What a three days it has been for the Chicago Sky.
Sunday they lost in double-overtime to the Dallas Wings, 112-106. Tonight they came from behind to top the Seattle Storm on the road, 94-83. The Sky are now 7-13 overall and 4-1 in July, in what is looking like a comeback month on a year that has looked bleak at times.
It has been a season of uncertainty for the franchise.
After gifting the San Antonio Stars their first win of the season in June, Chicago had a week to practice and regroup. The result was a three-game winning streak with victories over the New York Liberty, Dallas Wings, and the league’s best team, the Minnesota Lynx.
The Sky averaged 93.5 points per game over their first four games of the month, when their average is 80.2 points per game for the season overall. The reason for their sudden turnaround the last three weeks is difficult to pinpoint.
Coincidentally, Chicago has played their best basketball without starter Cappie Pondexter, who has been out since July 8 with concussion-like symptoms. Critics of Pondexter view her as a ball-dominant guard that takes too many shots, causing her teammates to stand and watch and thus bogging down Chicago’s offense. There may be a sliver of validity to that, but the truth is, Pondexter is having her best season dishing the ball and is fourth-best in the league in assists per game, with a 5.9 average.
Pondexter is, however, having her worst season as a pro shooting the ball. In 15 games she shot 33.3 percent from the field and 22.7 percent from the three-point-line – both career lows. The issue may not be Pondexter hogging the ball as much as it is inefficiency with her shot.
With her on the sidelines, the better shooters are getting more shot attempts. And sometimes it’s as simple as the ball finally going in.
The current Eastern Conference Player of the week, Sky post Stefanie Dolson, is partly responsible for the team’s recent offensive explosion. In her last three games, the UConn graduate led the entire East in scoring with a 20.7 point per game average. Dolson is not only the Sky’s most effective post presence, she’s taken on the role of vocal team leader alongside Pondexter.
“With the losses that we had in the beginning of the season, we’ve just been pushing,” Dolson said. “We can’t get down on ourselves. Most of us know the WNBA, we know that anything can happen, so we’ve just stayed positive and kept getting better and better and better. I think now things are starting to click and we just have to keep going with it.”
“We’re playing really well right now together. We’re just pushing the pace – playing hard and being tough.”
Pace is something that Sky head coach Amber Stocks emphasizes to her squad. Pushing the pace for Chicago is Courtney Vandersloot who is second in the league in assists with 6.5 per game. During the Sky’s hot streak, the team averaged 16.5 fast break points. Good things happen when Vandersloot forces the issue.
Also in the back court is another important element to Chicago’s success: Allie Quigley. The sharp-shooting Chicago native leads her team in scoring with 16.4 points per game – eleventh-best in the WNBA.
The supporting cast in Chicago provides a toughness that rarely shows up in the stat sheet. The Sky’s young players – Imani Boyette, Kahleah Copper and Cheyenne Parker – provide much-needed athleticism off the bench while its vets, Jessica Breland and Tamera Young ,do all of the dirty work.
It is a total team effort.
When Pondexter is ready to return, she might be better suited coming off of the bench. Her ability to score still makes her a threat in her twelfth professional season, and the cohesion that the current starting five has is undeniable. Why mess with chemistry?
Chicago leads the WNBA in blocks per game at 5.7, is second in assists (20.2), and third in rebounding (35.7). The Sky check off a lot of boxes for what it takes to be a good team, but they still have a long way to go. Despite their recent wins, they still sit in the eleventh spot in league standings. The team gets to the free throw line fewer times than any squad in the league (15.7), and is tied with San Antonio for most turnovers per contest (16.8).
Even so, Chicago is still only three games out of the final playoff spot, despite their tough start. It may be too little too late to make a run this year, but the Sky is building a foundation to make the post-Elena Delle Donne era less cloudy than previously forecasted.