August 16, 2022 

Three things you need to know heading into Chicago Sky’s first-round matchup against the New York Liberty

Li Yueru will miss the rest of the season

Dating back to last year’s championship parade, the Chicago Sky have endured the outside noise. Chatter around the team’s possibility of winning back-to-back titles has permeated through press conferences, media appearances and the Twittersphere this season. It came up again after their practice today. While fans and media might be discussing the Sky possibly becoming the first team since the early 2000s Sparks to repeat, Chicago maintains it is business as usual.

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“I think we still have the same mindset,” Sky general manager/head coach James Wade said when asked about the difference between this year and last year. “I know we’ve been underrated all year. No matter how well we play. [One person] has us going out in the first round, but it’s a lot of people that are not giving us any credibility for the year that we had. We have to continue to put our head down and work like we’ve always done.”

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Before any serious talk about repeating as the champions can occur, the Sky need to beat the New York Liberty in the first round. There is a new format this year for the incipient stage of this year’s postseason after the first two rounds last year were single-elimination series. Now, Chicago will host New York in the first two games of a best-of-three series. The Sky beat the Liberty in three out of the four matchups this season, but two of those games were decided by one possession. Here’s what to follow with the playoffs starting tomorrow night.

New York needs the best version of Natasha Howard

Howard was named an all-star this year but hasn’t played like it versus Chicago this season. In four games, she is averaging just 11.8 points per game on 35% shooting while averaging 4.3 turnovers per game. Howard especially struggled around the rim against Chicago in their last matchup.

Despite these struggles, the Sky aren’t taking Howard for granted.

“She’s a helluva player,” Wade said. “We just have to do what we can to contain her. You let her get loose and she can exploit it. She’s a three-time champion for a reason. We just have to make sure that a lot of our efforts will go into containing her.”

According to Synergy Sports, Howard averaged 1.31 points per possession on non-post-up shots around the rim this season. She is someone capable of doing damage in the paint and can create opportunities for her teammates. Howard needs to bring her best against Chicago, who arguably has the most versatile frontcourt in the WNBA.

The Sky don’t need to shoot the lights out to win, but they can’t be off the entire series

Chicago has maintained all season it doesn’t need to be the best three-point shooting team to be successful (hence their 26-10 record). However, its offense is borderline unguardable when opponents are forced to respect their spacing and take away opportunities at the rim. In wins during the regular season, Chicago shot 38% from beyond the arc compared to losses where they shot 26.6%.

Given their efficiency down low, the Sky don’t have to shoot 50-40-90 every night to finish off the Liberty, but there have been times where they have shot themselves out of games. Their three-point percentage has dipped under 30% ten times this season (they went 5-5 in that span). They will likely need to clean that up as they get deeper into the playoffs.

However, Chicago has turned the page after going 3-3 to finish the regular season. Hitting open shots from beyond the arc will raise their ceiling, but the Sky understand they need to continue what carried them to the second seed.

“Everybody ups their level in the playoffs,” Allie Quigley said before the Sky’s regular-season finale versus the Mercury. “It’s a different energy and that has been steady the last four or five games…just that playoff energy. We’ve had a better season than last year, obviously, so it’s just about sticking to what we’re good at come playoff time.”

Li Yueru won’t be with the Sky for the rest of the postseason

Since not being active since July 29, Annie Costabile of the Chicago Sun-Times reported Yueru will not be with the Sky for the rest of the season (The Next confirmed the news with the team). The 6’7 rookie hadn’t seen the floor for a while, with the starters’ minutes ramping up before the postseason. The Chinese National Team told the Sky it wanted to bring Yueru back so she could prepare for the 2022 World Cup.

Wade told The Next there was no indication before the season that Yueru would not be able to compete in the WNBA postseason and that the timing was “weird.”

“No, it was bad communication on their part and I thought it just wasn’t done correctly,” Wade said. “The biggest thing that is disappointing is that I don’t know if it had to do with playing time, but Han [Xu] is there against us tomorrow. I think it is very unfair they decided to take Li but not take Han. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Yueru’s absence will likely not impact the Sky since she was the 11th player coming off the bench. Chicago has been playing closer to 7-8 players over the last few weeks in preparation for the playoffs. Wade noted Yueru was “happy in her role” and that she “just wanted to improve,” but the national team decided to bring her back to get her into game shape.

“They’re not in practices with us and they don’t see her workout, so they just wanted to make sure she was fit enough for the World Cup.”

Written by James Kay

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