August 19, 2022 

What Kahleah Copper’s potential absence in Game 2 means for the Sky

James Wade: "We're fine."

The Chicago Sky didn’t need any bad energy ahead of their win-or-go home matchup against the New York Liberty but received it on the eve of their second game in the WNBA playoffs.

With a few minutes left in practice, Kahleah Copper went down to the ground grabbing her right ankle without making any contact with anyone. She remained there for a minute before she was helped off the floor by two members of the training staff.

The 2021 Finals MVP was in the training room for approximately 12 minutes before emerging and telling her teammates that she was okay. Copper did limp off down the hall after practice and didn’t take questions from the media.

Sky head coach/general manager James Wade was non-committal when asked if Copper would play Saturday against the Liberty. He was short with his answers when reporters followed up about the injury. However, the Sky’s injury report doesn’t include Kahleah Copper.

Wade is typically wary of giving too much information to the media. He doesn’t want to give an inch to his team’s opponents and will give laconic answers to not show his hand. His players didn’t have any other information given the timing of the injury and are focused on the task at hand.

“Listen, I’m a, ‘let’s live with the reality right now’ [type person],'” Candace Parker said after practice. “Obviously, we are better when we are whole. [Copper] brings things defensively. She’s one of our starters. We are hoping for the best and hope she is alright.”

Copper’s absence would be an enormous blow to a team trying to repeat as champions. She has been playing some of the best basketball of her career since the all-star break and leads the team in scoring and free-throw attempts. Copper usually defends the other team’s best offensive player while being able to torch teams in transition.

If she can suit up, there’s a possibility she won’t be at 100%. In that event, it could help the Liberty after they couldn’t stay in front of her in Game 1. If she is unable to go, the Sky will have a short turnaround to adjust with an early start for Game 2 (11 a.m. CT, ESPN/NBA TV).

If she doesn’t play, who fills in?

When Copper was away with the Sky earlier in the season fulfilling her overseas commitments, Chicago experimented with a lineup featuring Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Azurá Stevens, Emma Meesseman and Parker. Wade deviated from that upon Rebekah Gardner‘s Sky debut where she started in place of Stevens. Expect the second lineup to be penciled in for tomorrow’s game if Copper is out for Game 2.

Gardner has been the perfect complement to Copper this season after the Sky had to dig deep to find athleticism on the wing this past offseason. The 32-year-old has harassed perimeter players all year and Wade has trusted her in guarding some of the best backcourt members in the WNBA at the end of games. She is fifth on the team in fourth-quarter minutes and is averaging 8.6 points per game coming off the bench.

How the Sky play without Copper

If Copper doesn’t play tomorrow and Gardner fills in for her, the Sky will be trotting out a lineup they don’t typically utilize. Wade has only used a lineup featuring Vandersloot, Quigley, Gardner, Meesseman and Parker for 50 minutes this season. However, they played well together in that short period of time. That lineup has a 113.7 offensive rating and a 92.1 defensive rating (21.6 net rating).

While that grouping should present optimism for the reigning champs, the Sky’s defense has been off since the Commissioner’s Cup. Chicago has surrendered the third-most points to opponents over the last eight games. Its defense would take a hit without Copper, who is an All-WNBA defensive team candidate. The physicality she plays with on and off the ball has made it difficult for anyone to get going on offense when she is in front of them.

The Liberty had success in Game 1 using high ball screens near center court to make it difficult for the Sky to recover when they hard-hedge. How the Sky respond to this without having a full practice to adjust minus-Copper would be intriguing after Gardner scrimmaged with the second team this afternoon. Chicago has been heralded for its deep bench all year. After the coaching staff shortened its rotations late in August, it will come in handy if Copper is unable to go tomorrow.

What’s at stake if Chicago stalls out?

The Sky were adamant today they are not thinking about the future when it comes to this current group. However, Parker, Vandersloot, Quigley, Stevens, Meesseman and Gardner are all free agents after 2022. The path to re-sign all of them will be just as difficult as it was last offseason. Gardner is no longer a secret coming into next season; Quigley entertained the idea of retirement after last season; Vandersloot will have significant interest from other teams; Parker indicated before the season this 2022 may be her last year in the WNBA; while Stevens and Meesseman could demand big paydays after their strong years.

Unless players are willing to sacrifice their salaries for 2023 (Allie Quigley signed for $59,000 less this year compared to 2021), this could be the last hurrah for this group. There’s still a job to be done (along with a game they haven’t lost yet) before being able to consider what comes on the other side of this postseason. On the edge of elimination and facing that reality, the team is just focused on tomorrow.

“I think we value what this season is going to mean and try not to think too deeply about it,” Quigley said. “Whether it is the last [run] or we get one more run together, it’s just about taking advantage of this moment. Not very many people get to be defending champions and go for a second one. So we are just trying to take advantage of the moment.”

Written by James Kay

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