The No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup this postseason has the potential to be an exciting one. The Chicago Sky (26-10) are trying to become the W’s first repeat champion in two decades, when the Los Angeles Sparks repeated in the 2001-2002 seasons. Their first challenge in running it back: the New York Liberty (16-20). For the battle between these two metropolitan franchises, we’ll turn to our Winsidr reporters who have been in the building with these teams all season long: Dani Bar-Lavi and Myles Ehrlich.
Chicago’s Regular Season
DBL: Ending their regular season with a franchise-record setting 26th win over the Phoenix Mercury, the defending champion Sky have made good on Candace Parker’s preseason mission: “We have to not suck in the regular season this year,” Parker told media, “because, yeah, we sucked during the regular season last year.” Having gone 16-16 en route to their championship last year, the Sky have been highly motivated to have a complete campaign that truly reflects the caliber of their roster, and their status as reigning champions. Tied for best record in the WNBA this season with the Las Vegas Aces, and tied with the Connecticut Sun for second-best in offensive rating, Parker’s Sky have absolutely not sucked this regular season.
After a disappointing and fairly shocking loss to open the season at home against the (then new-look now old-look) Los Angeles Sparks, the Sky found consistent success, remaining in the top echelon of the standings for nearly the entire season. Much of the team’s improvement can be attributed to acquisitions made in the offseason by head coach and general manager James Wade—having retained the championship core of Parker, Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot, and Allie Quigley, Wade brought in Emma Meesseman as an upgrade at the center position, while reinforcing the bench unit led by Azurá Stevens, with back-up point guard Julie Allemand and standout veteran/rookie Rebekah Gardner, who has quickly emerged as one of the league’s best wing defenders. Altogether, this Chicago squad found consistent success throughout the regular season, withstanding injuries and other setbacks through depth and team-focused, system-oriented basketball. Chicago went most of the season without losing two consecutive games, an impressive streak ended in the homestretch with back-to-back losses to fellow title contenders Seattle and Las Vegas. Up against New York to begin the playoffs, the Sky should set off on the road to repeat on a strong foot, having taken the season series 3-1. I’m not writing the Liberty off, though, as they’re getting healthy at the right time.
New York’s Regular Season
ME: The Liberty had a May to forget. After a surprising opening night victory over the Connecticut Sun, they dropped seven straight, tumbling down to the bottom of the standings. They remained streaky throughout the season: a 7-4 June gave way to a 3-7 July, putting the Liberty outside the playoff picture. Still, heading into August, they controlled their own destiny, thanks to a beneficial schedule: two games apiece against four teams directly competing with them for positioning, with six teams battling for just three spots. Against this competition—the Atlanta Dream, Dallas Wings, Sparks, and Phoenix Mercury—New York won six of eight, earning the seven seed on the final day of the regular season.
Sabrina Ionescu, in her third season, finally made the leap, a major reason for New York’s success. Consistently effective in the fourth quarter, Ionescu’s willingness to take the big shots helped the Liberty absorb the loss of star two-way forward Betnijah Laney, who missed a majority of the season with knee surgery. Ionescu, alongside the ever-versatile Natasha Howard, were steady pieces in a roster decimated by injury. Beyond Laney, lots of the Liberty’s rotation missed significant time, including Bec Allen, DiDi Richards, and Jocelyn Willoughby. (These four also happen to be the team’s four best wing defenders.) After wearing out the injury report all season long, the Liberty enter the playoffs with a clean sheet. With their depth, could that make them a tough out?
ME: The Sky took three of four matchups against the Liberty this season. With the exception of the first meeting—a 33-point blowout by Chicago—the other games were all close. The most impressive performance in that first matchup? Gardner’s WNBA debut. From the opening minutes, she showed impressive speed, getting to the rim with ease, while playing hounding defense on the other end of the court.
During the hottest stretch of Liberty hoops this season, Courtney Vandersloot stole an 88-86 win for the Sky with a game-winning three in the closing seconds. It spoiled a masterful performance from Ionescu, who put together an impressive triple-double stat line: 27 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists.
