July 19, 2023 

Chicago Sky notebook: Keys to the playoff drive

'They want to go to war'

Are you ready for a second-half WNBA playoff push where each game has huge ramifications? With a somewhat tumultuous first half of the season, which included an abrupt coaching change and injuries to multiple key players, the Chicago Sky now enter the second half of the season with a playoff spot still within reach.

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If the season ended today, the Chicago Sky would be the eighth seed in the playoffs and secure the final playoff spot. With 20 games to go, the Sky sit 3.5 games back of the fourth seed. Below are some major keys to the Sky’s quest to make the playoffs for the fifth straight time.

In addition to finding a way to close out games in the fourth quarter, the continued stellar play of Kahleah Copper, the rim protection of Elizabeth Williams and Alanna Smith, and improved scoring consistency from Marina Mabrey will determine whether or not Chicago plays in the postseason this year.

Closing out games

The Sky entered the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak and have lost nine of 12 overall. The Sky have struggled mightily of late in the fourth quarter. After being outscored by 12 points and 10 points in the fourth quarters of both Atlanta games on July 7 and July 9, Chicago closed out its three-game home stint by being outscored by three points (22-19) in the fourth quarter against Connecticut.

The Sky have played well throughout the first three quarters of play. In the first three games with Emre Vatansever at head coach, the Sky have narrowly outscored opponents, 196-194, through the first three quarters. They have lost the fourth quarter a combined 63-37.

Before the All-Star break, center Elizabeth Williams noted that good teams find a way to close out games.

“Good teams do a good job of making winning plays, and especially at the end of games,” Williams said. “And so for us to consider ourselves ourselves a good team, we have to do the same. and unfortunately, we haven’t really been doing that lately.”

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Can Kahleah Copper keep this up?

Fresh off her third straight All-Star appearance, Kahleah Copper has been on a scoring tear lately. Copper is being asked to carry the Sky offensively — she is fifth in the league in usage rate entering Wednesday’s games, at 27.6, which would be a career high. It’s been working, though: Copper is averaging 19.6 points per game in her last eight games.

Earlier this year Copper became the Sky’s fourth all-time leading scorer in franchise history passing Elena Delle Donne. Known for her quick first step and explosive moves to the rim, Copper has added a three-point shot to her offensive arsenal this season, shooting a career-best 41.9% from three on over three attempts a game.

“I think being able to score every level is special when teams are playing off or whatever, I just gotta be able to make them,” Copper said of her threes. “So you know, it’s also about having that confidence in and getting a shot.”

Teams are likely to play off of Copper due to her driving ability and this season Copper has been making them pay.

Perhaps most importantly, Copper has missed only one game this season. One would expect teams to double Copper more in the second half of the season. It begs the question, can Kahleah Copper keep this career-year scoring pace up and lead the Sky to a playoff berth? Kahleah Copper clearly sets the offensive tone for the entire team. With the stellar play of Courtney Williams, the Sky are positioning themselves well to compete down the stretch. Now Copper needs her running mate, for whom the Chicago Sky sacrificed the a lot of draft capital, to regularly score as well.

Marina Mabrey’s scoring consistency

This past summer the Chicago Sky traded for Marina Mabrey expecting her to complement Kahleah Copper and form a one-two punch for years to come. The early results are mixed.

The good is Mabrey is getting to the rim at a career-high rate and is getting to the line 3.7 times per game. She is doing this all while shooting 36.6% from three, which would be the second-highest percentage of her career on over five attempts a game. Mabrey has enjoyed a new level of offensive freedom this year than she did in Dallas, and for her part, she is averaging a career-high 14.9 points per game.

Mabrey’s scoring consistency moving forward will be vital to the Sky’s playoff hopes. After scoring a career-high 36 points against the Indiana Fever on June 15, Mabrey is averaging 11 points in her last nine games. The Sky are 3-6 in those games. This stretch included a game-high in points of 8, 5, and 9 for Mabrey, short of her own stated goal of reaching the All Star game. The Sky are 5-4 when Mabrey scores over 15 points. Mabrey must consistently score from inside and out if the Sky wants to secure a playoff spot.

Keep the block party alive

Offense alone won’t get the Sky to the playoffs, however. Williams and Smith both currently rank among the league leaders in blocks per game. Both Williams and Smith average 1.6 blocks per game, and each averages a steal a game as well, complementing each other on the court. Williams is known for her defensive prowess. Elizabeth Williams’ five blocks against Connecticut before the All-Star break were her 17th regular season game with five or more blocks, tying Sylvia Fowles for fifth-most games with five-plus blocks all-time.

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) shoots as Chicago Sky center Elizabeth Williams (1) defends during the WNBA game between the Chicago Sky and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 25, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Meanwhile, Smith continues to have a career year while playing the most consistent minutes of her career. Smith has been everything the Sky has asked for and more. After losing their entire starting frontcourt a season ago, Williams and Smith have provided stability at the 4 and 5 positions, particularly at the defensive end, all season long.

A look ahead

On July 14, three-time NBA champion and 13-time All-Star Dwyane Wade announced he is now a member of the Chicago Sky ownership group after purchasing a 10% stake in the team.

The Sky will look to snap a three-game losing streak on the road. The Sky travel for a two-game road trip to Phoenix on Thursday, July 20 at 10 PM ET and to Seattle on Saturday, July 22 at 9 PM ET. This will be the second matchup against the Mercury this season and the first matchup against the Storm in 2023. This will be games five and six for newish coach Emre Vatansever.

Copper, who knows what it takes to carry a team to a WNBA championship, sees the keys as emotional as well as statistical.

“I think just with all the circumstances, I think we’re fine,” Copper said. “I think this is a group I’ll go to war with out there. Like if I can look into every single person’s eyes down the stretch, whether other teams on a run or we’re on the run, and we can connect, and we can have some fire behind our eyes. I could respect that so as long as I can look at the person next to me, and know that they want to go to war.”

Written by Monique Newton

Monique Newton is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University. She covers the Chicago Sky for The Next and has lived in Chicago since 2019. An Oberlin College graduate, Monique is a 2x Division III National Track and Field Champion.