By taking down the 8-2 Las Vegas Aces and putting the clamps on MVP candidate A’ja Wilson on Tuesday night, the Chicago Sky reminded us why they remain so fearsome heading toward the WNBA playoffs. The Sky, led by reigning Coach of the Year James Wade, held Wilson to 11 points on 12 field goal attempts and took down Wilson and the streaking Aces with a mix of brilliant team basketball and clever scheming.
It’s no small feat to contain Wilson. Despite an old-school style, Wilson has one of the best face-up scoring games in all of basketball. She combines tremendous shooting touch with incredible ball skills and a surprising first step to get to her spots basically any time she wants. Basketball fans have been watching her do this since she was competing for championships at South Carolina and through the first three years of her WNBA career.
But here’s the thing about Wilson. She’s left-handed, and pretty reliant on her strong hand. Even through seven years of competing at the highest levels in basketball, Wilson’s lefty creativity still catches opponents off guard. But not the Sky. Chicago deployed the combination of the bruising Stefanie Dolson and the longer, quicker Azura Stevens to get Wilson out of rhythm, take away the left hand, and force her into contested jump shots rather than at-rim finishes.
a'ja wilson had her worst game of the season last night finishing with 11 points on 3-12
how did the sky do it? refusing to let her get to her left hand and turning her into a jumpshooter
as good as wilson is she's only shooting 31.7 percent on jumpers this season pic.twitter.com/WNTJ8aMcw5
— jack maloney (@jackmaloneycbs) August 19, 2020
Wilson was off to the best start of her career as an interior scorer heading into this matchup against Chicago, and Wade’s game plan showed how aggressively he wanted to take that away. The clips above show how Dolson and Stevens both sacrificed proper defensive positioning to take away Wilson’s ability to drive left. Both defenders are quite different but each is agile enough to execute this admittedly simple game plan, and it threw Wilson all the way off.
its even more pronounced when you freeze it and can see just how much they're sitting on her left hand pic.twitter.com/fq2roJvVC2
— jack maloney (@jackmaloneycbs) August 19, 2020
And while the Aces came out early bombing away from three, that’s not their identity. After jacking five triples in the first few minutes, Las Vegas took just 13 the rest of the way. This was also a game in which Las Vegas tried to run more offense through All-Star Kayla McBride, who is having quite a poor season so far offensively. That’s important long-term for McBride and the team, but against Chicago, she was still out of rhythm, unable to take pressure off Wilson when the Sky jammed her post-ups.
Most of the night, McBride was the one player Chicago wouldn’t leave to come double Wilson, and they were pretty diligent about that. The Aces just weren’t active enough to make them pay by involving McBride in action off the ball, and McBride herself didn’t do enough cutting to take advantage of lapses like this one.
This has been the Aces’ story all season. Nobody except Wilson and veteran wing Angel McCoughtry have consistently scored the ball. The Sky are just the first team to have the personnel and game plan to make them pay for their over-reliance on those two for offense.
When Las Vegas did try to mix things up and initiate offense through someone other than Wilson, they found some easy buckets.
Here, McCoughtry brings the ball up, and head coach Bill Laimbeer calls for an off-ball screen by McBride that frees up Wilson cutting toward the hoop. Stevens loses Wilson and the All-Star gets inside for her only easy bucket of the night.
The other way the Sky took advantage of Las Vegas is by limiting its own turnovers and playing good transition defense. The Aces are near the top of the WNBA in transition offense and play at the quickest pace in the league by average length of possession, but Chicago limited them to just four points off turnovers in this one, with both of those buckets coming off live-ball turnovers by point guard Courtney Vandersloot. The rest of the time, Las Vegas just didn’t have their usual fast-break juice.
The game nearly turned when the Aces made a late run. After entering the fourth quarter down 6, Las Vegas made several key free throws that put the game back within reach with less than a minute to go. Then, the Aces got an incredible pull-up three from McBride to get within two.
Kayla McBride is the definition of CLUTCH. @kaymac_2123
— WSLAM (@wslam) August 19, 2020
McBride nailed two free throws a moment later to tie the game. That could have made Chicago curl up into a ball and play for overtime, but what it really did is set Wade up for yet another masterful sideline out-of-bounds play.
I CANNOT get over this entire sequence right here, easily one of the best LIVE basketball moments this year
— The Sky Show CHI (@TheSkyShowCHI) August 19, 2020
While having Vandersloot, the best passing point guard in the WNBA, is an advantage Wade can boast against every coach he faces, what stands out in this play more than anything is Wade’s understanding of personnel. Just like he realized that Dolson was more capable of moving Wilson off her spot while Stevens would need to rely on positioning and recovery, he uses his players’ strengths to attack Las Vegas perfectly.
In the clip above, Wade can be heard calling for his team to make sure Wilson is the target on the double-drag screen Vandersloot operates with Dolson and Stevens. Sure enough, Wilson gets smashed by Dolson’s pick:
This play can’t be appreciated without remembering the last sideline out of bounds play that won Chicago a big game, back during the opening weekend of the WNBA season. That play also hinged on a killer screen from Dolson, but was a “hammer” action in which both bigs set back screens for the guards, and Vandersloot found Allie Quigley for a game-winning corner three.
— WNBA (@WNBA) July 26, 2020
Flash back to last night, and Wade smartly used Quigley as a decoy, with McBride racing out to contain her when she initially gets the ball. With two players cleared out to the weak side, it’s three-on-three for the Sky with a bunch of space to operate. Dolson knocks Wilson — the Aces’ only rim protector — out with that big screen, and that allows Stevens to waltz into the paint for a layup that should never have been so easy.
Whether it was using size and speed to take Wilson out of the game or a beautifully concocted out-of-bounds play to seal the win, Wade and Chicago showed that their chemistry, depth and fit are the reason why they remain a contender for the 2020 title, even if they lack the traditional star power of the WNBA’s best.