Chicago Sky coming on strong as WNBA regular season winds down

After a weekend with the now-familiar twists and turns of this WNBA season, the playoff picture with two weeks to go remains up in the air — which, appropriately enough, is working out for the Sky.

Chicago had two huge victories — over first-place Washington on Friday and at Phoenix (with Diana Taurasi back) on Sunday — to put the Sky in contention for a bye into the second round. And maybe even for the double-bye into the semifinals.

Pretty good stuff for a team that missed the playoffs the past two seasons, going a combined 25-43, and has a new coach this year. James Wade took the job saying he thought Chicago could be a contender. He was right.

When the dust had cleared Sunday night, the Mystics were on top of the WNBA at 21-8, followed by Connecticut (20-9), Los Angeles (18-10), Las Vegas (19-11), Chicago (18-11), Seattle (15-14), Minnesota (15-15) and Phoenix (13-15).

The weekend in brief went like this: the Mystics and the Sun were tied atop the league as of Friday night after Washington’s loss to the Sky, and Connecticut’s victory over Las Vegas. There were no games Saturday – deep breath – and then a full slate Sunday in which every team played and things got jumbled again.

Washington pulverized New York, while Connecticut had to fly cross-country and fell at Los Angeles, which for the first time all season is now at full strength and looking dangerous. Las Vegas lost to a Minnesota team that has climbed to .500 and should feel good about that with all the changes the Lynx have had to deal with.

Seattle clinched a playoff spot before taking the court (thanks to the Liberty’s loss), which is no small deal considering the Storm have played this season without Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, and were also without Jewell Loyd for a stretch. But then the Storm stumbled Sunday against Indiana (10-19), which hasn’t quite been eliminated from playoff contention yet.

Atlanta (7-22), the league’s last-place team, showed it still has some bite, too. It has been a nightmare season for the Dream without injured Angel McCoughtry, who created some intrigue last week with an Instagram post that said she planned to appear in the team’s final regular-season game on Sept. 8. The post was worded in such a way that suggested maybe that might be it for her and the Dream. McCoughtry later changed the wording, and coach Nicki Collen said that McCoughtry hasn’t been cleared to play yet anyway. So stay tuned on that one.

Still the Dream, after losing 12 in a row, won twice this weekend on the road: Friday at New York and Sunday at Dallas. This summer has been a big drop for a team that was one game from the WNBA Finals last year, but Atlanta hasn’t given up despite being eliminated from the playoffs already. Even during the Dream’s losing streak, they were playing close games. Two of them finally went Atlanta’s way against two other teams expected to be in the draft lottery.

The Sky, meanwhile, have had four lottery picks over the last three drafts. Alaina Coates (No. 2 in 2017) didn’t work out — she’s now in Atlanta — but Diamond DeShields and Gabby Williams (Nos. 3-4 in 2018) and Katie Lou Samuelson (No. 4 2019) are part of the Sky’s young core. DeShields has been the star, leading the Sky in scoring (15.7 PPG) and typically making at least one play a game that elicits gasps.

Williams is more of a role player, but one who helps defensively and brings energy whenever she’s on court. Samuelson has been limited to 15 games because of injury, but there’s still time for her to catch a little fire and help the Sky from behind the arc.

Stefanie Dolson (9.4 PPG), Cheyenne Parker (8.2) and Astou Ndour (5.2, but she has scored in double figures four of the last five games) patrol the inside. It’s a shame that Jantel Lavender — who came over in a preseason trade with Los Angeles and was averaging 10.0 points and 6.9 rebounds — is out for the season with a foot injury suffered Aug. 9.

But Ndour has risen to the challenge of filling in for Lavender. There’s a gritty, won’t-back-down quality to the Sky’s posts, who may not be marquee players but are getting the job done. Same goes for reserve wing Kahleah Copper (6.6 PPG).

Then of course, there’s the heart of the Sky: the married-couple backcourt of Allie Quigley (14.0 PPG) and Courtney Vandersloot (11.3 PPG, league-best 9.0 APG). It’s Quigley’s seventh year with the Sky and Vandersloot’s ninth, and they represent the backbone of the franchise.

In Sunday’s 94-86 victory against the Mercury, Taurasi — playing just her second game this season — finished with 12 points but went 2-of-13 from the field. For Chicago, Quigley led the way with 24 points, with DeShields chipping in 18, Parker getting her third double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds) this season and first since June, and Vandersloot having a classic Sloot line: nine points, nine rebounds, 13 assists, zero turnovers.

The Sky’s 85-78 victory Friday over Washington ended the Mystics’ six-game winning streak and also helped Chicago get over a mental hurdle. It was the first time since Elena Delle Donne left Chicago for Washington going into the 2017 season that the Sky had beaten the Mystics. Delle Donne insisted on a trade, as had a previous high-profile No. 2 pick for the Sky, Sylvia Fowles, in 2015.

The Sky and their fans have had to deal with being a team that superstars wanted to leave, but maybe that has also been a bonding agent for them.

At the All-Star break, the Sky were at a crossroads. Since early June, they’d had a stretch where they won four in a row, then lost five of six, then won five of six.

DeShields, Quigley and Vandersloot were All-Stars, but the entire Chicago team came to Las Vegas to support them. It showed the group’s unity, and when asked about how the Sky would attack the second half of the season, Quigley said, “I think we all feel the same: We have a huge opportunity.”

Since then, Chicago is 7-3 with no bad losses; those were to fellow playoff teams Connecticut, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. There’s still a lot to navigate over these final two weeks, starting with a trip to Minnesota on Tuesday and finishing at Washington on Sept. 8. But the Sky have a chance to position themselves well. And this past weekend was a big key to that.

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