Sky again look to stifle Sparks' high-powered offense

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 4, 2016

It has been rare this WNBA season for anyone to lasso the Los Angeles Sparks and rein them back in after they've taken off. They're so talented an offensive team, with multiple weapons -- including league MVP Nneka Ogwumike -- that it's difficult to string together just a couple of stops against them, let alone put the clamps on and force the Sparks into a relatively low-scoring game.

And it seems rather unlikely that if any team was going to do that, it would be Chicago. If the Sky had outscored the Sparks in their Game 3 do-or-die matchup Sunday, that would have been less surprising. Even without Elena Delle Donne, nobody ever doubts that the Sky can score.

But hold the Sparks to 66 points? After Los Angeles had scored 95 and 99 points in the first two games of their semifinal series? Force Tuesday's Game 4 (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) back at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois? Yep, the Sky did that.

Chicago's season-saving 70-66 victory came largely thanks to its zone defense. Theoretically, it didn't seem as if it should have worked. The Sky had tried it earlier in the series, and it didn't stop the Sparks.

But it was also the most strategically sensible thing to try again. Los Angeles' post trio of Ogwumike, Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender had decimated the Sky in the first two games. And the Sparks' interior strength was dominating early on in the third game, too.

In fact, after the first quarter, when Los Angeles led 23-14, it was hard to picture the Sky taking control of the game. But they were physical and aggressive in the zone, and were able to force Los Angeles to do exactly what they wanted: go away from pounding the ball inside and take a ton of 3-pointers.

The Sparks were a hideous 6 of 33 from behind the arc (18.2 percent). Had they come closer to their league-best 37.5 percent 3-point shooting in the regular season, then the Sparks would be home in Los Angeles now preparing to face Minnesota in the WNBA Finals.

But kudos to the Sky for putting the Sparks in a position where they took more lower-percentage shots than they wanted to. The Sparks knew that was a trap they needed to avoid, but they fell into it anyway.

Chicago had great leadership from point guard Courtney Vandersloot (17 points, five assists). Tamera Young and Jessica Breland each scored eight points and were strong defensively. The Sky got a big-time performance from rookie center Imani Boyette (13 points, 11 rebounds). And they had good work off the bench from center Clarissa Dos Santos and guard Jamierra Faulkner, who combined for 16 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.

It was a case of a team saying, "OK, we know most people expect us to lose, but we're just not going down that easily." It wasn't necessarily the style of game you generally expect the Sky to win, yet it was exactly the kind they needed to play at this point in the series.

By contrast, this was not at all what the Sparks wanted. Los Angeles' Kristi Toliver was 3 of 12 from 3-point range, and Parker was 1 of 6 from behind the arc. They'd be the first to say they didn't play up to their standards.

The Sparks did not take Game 3 for granted. Even after they coasted to victory in Los Angeles on Friday night, the Sparks were aware that Sunday was going to be difficult. They fully expected the Sky to play very hard to stay alive. But the Sparks didn't expect they'd be held to fewer than 70 points.

Los Angeles had Chicago pretty much on the ropes, but the Sky still had fight in them. And they will again Tuesday. The Sky should be proud of their resilience this season, no matter how this series ends.

But the Sparks know what they've done to win five of their six meetings with the Sky this season, all those by double digits. That's what Los Angeles has to focus on Tuesday.