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updated: 8/21/2014 10:11 PM

Sky could be dangerous in playoffs

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  • Sylvia Fowles (34), Elena Delle Donne (11) and Epiphanny Prince missed a combined 37 games for the Sky this season. With all three healthy, it's possible coach Pokey Chatman's squad could upend top-seeded Atlanta in the WNBA playoffs.

      Sylvia Fowles (34), Elena Delle Donne (11) and Epiphanny Prince missed a combined 37 games for the Sky this season. With all three healthy, it's possible coach Pokey Chatman's squad could upend top-seeded Atlanta in the WNBA playoffs.
    Associated Press

 
 

After years of being the only franchise in the league without postseason credentials, the last two seasons have yielded the same exciting result for the Chicago Sky: a berth in the WNBA playoffs.

It's funny, though, how differently those playoff berths were achieved.

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Last year, the Sky won the Eastern Conference regular-season title with a franchise-record 24 wins and was the No. 1 seed.

This year, the Sky, which begins the postseason tonight in Atlanta (6:30 p.m., NBATV), is below .500 (15-19) and squeaks in as the fourth and final seed in the East.

Now all the Sky needs is for its playoff luck to be similarly inverted.

The Sky got bounced out of the first round last year by fourth-seeded Indiana, 2-0.

"Last year, it felt like everything was going great and then we finally hit adversity in the playoffs and just obviously didn't pull through there," Sky forward and leading scorer Elena Delle Donne said. "Hopefully, now it's kind of been an opposite season for us, tons of adversity, and we're hoping that will get us going through the playoffs."

Nothing should faze the Sky, which has been faced with one challenge after another this summer. Amazingly, every starter missed at least two games, and three of them missed nearly half the season.

Delle Donne was out for 17 games to deal with a flare-up of her Lyme disease while point guard Courtney Vandersloot missed 16 games with a knee injury.

All-star center Sylvia Fowles had to sit the first 13 games of the season while recovering from off-season hip surgery and all-star guard Epiphanny Prince missed the first seven games due to personal reasons.

"I told the team that through all the adversity, we're still starting the championship season and everyone is 0-0," Sky coach Pokey Chatman said. "What that means about the storms that were weathered and the growth of this team is that at a time when we need it most, they'll all be playing together. And that should infuse some excitement and enthusiasm for this unit."

Sky is wild: After all the moving parts to the Sky this season, its rotation will look substantially different in the playoffs, now that everyone is healthy.

The starters who were meant to be starters should finally get plenty of time to play together.

Delle Donne will likely get more time, and might even be back in the starting lineup. Vandersloot could be, too.

Coaches in the WNBA are obviously familiar with all of the Sky's usual starters. But they haven't had to prepare for all of them at once this season.

And that makes the Sky somewhat of a playoff wildcard.

"For sure," said Atlanta coach Michael Cooper, when asked if game-planning for an evolving team like the Sky is tough. "But you know, we're not looking to stop all their players, we're just looking to stop one or two of them."

Sizing up the series: The Sky won its regular-season series against Atlanta, 3-2. And one of its loses was nearly a win, an 81-79 overtime defeat 81-79 in Atlanta.

After the Sky lost its regular-season finale to San Antonio on Sunday by sitting most of its starters, some wondered if that was by design so that the Sky could fall to the fourth seed and draw a more favorable matchup.

"I'm a firm believer you never lose games on purpose," Cooper said. "Basketball is about winning, and sometimes you get what you ask for, and they feel we're a good matchup for them."

The Sky had its most success against Atlanta when Sylvia Fowles was super aggressive in the post. Atlanta big girls Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle seem to bring out the best in her.

Fowles averaged a double-double (14 ppg, 13.7 rpg) against Atlanta this season.

"Sylvia is always a big issue we have to deal with," Cooper said. "I think the key is going to be keeping Sylvia off those boards and not let her control the game from underneath the paint."

Meanwhile, Sky reserve guard Allie Quigley was also money against the Dream this season. With the Sky needing to fill holes on the perimeter due to injury, the former DePaul star stepped up. She averaged 16.2 points per game against the Dream and even had a career-high 27 points in a game in Atlanta.

Big games from Fowles and Quigley will again be key for the Sky. But perhaps most importantly, the Sky must take care of the basketball against Atlanta.

The Dream is quick on defense and leads the WNBA in steals (9.62 spg). Individually, all-star forward Angel McCoughtry and Lyttle rank first and second in the league in steals at 2.39 and 2.21 steals respectively.

Nightmare finish: Atlanta seems ripe for the picking.

The Dream certainly didn't finish the regular season playing its best basketball.

After winning 12 of 14 games between mid-June and mid-July, Atlanta lost 10 of its final 14 games.

Cooper says that the Dream got away from playing tough team defense when he took a short medical leave from the team to seek treatment for tongue cancer.

"We were playing team defense, and I think that's going to be important in anything that you want to do as far as being successful in basketball to win a championship," Cooper said. "With our good team defense, that was allowing us to get out in transition and really do the things that we do well, and that's running. Once I had my illness, I think we kind of lost that a little bit."

Best in the West: Depending on your vantage point, the Eastern Conference of the WNBA was either extremely balanced or incredible weak this season.

Only one team, the first-place Atlanta Dream, finished with a winning record. The Dream was 19-15 while Indiana and Washington, tied for second place, were 16-18.

That's why most followers of the WNBA believe that the league champion will again come from the West, most likely Phoenix or defending champion Minnesota, 29-5 and 25-9 respectively.

Both teams were dominant and fun to watch but Phoenix was at an even higher level for most of the season.

Phoenix won its season series with Minnesota, 3-1. And along the way the Mercury, led by veteran guard Diana Taurasi, set a league record for wins.

"During training camp there were moments where you would look around the locker room and we could sense that if we put things together, if we headed the right direction, it could be a special season," Taurasi said. "But to predict that we would have won 29 games, I don't think anyone in this locker room or the coaching staff would have put any money on that. It's been a wonderful year so far.

"I think we've got to commend our coaches. They've really done a great job of keeping us ready for every single game, and I think that's paid off for us in the long run."

Chicago-bound: Game 2 of the Atlanta-Chicago series will be played at Allstate Arena on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. on ESPN2.

Patricia Babcock McGraw has covered the Chicago Sky since its inception. She is also a sideline reporter for Sky TV broadcasts. You may reach her at pbabcock@dailyherald.com. Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw.

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