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Sky's Backcourt Makes Juggernaut Sun Look Mortal

Chicago's victory Tuesday night was a simple reminder that Connecticut can be beaten.

Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know.

As Courtney Vandersloot hauled in her 10th, and final, rebound during the Sky’s Game 1 101–95 double-overtime win over the Sun on Tuesday night, her reaction was no different than it had been for her previous nine boards. Why would it have been? Vandersloot, one of the sport’s premier guards, was more focused on turning up the floor to ice away her team’s instant-classic victory than she was on her own numbers. She even admitted to ESPN’s Holly Rowe afterward that she had no idea it gave her the second triple double ever recorded in a WNBA postseason game.

“[It will] go down as one of the best point guard games in playoff history,” coach James Wade told reporters. “I’m not surprised because this is what she does.”

But more than just score 12 points, dish out a postseason-record 18 assists and gather 10 rebounds, Vandersloot and her teammates showed why they entered the season with championship aspirations. And at least for one night, they helped make the league’s juggernaut look merely mortal.

Vandersloot, her wife and backcourt mate, Allie Quiqley, and All-Star guard Kahleah Copper were disruptive from the game’s opening tip, helping Chicago jump out to an early 11-point advantage. While the Sky’s lead dwindled to just three at the end of the first quarter, the Sun never seemed fully comfortable defensively. Chicago finished the game shooting just under 50% from the field.

“We just never could build any momentum with our great defense,” Sun coach Curt Miller said.

Jonquel Jones, who earlier Tuesday had been named MVP, said that the Sun missed a lot of assignments and failed to executive on a number of things they were looking to achieve defensively. Among them, surely, was to curtail Vandersloot, whom Jones noted they would have to be more physical with going forward.

When Chicago was at its best during the regular season, the basketball would ping around the perimeter, setting up any one of the team’s dangerous scorers. As Howard Megdal noted for FiveThirtyEight, they finished the 32-game campaign with an assist percentage of 70.7%, a mark last topped by the Charlotte Sting in 1999.

On Tuesday, against the Sun, that marked climbed to 81.6%, as Vandersloot helped seven Chicago players other than herself finish with at least eight points.

Let’s be clear. The Sun were the league’s No. 1 seed for a number of reasons and were far from their best Tuesday night. They had not played since September 19 and missed nine free throws, tied for the most they had all season. They shot both below their season average from the field as well as from three, and also dealt with foul trouble, with All-Defensive First Team guard Briann January picking up two early ones. The 101 points the Sun gave up were also the most they surrendered all season, albeit with 10 extra minutes of play.

Even still, it took a historic game from Vandersloot and 10 extra minutes to defeat Connecticut, the first time that had happened since Aug. 12.

How likely is it that the Sun will struggle in much the same way they did Tuesday? If this regular season was any indication, not very, and they will rebound and reestablish themselves as the league’s perennial title favorite.

Still, if anything, Tuesday night was a simple reminder that Connecticut can be beaten. And maybe, just maybe, the Sky’s stellar backcourt, led by Vandersloot, will pull off a major upset few expected.

Notes from around the WNBA

By the time the Sun-Sky game concluded, it was nearly halftime in the Aces-Mercury semifinal. For Las Vegas’s sake, it was a good thing that eyeballs were glued to the other semi, as the league’s No. 2 seed struggled defensively in the first quarter, allowing Phoenix to jump out to a 30–21 lead. In the second frame, however, the Aces were finally able to get stops and, in turn, push the game’s pace. From there, the contest flipped.

Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said Tuesday, after his team’s 96–90 victory, that “guards win in playoff games, because they can create.” The axiom certainly proved true in Game 1, as Riquna Williams, Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum combined to score 68 points in the victory.

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Despite taking a 1–0 lead, Laimbeer admitted that the Aces are still figuring out how to reintegrate Liz Cambage to the lineup. Cambage, a four-time All-Star and 2018 league scoring leader, played just nine minutes off the bench, after dealing with foul trouble. Tuesday also marked just her second game since Aug. 28 as Cambage, who the team said is vaccinated, had tested positive for COVID-19. Having a player of her caliber play the role that she did in a win is reflective of all the talent on Las Vegas’s roster and the latest example of why the Aces can be so dangerous this postseason. It’s why they are eyeing a title and shouldn’t be an afterthought.

