It's just a 3½-hour drive between Allstate Arena in suburban Chicago, and Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis. But the metaphorical distance between the two WNBA franchises that call those buildings home? Well, that's a larger gap.
The Chicago Sky finished first in the Eastern Conference and are making their playoff debut in their eighth season of existence. The Indiana Fever are the WNBA's defending champions and are making their ninth consecutive postseason appearance, their 10th overall. Game 1 is Friday in Chicago.
The Sky's veterans, led by center Sylvia Fowles and forward Swin Cash, welcomed rookie wing player Elena Delle Donne, who was the missing piece for the team. She came in willing to work hard and listen; the vets were not jealous about all the media attention she got. They knew how much she was needed. She knew how much she needed their advice and support. So the chemistry has been great.
But you have to applaud the Fever for their chemistry, too, because they were challenged in a very different way: injuries, injuries, injuries. Indiana had to almost literally limp through some stretches of this season, but it still stayed cohesive in the worst of times and earned a playoff spot yet again. And … the Fever won the season series with the Sky 3-1. Chicago's victory came June 22. The three Fever wins were in August and September.
Key to the series
Epiphanny Prince: The Sky shooting guard had 21 points in Chicago's lone victory against the Fever this season. In the two losses in August, she was a combined 6-of-22 from the field for 18 points, and Chicago scored just 58 points in each. In the fourth game, an 82-77 Sky loss, she scored 19 points. If Prince is "on," she makes it very difficult for opponents to guard the Sky, as she spreads the defense and gives Delle Donne (who missed the second game against the Fever with a concussion) and Fowles more room to work. And with a team that is as smart, tough and physical defensively as Indiana, Chicago needs to have multiple scoring threats.
Indiana got back guard/forward Katie Douglas at the very end of the regular season. She gives the Fever another veteran scoring option. It's hard to be sure how healthy Indiana still is, but the Fever seem to be in much better shape now in that regard than they were at earlier points in this season. And Indiana has the confidence of having defeated Chicago three times thus far. If the Fever can defend the Sky as well as they did in those victories, Indy can win this series. But if Chicago gets good production from Fowles, Delle Donne and Prince, the Sky will prevail.
Mechelle Voepel: Part of me says, "Hey, it's the Sky's turn, and they really are ready to make a run." However, another part says, "But the Fever know how to grind it out in the playoffs, and coach Lin Dunn has found ways to slow Delle Donne." So … I'll predict the Fever prevail in three games.
Michelle Smith: Sky in three games. The Sky have played too well all season for a first-round exit. The defending champs had too many injuries this year to find a consistently high level of play.
The Sky lost just 10 games this season -- but three of them were to the Fever (yes, the same Indiana team that at one point lost seven consecutive games). Chicago's lone win came June 22 -- during that aforementioned Fever skid when the defending champ was plagued with injuries. But in back-to-back wins over Chicago in early August, the Fever twice held the Sky to a season-low 58 points. Elena Delle Donne averaged 13.0 points (five fewer than her season average) in the three games she played in the series.