The Chicago Sky moved on to the semifinals of the 2022 WNBA playoffs with a Game 3 win over the New York Liberty in their first-round series on Tuesday night. After a brief comeback attempt by the Liberty, the Sky went on an 16-0 run in the middle of the fourth quarter to put the game away and secure the win and take the series, 2-1.
Now, the defending champs need just six more wins to become the first team since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks to pull off a repeat. They have the talent to do so, but this league has shown time and again over the past two decades that winning back-to-back titles is extremely difficult.
(2) Chicago Sky def. (7) New York Liberty, 2-1
- Game 1:
- Game 2:
- Game 3:
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Players to watch
Sky: Kahleah Copper. The reigning Finals MVP has a knack for showing out when the lights are the brightest, and after averaging career highs across the board during the regular season, I expect Copper to push the limits even further when the playoffs start. She's got a dynamic first step that makes her lethal in isolation, can finish through contact at the rim and is shooting 35.6 percent from beyond the arc, her highest mark in five years. She can guard out on the perimeter or in the post, making her a dangerous two-way threat that will be a headache for the Liberty.
Liberty: Sabrina Ionescu. After earning her first All-Star nod this season, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick showed why she's a triple-double threat on a nightly basis for the Liberty. She led the team in points per game (17.4) assists (6.3), and ranked second in rebounds (7.1) for New York. We got a taste of Ionescu in the playoffs last season, but with the new format this season we'll get to see the former Oregon Duck in a full playoff series going head-to-head against one of the best floor generals in the league.
Three keys that will decide the series
1. Battle in the backcourt. Ionescu vs. Courtney Vandersloot is going to be one of the best head-to-head battles in the first round of the playoffs. Though Ionescu has the advantage when it comes to scoring and rebounding, Vandersloot has been the league's best point guard for several years now. In the Sky's title run a season ago, Vandersloot eclipsed the double-digit mark in assists in all four games of the WNBA Finals, and has the ability to drop 20-plus points when needed.
But the backcourt battle goes beyond just those two. Filling out the other guard spots are Allie Quigley for the Sky, and a combination of Crystal Dangerfield and Marine Johannes for the Liberty. Quigley is one of the league's best sharpshooters, and while we saw a dip in her efficiency this season, she still ranked in the 89th percentile among spot-up shooters in the league, generating 1.165 points per possession.
On the other side of this battle is the speedy Dangerfield, who, despite being severely undersized at 5-foot-5, uses her crafty handle and quickness to get to her spots and finish well at the rim, from mid-range and 3-point territory. Dangerfield starts majority of the games for the Liberty in the backcourt alongside Ionescu, but Johannes sees slightly more playing time in part because of her penchant for ridiculous shot making, like this running 3-pointer she took in the regular-season finale against the Atlanta Dream last week:
That was Johannes' sixth-made 3-pointer of the game, which was a career high for the French guard. Aside from Johannes' shooting, she's also a dangerous facilitator, delivering no-look or whip-around passes with European flair, giving New York another elite playmaker alongside Ionescu.
The Sky have the advantage with their veteran leadership and championship experience, but the Liberty's backcourt isn't to be taken lightly and can light up opposing teams in a variety of ways.
2. Streaking Liberty vs. stumbling Sky. Although these two teams are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of success this season, they're entering the playoffs in very different positions. The Sky may be the No. 2 seed, but they're coming off an August that saw them go 3-3 over the last month of the regular season. That wouldn't be that big of a deal for most teams in the league, but Chicago dropped just four games in June and July combined, which shows the defending champions took a step backward in August, which ultimately cost it the No. 1 overall seed. After finishing the first two months with the fourth-best defense in the league, the Sky fell to seventh in August. Chicago will have to hope that its defense from the start of the season shows up in the playoffs. Otherwise it could be the difference between repeating as champs or falling short.
For the Liberty, they're coming into this series with a 5-2 record in August, owning the third-best net rating in the league during that span. New York started to catch fire late in the season, and fought tooth and nail for each win to stay in the playoff hunt to get to this position. Though four of those wins came against two teams who aren't in the playoffs, New York deserves credit for turning its season around after starting out 1-7. This is a team that appears to have found its footing at the right time, and has the potential to catch the defending champs off guard.
3. Can Betnijah Laney find her footing? One of the biggest X-factors in this series will be Laney, who missed all but nine games of the regular season due to knee surgery in June. A season ago Laney was the Liberty's leading scorer, averaging 16.8 points a game, and put up 25 points in New York's playoff loss to the Phoenix Mercury last season. Laney's 3-pointer with two seconds left in the fourth quarter tied that game up, but a clutch free throw from Brianna Turner ended New York's season in heartbreaking fashion.
It was an impressive showing from Laney a season ago, but her disjointed 2022 season resulted in a considerable setback for the All-Star guard. At her best, Laney can score off the dribble, act as a secondary playmaker and go to work in the post when she has a favorable matchup. Her 3-point shooting bounced back this season after a considerable dip in 2021, but given she played in just nine games this year, it's a small sample size to go off of.
Laney's 17-point performance in the second-to-last game of the season against the Atlanta Dream was a positive sign that she could be rounding into form at the right time, but that game was followed up with a nine-point outing where she shot 37.5 percent from the field and just 1 of 4 from beyond the arc. The Liberty don't need Laney to replicate her playoff performance from a season ago, but her production will be important if New York wants to be competitive against the reigning champs.
The Liberty aren't a team the Sky can afford to overlook, especially when they're making their 3s, but Chicago just has so much firepower that will be difficult for New York to contain. I'm picking the Sky to come out on top, but I do think the Liberty can take a game off the defending champions. Pick: Sky in three