What's the weather report on the Chicago Sky in 2012?
Well, as accurately as anyone can predict Chicago's summer weather, I'd have to say: blue skies with hardly any clouds in range. Except a noticeable thundercloud to the East...the Eastern Conference, that is. And maybe a distant one in the West as well...the Western Conference, that is.
Who wears the the WNBA's Eastern Conference crown in September? And what exactly, are the Sky chances?
In six seasons, they've have never made the playoffs. But this year, they've started it off right, having won six straight and lost one early in the season. This week, they're sitting pretty atop the Eastern Conference standings at 7-1, a first for them. Right behind the Sky is the Connecticut Sun, at 6-2.
But topping both conferences with the best record in the WNBA are the World Champion Minnesota Lynx. Once the doormat of both conferences, the Lynx remained undefeated through nine games, on the strength of sophomore Maya Moore and veteran Seimone Augustus.
The Sky will have their greatest challenge one week from Saturday, playing the Lynx in Minnesota on June 23rd. I will be there. So can you. It's an instant ESPN Classic, broadcast on ESPN.
What's made such a difference in the Sky's season?
After a home-opener loss to the Tamika Catchings-led Indiana Fever, the Sky have reminded me of the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls on the way to the Eastern Conference championships in 2011. Decisive, chemistry-pounding intensity, mixed with leadership and teamwork.
Over the past week, this combination---Olympian and All-Stars Sylvia Fowles, Swin Cash Courtney Vandersloot, and Ephiphanny Prince, have beaten the Atlanta Dream, Washington Mystics, New York Liberty, and the Seattle Storm---the team they traded their first-round, #2 draft pick to get Cash and Willingham.
In return, the Sky got the seasoned vets they needed to control defense, fourth quarter closeouts, second chance points, and most important, leadership on the floor. Fowles, the undisputed queen of the Sky prior to Cash's arrival, and its best player over her three years on the team, jokingly called Cash a "diva-devil."
This combination has dominated early. Take Wednesday's game against the 1-7 Storm, who are struggling to find their ground again after the loss of Cash and Willingham: Fowles recorded her eighth consecutive double-double (16 points and 15 rebounds) tying her WNBA single-season all-time mark set in 2011. As a team, the Sky owned the boards, winning the rebound battle 44-21, which turned into a 25-4 second chance point advantage. Prince had 17 on the night including four three pointers. She also recorded a season-high seven assists. Ruth Riley tied her biggest offensive night of the season scoring 10 points. Tamera Young had her third straight double digit scoring night off the bench with 12.
But one name stands out from all the rest. One who may set her own WNBA records in just her third season.
Her name means "revelation:"
Prince, whose league-leading 25.3 points per game thus far is on pace to tie the WNBA’s all-time single-season points per game mark, opened the week by tallying 32 points, including a running three-pointer with 0.1 second on the clock to force overtime vs. the Tulsa Shock in a game Chicago went on to win, 98-91. In addition to scoring a combined 19 points in the fourth quarter and overtime period, Prince finished the game with five assists and three steals. It was also her third straight game of 30-or-more points, which equaled a league record set by Cynthia Cooper, then of the Houston Comets, in 1997. Two days later, Prince’s 26 points paved the way for a 73-64 road win over New York, snapping the Liberty’s three-game winning streak.
Prince remains modest about her efforts, though. “I was just reading what the defense was giving me and playing off of that." she said. "We had certain plays for me and I got open looks and I was able to hit them.”
As good as the Sky has been, and while things look promising, their season will get a lot more challenging this week. Saturday, the Sky take on the team that has been their Kryptonite in previous seasons--the Tamika Catchings-led Indiana Fever, which has given the Sky as much trouble as their brothers, the Indiana Pacers, have given the Bulls over the years.
“They always give us a tough time," said Prince, the WNBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week. " They’ve played with each other for a long time [and] they’re real aggressive. We saw the film with what we did wrong the last time, hopefully we play better next game.”
To the Sky's advantage also in the early going is that of all the teams they have played, only the Fever have had a winning record. Their matches with other teams with winning records, including the Connecticut Sun and LA Sparks, are ahead of them in the season, some following the Olympic break. In order to dominate teams like the Fever and Lynx, the Sky cannot have the late-third/early fourth quarter mental breakdowns and energy lapses that have allowed promising leads turn into losses. They must limit turnovers. Or, as head coach Pokey Chatman neatly summarized in their win over the Storm:
"“We had a solid defensive effort in the fourth quarter. We held them to eight points in the fourth quarter and really did some of the dirty work. We were plus-23 on the boards. We could have taken care of the ball a little better but I could live with the 15 [turnovers] because only three came from Piph and Sloot and they played 60 minutes so that was a good thing. We need this momentum going into our next game in Indiana.”
Nothing but a berth in the playoffs will do this year. If the Sky can keep their intensity and focus, play team basketball, and keep with their fundamentals, I would predict a clear path to the Eastern Conference Championships. They have the talent. They have the leadership. Only they can stand in their way this year.