If the Chicago Sky learned one lesson last season, it was the importance of taking care of business early.
After starting out 2-7 a year ago, the Sky are 5-3 and fourth in the Eastern Conference standings entering weekend games against the Atlanta Dream (6-3) on Friday and Washington Mystics (7-3) on Sunday. One loss can make the difference in having home-court advantage come playoff time.
Here are three takeaways from the Sky’s first eight games and what they need to keep doing — and what they should avoid — heading into this important two-game stretch.
In the first five games, the Sky didn’t look like the team that has thrived playing up-tempo the last three years. They ranked last in pace (93.31 possessions per 40 minutes), partly due to waiting on Kahleah Copper to return from overseas. Coach/general manager James Wade went with a lineup featuring three bigs in Emma Meesseman, Candace Parker and Azurá Stevens, which also stalled the Sky’s ability to get out on the break.
Once Copper returned from her season in Spain, that all changed.
The Sky have turned up the jets in the last three games, ranking second in the WNBA in fast-break points per game and pace during that stretch. Adding Copper back to the starting lineup has helped the Sky score before the defense sets up. She averaged the second-most fast-break points per game last year on a Sky team that was first in transition points per possession.
Her presence has already been felt.
“We just got Kah back, which is huge,” point guard Courtney Vandersloot said last week. “We are still trying to get our flow and rhythm, but mostly we need to rebound to get out in transition.”
The Sky will be tested in getting out on the break against the Dream and Mystics. Both teams rank in the top five in fast-break points allowed per game. However, it’s encouraging that the Sky have returned to what they do best: scoring in transition.
The Sky have had a reputation the last three years for making things interesting at the end of games. From losing double-digit leads to crawling back into games that seemed out of reach, the Sky’s proclivity for not taking care of business early in games has reared its head in 2022.
Vandersloot, however, has come to the rescue multiple times.
Six of the Sky’s eight games have been clutch games, defined by a team trailing or leading by five points or fewer in the last five minutes of regulation. Vandersloot has 49 fourth-quarter points this season and is first in the league with 26 clutch points. She has been the steady force the offense has needed when it becomes stagnant.
Wade has preached urgency, but it hasn’t arrived yet.
“These games that we play in that we’re winning in the fourth quarter will get you old quick,” Wade said. “I’m trying to stay young, but it feels like my birthday is tomorrow.”
The Mystics let the Sky bully them in the second half on May 22 in Washington, but they might be getting defensive anchor Alysha Clark back after she missed the first meeting. The Sky can’t keep relying on Vandersloot’s last-minute efforts if they are going to beat one of the best teams in the league.
When Meesseman signed with the Sky in the offseason, all of the talk was about the team’s offensive upside. The 2019 WNBA Finals MVP has played with Vandersloot and Allie Quigley the last four years in Russia with UMMC Ekaterinburg, where Wade was an assistant before the Sky hired him.
However, the offense still hasn’t quite clicked the last three games. The Sky have shot a league-worst 24.6% from beyond the 3-point arc and have the ninth-best offensive rating (97.2) in that span.
Meesseman told the Tribune two weeks ago it has been “a process” learning to play in this style of offense with Vandersloot and Quigley. Vandersloot echoed a similar sentiment after the Sky’s win over the Phoenix Mercury on Tuesday.
“It’s a different style of basketball,” Vandersloot said. “She’s European and we play in Europe together, so it’s just different. I think we underestimated that going into the season. The coverages and athleticism are different. They’re switching a lot with us and overseas they don’t switch, so we have to adjust.
“It’s taken us a little bit of time, but I’m willing to bet on us that we’ll figure it out because she is one of the best players in the world.”
The Sky have been unselfish almost to a fault. Wade pointed to the team passing up open shots, leading to contested attempts at the end of the shot clock. Only eight games into the season, the Sky have time to get back on track.
“We are talented enough to figure it out,” Wade said.