In 2014 the Chicago Sky reached the WNBA Finals despite a rocky regular season record and injuries to key players. They fell to the Phoenix Mercury 3-0 but now, with Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley still on the roster, they could face their old adversaries again for the title
Wednesday 6 October 2021 14:05, UK
Since the format of the WNBA playoffs changed in 2016 to feature the top records overall rather than the best four from each conference, no team has ever reached the Finals from below the third seed.
In fact, the last team to reach the championship round from a lower seed was the Chicago Sky in 2014.
That group comprised a young, exciting core including Elena Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles, Epiphanny Prince, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley. The only problem they had was availability: Quigley, rookie Jamierra Faulkner, Sasha Goodlett and Tamera Young were the only players who played the whole season.
They started off well, but limited availability saw the Sky finish with a 15-19 record - the worst in the Eastern Conference - and just about scraping into the playoffs. But as they began to strengthen down the stretch, so too did their record and they won five out of eight, keeping that momentum to win two hard-fought series before reaching the Finals.
Delle Donne struggled with back pain due to Lyme Disease that season and only played 16 regular season games. When the Finals came, a flare up in Game 1 of the Finals meant she only played 10 minutes of the blowout loss.
Dosed up on painkillers, she played heavy minutes in Games 2 and 3 but it was too late to regain any composure as a team. They were eventually destroyed 3-0 by the Phoenix Mercury, who had just recorded the best ever regular season record, along with the best starting five in the W and a Diana Taurasi at the peak of her powers.
The Sky were crushed, but while many of the faces and names have changed, Chicago are once again on the cusp of making history as a low seeded team reaching the Finals if they can beat the top-seeded Connecticut Sun tonight.
The Chicago Sky’s familiar faces are Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot, but they have a new elite multi-positional player who, admittedly, can be slightly injury prone like Elena Delle Donne before her: the legendary Candace Parker.
They might only be 16-16 this season, which was good enough for the sixth seed, but they are 15-8 with Parker in the line-up and 4-1 overall in the playoffs. Crucially, they have the Connecticut Sun - who boast the best record in the league and feature the Most Valuable Player, Most Improved Player, Coach of the Year and four All-Defensive Team players - on the ropes.
One way the Sky are winning this semi-finals series is by not letting Connecticut's elite defense get set. In each of Chicago’s playoff wins so far, they have a pace per 40 minutes of 79. In the only game they've lost, Connecticut slowed them down to 72.5.
Under coach James Wade and the point guard duties of Vandersloot, the Sky have always been quick to get the ball up the court. But this year, they have something a little extra.
Ever since Delle Donne was traded away after the 2016 season the Sky have upped the pace, but they’ve also been in the bottom half of the league in terms of defense and defensive rebounding percentage. That hasn’t changed much this season, but that’s partly been due to players being in and out of the line-up. In the games Parker has played, however, she has offered a clutch, cool and savviness to a team that has perhaps lacked it in previous years.
Kahleah Copper is one of the main beneficiaries of the paces. She runs the floor with long strides to get open on the break, and Vandersloot’s perfect passing will always find her.
Vandersloot has always been a great playmaker but she leads the team in Win Shares this year. She is picking her spots and not chasing assist titles, the flow of the game is coming naturally to her.
In Game 3 of the semi-finals on Sunday, she read the floor beautifully down the stretch. Aside from not connecting with Parker on a potentially catchable pass, Vandersloot made the right decisions - going on a six-point scoring stretch when the Sun gave her space in the pick and roll, or passing when they pressured her.
Wade has been highlighting the great work of Azurá Stevens, who managed a game-best 16 in plus-minus during Chicago and Connecticut’s most recent encounter - a narrow three-point win for the Sky. Quigley is doing Quigley things and shooting 43 per cent from three-point distance in the four playoff wins, while Diamond DeShields is finding her groove again after a difficult 2020.
But for all the up and down the Sky love to do, Parker offers a versatile half court threat, and she is making the difference in these late game situations when the team needs a championship-winning, veteran head to maintain Chicago’s pace and secure important rebounds.
She set some bone-crunching screens to free up Vandersloot late for key buckets, then used the skills that earned her Defensive Player of the Year Award last season to cut off the lane to Sun driving opportunities, stopping Jasmine Thomas on one possession and then Alyssa Thomas on another late layup attempt before snaring a huge board to regain possession and go to the free throw line.
This Chicago Sky now are not the same as the less-experienced talent that made up the 2014 squad. Only two players remain - and while we didn’t know it then, Quigley and Vandersloot were the heart of that squad, and remain that to this day.
They have greater depth in Copper, DeShields and Lexie Brown on the perimeter, as well as Stef Dolson and Astou Ndour-Fall to bolster their rotation of bigs. Achieving good health at the right time of year could finally earn them a championship and do in 2021 what the Sky couldn’t seven years ago.
And if it were any sweeter, they could face a Phoenix Mercury team that still features Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner in the Finals, if the Mercury can also close out against the Las Vegas Aces. You can catch Game 3 of that semi-final live on Sky Sports Main Event, Arena and Mix from 3am on Thursday morning.
The narrative might be familiar - a well-rounded squad putting it together at the right time after struggling for good health - and some of the faces are the same, but Chicago will hope for a storybook ending this season if they can get past the Connecticut Sun.