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Semifinal Preview: (2) Los Angeles Sparks vs. (4) Chicago Sky

Thanks to the new playoff format, we have a team from the West and a team from the East set to clash for the right to play in the WNBA Finals as the No. 2 seed Los Angeles Sparks and No. 4 seed Chicago Sky meet in the semifinals, with the series tipping off in L.A. on Wednesday.

Series Schedule

Game Date Location Time Broadcast
1 Wednesday, Sept. 28 Chicago at Los Angeles 10 PM ET ESPN2
2 Friday, Sept. 30 Chicago at Los Angeles 10 PM ET ESPNews
3 Sunday, Oct. 2 Los Angeles at Chicago 3 PM ET ESPN
4* Tuesday, Oct. 4 Los Angeles at Chicago TBD ESPN2
5* Thursday, Oct. 6 Chicago at Los Angeles TBD ESPN2
*if necessary

 

How They Got Here

By the time this series opens on Sept. 28, it will have been 12 days since the Sparks took the floor as they closed out their regular season with a win over San Antonio on Sept. 16. By then, they had already clinched the No. 2 seed and the double-bye that came along with it in the new playoff format.

The Sky, on the other hand, earned only a first-round bye and had to face a single-elimination round in order to reach the semifinals. They squared off with Angel McCoughtry and the Atlanta Dream and led wire-to-wire for a 108-98 victory with reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne on the sidelines following thumb surgery just two weeks ago.

“Everybody has written us off and I don’t think anybody believed that we were going to be able win games without her except us,” said Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot after their second-round win. “And that’s the biggest factor is we believe that we can do it, we all know that we had to step up. We have enough on this team to get it done and I think it showed tonight.”

If there was any wonder how Chicago would respond without Delle Donne in the lineup, that was answered quickly as the Sky raced out to a playoff-record 37 points in the opening quarter. Without Delle Donne, the league’s second-leading scorer at 21.5 points per game, the Sky needed someone to step up in her place. Instead just about everybody stepped up at once with Vandersloot (21 points, 13 assists) and Jessica Breland (20 points) going for playoff career highs to go with 16 points apiece from Tamera Young and Cappie Pondexter.

The Sky’s offense was fluid as they shared the ball and got contributions up and down the roster. In the end, they racked up 26 assists, shot 55 percent from the field and tied the record for the most points scored in a regulation playoff game with 108.

Setting The Stage

The Sky are now 4-2 since Delle Donne went out with the injury, but will face their toughest test against a Sparks team that went 26-8 during the regular season, and is led by MVP favorite Nneka Ogwumike and former two-time MVP Candace Parker.

“We played them really early and they had it going on, they had a rhythm going,” said Vandersloot. “Obviously, we need people to step up. We need to be able to stop them and get some stops, especially with Ogwumike and Parker, that dynamic duo right there, but we have some people that have really stepped up for our post play. We’re a different team than we were the first time we saw them so we’re ready.”

Regular Season Series

The Sparks swept the season series from the Sky with an average margin of victory of 12 points, as all three wins come by double figures. Two of the three wins came in Chicago, where Games 3 and 4 (if necessary) will be played in this five-game series.

It should be noted that all three of these games came during the Sparks’ record-setting start to the regular season. L.A. got out to a 20-1 record and entered the Olympic break with a league-best 21-3 record.

Stats Spotlight: Before and After the Break

After winning 87.5 percent of their games before the break, the Sparks were just .500 after the season resumed, going just 5-5 in their last 10 games. Meanwhile, the Sky went 7-3 over their final 10 games of the season, and even with five of those coming without Delle Donne, Chicago led the league in scoring at 90.1 points per game.

Sparks W-L PTS FG% 3P% AST REB STL BLK TOV Opp PTS +/-
Pre 21-3 85.9* 49.6* 39.3* 21.3* 31.3 8.3 3.9 13.6 75.8* +10.1*
Post 5-5 75.9 46.3 33.3 18.0 31.8 7.4 3.6 13.6 76.1* -0.2

 

Sky W-L PTS FG% 3P% AST REB STL BLK TOV Opp PTS +/-
Pre 11-13 84.5 46.1 38.7** 18.0 35.4 7.3 4.8 12.7* 84.5 0.0
Post 7-3 90.1* 46.4** 31.7 18.8** 36.3* 8.2** 5.9* 10.7* 88.0 +2.1
*top mark in the league
** second best mark in the league

 

The Sparks’ offense was on another level prior to the Olympic break as they led the league in points scored, overall field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and assists. However, after the break, their numbers tumbled precipitously as they scored 10 fewer points per game, shot the ball at much lower percentages, and the efficient ball movement that led to quality shots and assists was not quite the same.

On the flip side, the Sky increased their scoring output by nearly six points per game, while their overall field goal percentage stayed the same, and their 3-point percentage took a big dip. But the Sky were the team least reliant on the 3-point shot for their success.

They dominated the 2-point shot all season long and, after the break, they did a much better job of getting to the free throw line to score uncontested points. After averaging a league-low 17.4 free throw attempts before the break, the Sky took an average of 22.0 free throws over their final 10 games and their 18.4 free throws made per game ranked third in the league.

The Sky also upped their pace to a league-high 80.4 possessions per 40 minutes, and did so while keeping their turnovers at a league-low 10.7 per game. That combination of fast pace and ball security led to a league-high 73.7 field goal attempts and 34.2 buckets a night.

Sky Shooting Stats

Shot Type Pre-Break Post-Break
FGM 32.9 (1) 34.2 (1)
FGA 71.3 (2) 73.7 (1)
FTM 14.1 (11) 18.4 (3)
FTA 17.4 (12) 22.0 (6)
3PM 4.4 (9) 3.3 (12)
3PA 11.3 (12) 10.4 (11)

 

Matchups To Watch

Breland and Boyette vs. Ogwumike and Parker

The Sky frontline has a daunting task ahead of them in slowing down Nneka Ogwumike, who ranked third in both scoring (19.7) and rebounding (9.1) while leading the league in field goal percentage (66.5%), and Candace Parker, who ranked in the top 10 in scoring (15.3), rebounding (7.4), assists (4.9), and steals (1.38).

Jessica Breland and Imani Boyette are coming off strong performances against Atlanta, with Breland notching a double-double (20 points, 16 rebounds), and Boyette patrolling the paint to block six shots to go with eight points and 11 boards. Considering that neither of them averaged more than 6.7 points or 5.6 rebounds throughout the regular season, asking them to outplay the Sparks dynamic duo is not realistic. However, they must limit Ogwumike and Parker’s efficiency and make it difficult for them to get their numbers.

Cappie Pondexter vs. Alana Beard

The Sky were able to beat the Dream thanks to a balanced attack (seven players scored at least eight points) and a pair of career-best playoff performances from Vandersloot and Breland. Veteran guard Cappie Pondexter finished with 16 points, but shot just 6-of-15 from the floor and 0-of 2 from three. With Delle Donne still sidelined, the Sky will need even more from the two-time champion and 2007 Finals MVP as the competition level continues to rise.

Alana Beard will likely get the task of checking Pondexter throughout this series. A six-time WNBA All-Defensive Team selection, Beard finished the season ranked second in steals (1.7 per game) and posted a defensive rating of 95.1, the sixth-best mark for a player that played at least 20 minutes per game. Teams scored just 95.1 points per 100 possessions against the Sparks while Beard was on the floor, which is 2.2 points fewer than the Sparks’ overall defensive mark.