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Why the Chicago Sky’s turnaround is the real deal

(Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

Just a couple of weeks ago, many were prepared to hit the panic button on the Chicago Sky. A popular preseason favorite, the Sky quickly found themselves toward the bottom of the league standings after a seven-game losing streak dropped them to 2-7.

On the outside, the record and injury list provided reason for alarm. But within the team, there was no panicking. For James Wade and his players, it was always about the next game.

The Sky found solace in the 2020 Connecticut Sun, who started the season 1-6 only to storm back and knock Chicago out of the playoffs. The Sun were an example that a slow start doesn’t define a team, and especially one that’s missing key players on the floor in Candace Parker, Allie Quigley and Stefanie Dolson.

“That was an example for us, like hey, we still got a lot of season left,” said Wade, Chicago’s head coach and general manager. “Let’s recommit ourselves to what we want to do, let’s get healthy, let’s not press the panic button, try not to rush people back. Let’s take our time and try to learn, just try to win the next one. We just started focusing on the next game.”

It helped that the Sky weren’t getting blown out during their losing streak. Every loss but one was by single digits and two went to overtime. Those close games undoubtedly prepared the Sky for what came next.

Chicago’s offense has been off the charts during its current seven-game win streak. With their 91-68 win over the Liberty on Thursday night, the Sky set a new franchise record for consecutive wins. In two weeks, the Sky have gone from the bottom of the WNBA standings to fourth place at 9-7.

During this most recent stretch, the Sky are averaging 90.7 points per game compared to just 76 points through the first nine games of the season. They’re also shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from the 3-point line as opposed to 38.3 percent from the field and 31.5 percent from beyond the arc to start the season.

The Sky are also taking far better care of the ball with Parker and Quigley back in the mix. Chicago is averaging 23.7 assists and just 13 turnovers in its last seven games, a dramatic shift from the 17.3 turnovers they were committing per game in the early portion of the season.

“You have all these pieces that complement each other, and if you take a few of those pieces away, you’re left more empty,” Wade said. “The shooting percentages, the turnover numbers that went down are attributed to having 90 percent of our roster here.”

The Candace Parker effect

The Sky are 8-0 this season when Parker is on the floor. Parker’s elite ability to make plays and demand a defense’s attention creates opportunities on the court that otherwise wouldn’t be there. She is a true generational talent who’s capable of playing any position and she has one of the greatest minds in the game. Simply put, it’s no wonder the entire game plan changes when she is on the court.

Chicago plays through Parker and she touches the ball on nearly every possession. Parker has the size and skill set to get the ball off the glass, push it herself and initiate offense, forcing opponents to pay attention to her at all times.

A basketball great like Parker can make her teammates better and increase their confidence.

“She’s won at every level, she’s carried a team on her shoulders,” Wade said. “It makes all of our other players think that they have the potential to be great or that they are great, and it puts them on a level of comfort knowing that a player like her has their back.

“You look at players that have influenced the game and changed the game like she has, they make you have to guard them differently and change your whole game plan. She is a playmaking 5, for the most part, that handles the ball. There’s just no way you can prepare for that.”

Ruthy Hebard’s emergence

One of those players operating with a ton of confidence right now is Ruthy Herbard. The second-year forward was thrust into a bigger role earlier in the season because of the Sky’s depleted roster and delivered while playing nearly 28 minutes per game.

Hebard’s offense was crucial in Chicago’s fifth-straight win over the Sun on June 19 when she made a couple of buckets in the fourth quarter to seal the Sky’s 91-81 win. The forward finished with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the floor.

A positive outcome of the early season struggles is that players like Hebard got valuable in-game experience, giving Chicago more quality depth options when the results matter even more later in the season.

“Ruthy stepped up big. I don’t know if she could do that if she didn’t play as much as she did during the earlier part of the season,” Wade said. “It helps their confidence, it helps the team’s confidence in them. Now that we have a few of our leaders back, it’s only going to make for a deeper team and makes us more versatile.”

Allie Quigley, bench star?

Allie Quigley has been a steady and consistent force for the majority of her career in Chicago. It is no surprise the Sky were hurting without her veteran leadership, calming presence and scoring ability.

During the seven-game win streak, Quigley has been the Sky’s leading scorer, averaging 14.3 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and 49 percent from the 3-point line.

And Quigley has been doing it all while coming off the bench. Wade’s strategy to have her be a part of the rotation is not something all three-time All-Stars would embrace.

“Allie is special. It doesn’t change when we play her or where we play her from, we’re going to play for her. Our offense is going to be predicated on her,” Wade said. “It is easier for us to put her in there and run plays for her after the game has changed a little bit.”

The X-factor: Free throws

Here is a stat we don’t talk about enough: Free-throw numbers. The Sky are the best free-throw shooting team in the WNBA, finishing 87.2 percent of those shots this season. Quigley leads the way, shooting 95 percent from the line during the Sky’s seven-game win streak.

During their win streak, the Sky are getting to the line nearly twice more per game. That might not seem like a huge deal, but over the course of the season, that efficiency and consistency can help push a team over the edge. The Sky’s ability to knock down free throws will help them secure close games down the stretch.