New York snagged a tight W, 83-80, in the third meeting. Toss an asterisk next to that one, though. Following a home game the day before, the Sky spent the night in the airport due to a canceled flight, arriving in New York at around noon. Still, it was Chicago in front heading into the game’s final possessions. Sabrina Ionescu put New York ahead with an and-one layup with nine seconds to go, and Michaela Onyenwere stood strong to defend a Candace Parker postup and pull down the contested rebound to secure the W.
The final matchup this season, an 89-81 victory for the Sky, was again close throughout, and again, it was Sloot with the dagger three. With about 90 seconds to go and Chicago ahead by two, she rattled in a three over the outstretched arm of Marine Johannès to put the game out of reach.
One Matchup We Can’t Wait to Watch
DBL: While it’s not super-traditional to mention a bench player in these “matchups to watch” sections, I’m truly very excited to absorb some more of Gardner guarding Ionescu. As Myles discussed above, Ionescu has become a consistent threat to take and make big shots this season, particularly adept at creating space off the dribble to pull-up. Gardner does a great job of foiling this plan of attack for Ionescu using a combination of impressive lateral quickness and a great sense of anticipation of her mark’s next move. As WNBA.com’s Mark Schindler pointed out in his recent playoffs preview, Gardner defends Ionescu aggressively, applying extra pressure to her left side, which she tends to favor when side-stepping into pull-ups. I can’t stop watching this highlight, which perfectly demonstrates this concept: Ionescu side-steps into a three, trying to beat the first-half buzzer, but is mirrored perfectly by Gardner, who sends Ionescu’s three-point attempt straight to the Shadow Realm on the block.
ME: While Laney played in that dud where the Liberty only managed 50 points back in May, New York was without her for most of their court time against Chicago this season. Her ability to create a shot on offense and play physical on-ball defense against the Sky’s wings will be key to any success the Liberty hope to find in this series. Sami Whitcomb described Laney’s impact much better than I could, so I’ll just get out of the way:
“The things that B does are just so different from what we have,” Whitcomb told Winsidr. “I think we do have some really unique players: Bec [Allen]’s really unique in what she brings. But B has that extra level of inside/outside that we don’t have from a legit guard perspective. The fact that she can back somebody down and draw a double team is really great. She passes really well, and she finishes really well at the basket. She’s also a perimeter threat, also a great defender and versatile in that way. So, I just think there’s a lot of things that she brings that we’ve really been missing.”
ME: Both these teams have impressive depth, so this series might not be settled by the names on the marquee. Over the season, the Liberty’s bench scored 23.8 points per game (PPG), fourth in the WNBA, while hitting a league-best 3.3 shots from beyond the arc at the best clip (36.7 percent). The Sky’s second unit slotted in sixth with 22.6 PPG, but their 47.5 percent from the field ranked highest among reserves.
New York’s bench was key in getting them to the playoffs, raising their production to 26.9 PPG during their 6-2 eight-game stretch in October. None were bigger than a 50-point effort against the Wings that helped the Liberty overcome a double-digit first quarter deficit and just nine first-half points from their starters.
“Our job is to come in and give more energy,” Onyenwere said after their playoff-clinching win over the Atlanta Dream on Sunday, a game in which New York’s second unit put up 36 points, led by Johannès’ six-three performance. “We’re thankful to have Marine, arguably one of the best guards in the league, who can come off the bench and give us a spark.”
“[The reserves are] huge. You have to stay ready for whenever your opportunity arises,” Ionescu said after a win over the Sparks on August 2. “You have to come in there and continue to build or maintain a lead, and they did a great job… we expect that from them. Their roles have changed with injuries, but they mean as much to this team as the starting five does.”
With their full dozen in uniform, New York’s best chance to upset could come from their complementary players.
Unless otherwise noted, stats appear courtesy of WNBA Stats.