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Thursday, August 11

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Sky Tue Jul 02 2013

Sky's Stars Starting To Align

Chicago Sky logoThe Sky's starting five have combined for eight All Star appearances (add three more to this tally once this year's roster has been announced), three Olympic gold medals, and if you remove decorated veteran Swin Cash -- zero WNBA playoff appearances. The starters are All Stars, and recently, chemistry has held this team in orbit on their latest three-game winning streak.

Elena Delle Donne has been named Rookie of the Month in June and come September her name will surely be tossed around in league MVP discussions. She's shooting 94 percent from the charity stripe, 44 percent from downtown, and averaging two blocks a game. Nobody in either basketball association can claim a stat line that unique.

Sylvia Fowles, who is day-to-day with an ankle sprain, is leading the WNBA in rebounds at 12 per game. Epiphanny Prince's 18 points a night are good enough for second on the team (when Prince is your second best scoring option, your team has an embarrassment of riches.) Courtney Vandersloot is a no-thrills game manager who manages to go from the top of the key into the lane with ease. The aforementioned Cash's eight points and five rebounds per are a luxury item in this stacked lineup. The Sky's starters boast a balanced attack that keeps getting aggressive while figuring out how to win with each other.

After going 1-3 from June 7 to June 20, the Sky have recorded three victories in a row by an average margin of 11. So why are the Sky back to their double-digit winning ways like they were at the start of the season? They've turned a corner on their turnover ways.

In the first half of the tilt against the Indian Fever on June 22, I remembertweeting that the Sky need to get mentally tougher, which was prompted by a stretch during the second quarter where they committed 8-seconds, 3-seconds and traveling violations on offense. They notched 10 turnovers total in that first half, and in the third period they added five more. Then something happened: the Sky turned down the volume on the excess of turnovers front. In the fourth quarter, they only gave the ball up two more times, and in the two games since, they've only recorded 13 total turnovers. This is bad news to the rest of the league when the third highest scoring team (82 points a game) gives themselves more chances to get the ball in the bucket.

On defense, the numbers suggest that this team is average. They hold opponents to 76 points a game, which is good for sixth in the 12-team league. Inside the arc, the Sky only allow teams to shoot 40 percent against them, but beyond it, they're dead last in defending the deep ball (38 percent). The gaudy rebounding and block statistics can ostensibly be all attributed to Fowles' presence in the paint. So with the numbers being what they are, the eye test also lends evidence that this team is passive at times.

This team is '85 Bears-esque when it comes to individual defense. (Please don't suspend my poetic license due to the use of inter-sports mixed metaphors and hyperbole -- a Sky WNBA Finals Shuffle video is plausible.)

So, how often have you've seen Vandersloot stay in front of her point guard counterpart (which most times is quicker than her)? Often. Delle Donne won't let whoever she's defending do much but get off-balanced or cluttered looks from the perimeter. Her two blocks a game are also testament to her solo defending. Prince is fast on both ends of the floor. She gets to spots quicker than the shooting guard she's in charge of keeping an eye on, thus denying easy baskets. Fowles is the centerpiece literally and figuratively when it comes to protecting the rim. This team can take on any squad's other players one-on-one; the problem is this is a team sport. With the baseline and blocks anchored down with the team's bigs, the help defense always seems to a step slow.

In addition to that, the defensive intensity isn't there until they realize they need it. The defense seems to have an on/off switch, and fortunately for the Sky they flick it on when it counts. After getting down 17 points to the New York Liberty last Wednesday in the first quarter (surrendering 30 points total), the Sky held the Liberty to 44 points the rest of the game and won by 13. In the game vs the LA Sparks, the Sparks got within two points at the start of the fourth, but the Sky clamped down, forcing LA to force quick shots, making them go 4-for-11 the rest of the game with the end result being a Sky victory by 12.

The on/off switch for a defense this talented is something this team can eventually overcome. Coach Pokey Chatman is known as a defensive coach, so you can expect her schemes to settle in at some point of the season. This has all been nitpicking of course, but that's all that's left to do when criticizing a team without glaring deficiencies. It's a good problem to have if you're the Sky with about one-third of the season complete. If they get it right, the Sky's the limit, obviously.

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