It's been a long, winding and often bumpy road for Sylvia Fowles in Chicago.
The Sky center has spent much of her seven-year WNBA career here in frustration as the once-expansion Sky struggled to build any kind of winning momentum.
"There were a lot of times when I would question myself," she said. "What am I doing? Am I in the right place? There were a lot of hard times."
Then, over the last two summers, Fowles hit two long overdue milestones.
In 2013, Fowles helped the Sky, in its eighth year of existence, earn its first playoff berth. But that high was short-lived as the Sky got swept by its nemesis -- Indiana.
On Tuesday, Fowles and the Sky took the next step by winning the franchise's first playoff series. The Sky made a dramatic and improbable comeback in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Atlanta. Down 17 points on the road early in the fourth quarter, the Sky somehow squeezed out an 81-80 victory.
Elena Delle Donne (34 points) hit a game-winning jumper with 8.4 seconds left and Fowles played suffocating defense on Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry in the final seconds. McCoughtry got off a shot, but it bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
Now, the Sky is 2 wins from the WNBA Finals. The Eastern Conference finals open tonight in Indianapolis (6 p.m., NBA) with a playoff rematch against the Fever.
"It definitely makes it all worth it, the hurt, the bruises, the not winning, the bad seasons," Fowles said of winning the series. "It was so crazy in the locker room after that game. And for me, there was definitely a sense of relief."
Fowles swears, however, there was no a sign of panic or defeat on the bench in Atlanta. For a team that has survived a plethora of injuries, a late deficit hardly seemed worse than anything it had already experienced.
"Even though we were down, everyone was positive, everyone was talking. In the past, we might have had everybody shutting down, doing their own thing. But everyone just came together," Fowles said. "This crazy season has brought out a lot of character and made us tougher."
Delle Donne's fierce determination also was evident. She scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, completely taking over at times. Not bad for someone who weeks ago was spending five hours a day in her doctor's office to treat her flare-up of Lyme disease.
Delle Donne missed 17 games this season, and until recently her minutes were reduced and strictly regulated.
"I wanted the ball, and I was thrilled when (head coach Pokey Chatman) was drawing up the final play for me," she said. "Just to be able to play my best and to feel well while I was doing it was really nice.
"It was pretty nuts after the game. Everyone was so happy. I think we'll be able to take that as confidence into the next round."
And, ideally, the next round after that. Delle Donne has made it her mission to help Fowles get to the Finals.
"The WNBA Finals is your dream," Delle Donne said. "If we get there, it's going to be incredible.
"Just getting to the playoffs last year after all those years was so huge for her. I think she's one of the best centers in the world. I would love to help her get there."
Breaking the Fever:
According to head coach Pokey Chatman, the Sky needs to focus on three key area to defeat Indiana.
"We have to swarm (former Stevenson star) Tamika Catchings. We have to contain her. She does so much for them," Chatman said of the Fever's veteran. "We've also got to keep Indiana off the glass, and we've got to contain dribble penetration."
Known for its lockdown defense, the Fever also causes trouble with its double-teams in the post. The Sky will have to anticipate that and be careful when passing out of them to find the open player.
Game 2 of the 3-game Eastern Conference finals shifts to Allstate Arena. Tipoff is at 3 p.m. Monday (NBA TV). Game 3, if necessary, would be in Indianapolis on Wednesday (6 p.m., NBA TV).
• Patricia Babcock McGraw has covered the Sky since its inaugural season in 2006. She also is a sideline reporter for Sky TV broadcasts. Follow her on Twitter@babcockmcgraw.