The WNBA is loaded with top talent across almost all its rosters with stacked franchises, serving as just one reason why WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert acknowledged the possibility of expansion ahead of this season. It’s also why many have floated the prospect of added roster spots as well.

I couldn’t help but think back to the prospect of expansion this past week while listening to a number of end-of-season press conferences. In both New York and Dallas, the long-term future seems incredibly bright, but considering where each team is currently and, more importantly, where the league is currently, I wonder what realistic jumps for each of the two teams looks like next year, with a number of the league’s top teams unlikely to regress and with a number of elite cores so concentrated.

Last Thursday, the Liberty nearly pulled off what would have been a shocking shakeup to the WNBA postseason bracket in their one-game playoff with the Mercury. While they lost 84—83, Betnijah Laney starred, scoring 25 points in the defeat, capping off a season in which she emerged as a bona fide star. Throughout the year, Laney jelled with fellow franchise centerpiece Sabrina Ionescu. While Natasha Howard struggled with injury during the early part of the year, she produced by season’s end in the way many expected. Players like Sami Whitcomb and Rebecca Allen also excelled in their roles. And it’s likely New York will see both DiDi Richards and Michaela Onyenwere make the league’s All-Rookie team, with Onyenwere the clear favorite to take home the Rookie of the Year award.

“This was our first season really together, and so I think that looking at it from that perspective the future is so bright here, with this core of players, and I really appreciate all of them in different ways,” coach Walt Hopkins said.

“Without a doubt, we turned a corner here in the last week and a half, and I think that everybody is kinda chomping at the bit to go start a season with the knowledge that we have now, that we’re ending this season with.”

Still, I wonder what New York’s ceiling really will be next year with the core that they have. Of course, thanks to trades, free agency and the draft, as well as natural player development, New York could end up looking drastically different in 2022. But a number of the league’s title contenders are similarly loaded with talent, with current MVP-caliber players who should also realistically improve (see Las Vegas, Connecticut and Seattle as prime examples). I’m not sure that if the league action remains relatively tame this offseason that New York can jump up to a first-round bye.

My same somewhat tepid, short-term optimism can be applied to Dallas. Greg Bibb, the Wings’ team president and CEO, called the team’s playoff berth a “big step forward” in his end-of-year press conference, saying that the team accomplished its primary goal of making the postseason. The Wings had the league’s youngest team in terms of weighted playing time and plenty of players who will only improve from here. They also enter the offseason among the league’s most interesting teams, considering just how many recent draft picks they have under contract. (And don’t forget that they could have two more top-six picks in the 2022 draft.) Nevertheless, I wrestle with what their ceiling will actually be next season with the core that they have. 

So many teams around the league seem as if they are on the upswing. That’s one reason why the on-floor product might be as good as it’s ever been. But it also means it’s becoming especially challenging to break through and why the prospect of expansion over the next few seasons could prove to be an interesting team-building wrinkle.

One of the most interesting teams to watch this offseason is the Storm. Seattle jumped out to an 11–2 start this season and won the Commissioner’s Cup coming out of the Olympic break. But at one point in the second half, they lost five of seven games and backed into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed. It didn’t help, of course, that Breanna Stewart also suffered an unspecified leg injury that knocked her out of the stretch run and playoffs.

Stewart, along with Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd, are all unrestricted free agents this offseason. And while Stewart said Sunday that she “plan[s] on being back unless something crazy happens,” Bird’s future remains a question. Loyd also made clear Sunday that she wants to take time this offseason and figure out next steps in her life and her career.

Loyd would be an especially significant loss for the Storm, considering she is just 27 years old and coming off the best season of her professional career. She averaged career highs in points, with 17.9, and assists, with 3.8, in the 2021 campaign and made her first Olympic team as well. It’s very possible she’ll also make an All-WNBA team in one of the four guard spots. 

On top of their Big Three, though, more than half of Seattle’s roster is set to hit free agency this offseason, meaning the 2020 champs could look a lot different in ’22. As I wrote above, it’s especially hard to break through in the WNBA, but it’s not out of the question that a wave of roster turnover in Seattle will help to create the slightest of openings.

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