coach Brian Agler has preached from the start the importance of limiting the miscues each game and playing smarter basketball.
On the flip side, the Sky tied their own WNBA record for the fewest turnovers per game (12.09). To make matters worse, for Los Angeles at least, Chicago ranked first in assist-to-turnover ratio. A team that can share the ball and protect it at the same time poses a threat to any opponent.
Shooting and balance
An advantage both teams have going into the matchup would be an excellent display of shooting, inside and beyond the arc.
For the second consecutive year, Chicago has led the league in scoring (86.2). Unfortunately, without Delle Donne’s 21.5 points per game, nearly every Chicago player on and off the bench will have to crank it up another level competing against Los Angeles.
Chicago Head Coach Pokey Chatman, who has done an exceptional job coaching and adjusting the past few games, already knows that keeping a well-balanced rotation throughout the series will be in the team’s best interest. Without Delle Donne, there needs to be even more production from players like Erika de Souza, Breland, and Boyette inside the paint.
It will be a tough feat to slow down the Sparks offense especially with a league leading 37 percent 3-point shooting average. Let’s not forget Los Angeles’ sharpshooter Kristi Tolliver with a clip of 42.4 percent from the 3-point line. Even the 6-foot-4 Parker is shooting 38.2 percent, making her a menace under the basket and from deep.
Defense and X-Factors
To the Sparks’ benefit, they’ve been able to hold their opponents to a mere 30 percent from beyond the arc. Nonetheless, Chicago has not had a problem making simple baskets and choosing their shots wisely.
A matchup worth focusing on will be between Cappie Pondexter and Alana Beard. Both players bring defensive intensity, but Beard is a great one-on-one defender that is ready to cause havoc to the Sky’s offense. This is where Vandersloot will have to bring the heat.
Based off regular season performances, the Sparks seem to have this series in the bag. However, like I said before, I wouldn’t count out Chicago, even without their star. The main priority the Sky should focus on heading into Game 1: creating an early lead and contain the impact players like Ogwumike and Parker.
The Sky must have a strong bench presence as well considering Los Angeles’ Jantel Lavender and Chelsea Gray both have been contributing clutch baskets in crunch time. Chicago’s Allie Quigley and Jamierra Faulkner to name a couple, must be prepared to play their best and bring that physicality like their teammate Delle Donne would.
Since her absence, the Sky have captured victories in four of the last six games proving that although her presence is greatly missed, this team can compete and pull together wins.
As for the Sparks, displaying fluid ball movement, like they are known to do from the beginning is key. Get the ball in the hands of either Parker or Ogwumike and watch the frontcourt duo work their magic.
Chicago ended the regular season with an overall record of 18-16 but as cliché, as the saying sounds, "the postseason is another animal," it couldn’t be truer. Los Angeles boasts the second-best record in the league (26-8) right behind Minnesota.
History has taught us that regular season success does not guarantee postseason victory. Chicago is making their fourth consecutive playoff appearance, and you can bet this team will not allow another series sweep. Vengeance is sweet so game on Sparks.
Los Angeles will host Chicago in Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals at 7 p.m. PT tonight at Long Beach State University. Game 2 will be held on Friday at the Staples Center with a tipoff set for 7 p.m. PT. The series then heads to Chicago, as the Sky returns to the Allstate Arena on Sunday to host the Sparks in Game 3 on Oct. 2; tip-off is set for 3 p.m. ET.