Sky players pinching themselves on eve of WNBA Finals
Admit it, Chicago Sky fans.
It took a while to process what happened in Indianapolis when the Sky pulled out a 75-62 victory over Indiana in the deciding Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
I blinked my eyes hard a few times as I stared at the TV. Just to make sure I wasn't imagining it, I listened intently as the announcers repeated: "The Chicago Sky is going to the WNBA Finals."
The wonderfully improbable best-of-five Finals begin Sunday (2:30 p.m., ABC) against the Western Conference champion Phoenix Mercury, which had the best record this season. Games 1 and 2 are in Phoenix while Games 3 and 4 next week are in Chicago at the UIC Pavilion (more on that later).
If you've followed this franchise from the beginning, the idea of the Sky being on the brink of a championship is exciting, but also a bit surreal. (Maybe more than a bit, quite honestly.) There have been so many bumps -- make that Chicago-sized potholes -- along the way for this once-floundering expansion team.
All-star Sylvia Fowles' perspective is similar to mine and most veteran Sky fans. She's been here longer than anyone on the roster, having spent all seven of her WNBA seasons with the Sky.
"I had to wake up (on Thursday morning) and re-pinch myself and make sure everything was real," Fowles said. "I've been through a lot with this organization."
Two years ago, the Sky was the only WNBA franchise to have never made the playoffs. And that was seven years into its existence. Last season, the Sky shed that dubious distinction, but its first playoff run was short-lived as the Indiana Fever swept the overwhelmed Sky 2-0 in the semifinals.
Until recently, there had been a disturbing lack of continuity in the Sky locker room. Bad trades (think Candice Dupree, who was a star for the Sky and is now a bigger star for the Mercury, as well as Kristi Toliver, Jia Perkins and Monique Currie) continued to set the franchise back.
And injuries … don't get me started. The Sky has had more than its share of season-changing injuries over the years. This season is no exception, and might be the worst. It may be a minor miracle the Sky is in the Finals, given all the games that key players missed this summer.
The five starters missed 30 percent of the season, with leading scorer Elena Delle Donne (Lyme disease) and point guard Courtney Vandersloot (knee) playing in barely half of the team's 40 games.
To watch this team come together over the last few weeks and push that adversity aside has been such a treat.
"I was thinking earlier today that at one point we were in last place in the (Eastern) conference," Vandersloot said. "There weren't many people who thought that we would even be in the playoffs, let alone sitting here as the Eastern Conference finalist. But we all did, and that's all that mattered. I think that says a lot about our team."
The Sky barely squeaked into the playoffs with a 15-19 regular season record. Now the Sky is the first team in WNBA history to reach the Finals with a losing record.
While Sky forward Elena Delle Donne and Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi will likely be the headline grabbers in this series, the spot to watch closely in these Finals is the paint. That's where the much-anticipated matchup between 6-foot-6 Sky center Sylvia Fowles and 6-foot-8 Phoenix center Brittney Griner will be showcased.
Both are shot-blocking and rebounding machines, and both are nearly unstoppable scorers in the paint when they get good position and seal their defenders.
Fowles is considered one of the best centers in the world and Griner is right there too, minus about seven years.
"I think you give the experience factor to Sylvia in terms of the adversity that she's had as an individual player, and with this team," Sky coach Pokey Chatman said of Fowles, who missed the first 14 games of the season to recover from offseason hip surgery. "But Brittney's probably, outside of (Tulsa point guard) Skylar Diggins, had the biggest meteoric rise in her second year. So we have to neutralize that."
Tale of the tape:
Phoenix (29-5) swept the Sky this season. The Mercury won 87-69 at home July 2 and 72-66 on July 11 in Chicago.
Neither game is a good reflection of what's ahead for the WNBA Finals. While Phoenix was at full strength (and has been all season), the Sky was missing two starters, Delle Donne and Vandersloot, for both games.
Back for the Finals:
It's has been a challenging season for Delle Donne, who has joyfully helped the Sky reach the Finals while dealing with one personal setback after another.
She missed 17 games this summer to deal with a relentless flare-up of her Lyme disease. Now the Sky's leading scorer (17.3 ppg in the playoffs) is dealing with back troubles that became so painful she played only 3 minutes in the second half of the Eastern Conference Finals clincher in Indianapolis on Wednesday.
"It's felt better," Delle Donne said on Thursday when asked about her back. "I've been going to appointments. I still have a bunch more to go to (in order) to try to figure it out and just do something to relieve the pain in order for me to be out there and play, and be able to move a little bit."
Delle Donne spent most of the second half sprawled in front of the bench with a heating pad on her lower back.
"When I wasn't able to move and use my legs properly, I knew I had to sit out and figure this thing out, and hopefully the team would come through and win, which obviously they did. Now, hopefully, some of the doctors will have some answers for me to get me going."
According to Chatman, Delle Donne's back looked good after an MRI and X-ray. Now the challenge is to cut down the inflammation.
Way to go, Garth:
The Sky won't have any home games during the WNBA Finals.
Well, not any home games at its real home.
Due to a conflict at Allstate Arena, the Sky will host Game 3 (Sept. 12) and Game 4 (Sept. 14, if necessary) at UIC Pavilion, its home from 2006-09.
Country music legend Garth Brooks is starting his comeback tour in Rosemont at Allstate Arena, making it unavailable on the days when Sky will host Phoenix in the Finals. The Garth Brooks concert was booked months ago.
"We'll have our own court (playing surface), so that always helps," Chatman said of the venue change. "I think it's a more intimate crowd. I remember when we played in Atlanta during the regular season and they played a few of their games at Georgia Tech and I can remember it felt like the crowd was on top of you. I enjoyed that.
"But at this point, you know, we're in the Finals. The basket's 10 feet. The court's 94 by 50, so we'll make the most of it."
• Patricia Babcock McGraw has covered the Sky since its inaugural season in 2006. She is also a sideline reporter for Sky television broadcasts. You may reach her at email@example.com. Follow Patricia on Twitter @babcockmcgraw.