This time last year, the Sky were .500 and working through an Olympic break that players still have visceral reactions to when it’s brought up.
Details on what general manager/coach James Wade put them through during those four weeks are elusive, but Wade didn’t take it easy on them. The grueling practices included full-court, one-on-one drills that were meant to prepare the Sky for a playoff push.
Throughout its erratic season, Wade’s team stayed on message, as cliché as it is, that the season restarts in the playoffs.
This year, everything is different. The Sky hold a two-game lead for the No. 1 playoff seed with a week left in the regular season. Though they say they still haven’t played their most complete basketball, they have every other team in the league talking about them as the standard.
“We’re more than likely going to have to go through them to win a championship,” Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones said last week.
The Sky are coming off a dominant win, their franchise-record-tying 24th of the season (2013), against the Washington Mystics in what was the closest they’ve come to a complete game all summer.
Six players scored in double figures, but more impressive than their balanced offensive attack was their efficiency. The Sky committed just seven turnovers, tying their lowest mark of the season, and had 27 assists on 36 made field goals.
Their perimeter defense was suffocating, leading to 10 steals and 23 points off of 12 Mystics turnovers.
The Sky have four games left in the regular season, beginning Sunday against Jones and the Sun. The Sky have won all three meetings against the current No. 3 playoff seed.
They’ll host the fourth-seeded Seattle Storm on Tuesday before ending the season on the road against the Las Vegas Aces and the Phoenix Mercury.
The Aces present the Sky’s toughest remaining test. While they were able to surmount a 28-point deficit, the largest in WNBA history, against Becky Hammon’s team in June, they still haven’t figured out the formula to beat the Aces consistently. The Sky are 1-2 against the current No. 2 seed, including a loss at home in the Commissioner’s Cup. The Aces have forced the Sky onto their heels in every game this season.
Similar to this time last year, the Sky are emphasizing that they have another level to reach. But unlike last year, the Sky’s backs aren’t against the wall while they’re saying it. Their motivation is slightly different as well.
Now, they’re focused on maintaining home-court advantage in the playoffs. If they win out, they will.
“It feels good to be confident and feel like everything is going right heading into the playoffs,” Kahleah Copper said. “I’m just happy that we’re feeling good, playing our best basketball but know there’s so much room for improvement.”