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Chicago Sky face rookie star Caitlin Clark, Indiana Fever again

The Chicago Sky still haven’t figured out the Indiana Fever.

By the time they reach tipoff Sunday at Wintrust Arena, the teams might be sick of each other. This will be their third matchup in four weeks — and their second in eight days. And after the Fever won the first two meetings, the pressure is on the Sky to return the favor in their first home game of the season series.

The Clark challenge is a steep one. Caitlin Clark is averaging 16.2 points and 6.2 assists as she jostles with Angel Reese at the forefront of the Rookie of the Year race. The guard has been the cornerstone of a four-game winning streak for the Fever, the team’s first since 2015. And she’s the driving force behind the sellout crowd expected to converge Sunday, with courtside tickets ranging up to $1,450 as of Saturday.

Clark wasn’t the main concern in the first meeting, scoring 11 points in the June 1 matchup while shooting 4-for-11 from the field. Her shooting snapped into form in the second matchup Sunday when she scored 23 points and added nine assists.

While the Sky aren’t losing these matchups because of overwhelming scoring performances from Clark, any defensive scheme against the Fever begins with the star guard. The Sky have tinkered with different 1-v-1 assignment for Clark defensively, but another Chennedy Carter matchup is likely Sunday.

As a team, the defense will focus on two keys to slowing Clark: Get the ball out of her hands and don’t foul her when she goes to the rim. Clark is still learning how to get herself to the free-throw line in the WNBA — ranked 17th in the league in free-throw attempts — but she took six in her last game against the Sky.

But for the Sky, there’s another crucial challenge with shutting down Clark: her budding connection with center Aliyah Boston, who has found her stride after a rocky start.

Boston’s struggles in the opening weeks of the season were a focal point as the Fever floundered through a losing streak. But something began to click this month. Boston averaged 18.4 points and 11.4 rebounds over the last five games, including scoring 19 points against the Sky last weekend. And her chemistry with Clark finally has begun to sizzle, delivering the vision of the one-two punch the Fever had been promised.

The Sky are typically comfortable in a frontcourt matchup with Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso, who took little time to adjust to the WNBA. The two effectively have established their presence on the offensive glass, ranking first (Reese, 4.9) and third (Cardoso, 3.1) in the league to bolster the offense through cleanup points.

But neither player has the type of fluid offensive connection with a guard that Boston has found in Clark, producing dangerous looks in pick-and-roll, spray-out and dump-off combinations that can twist up defenses. While the Sky frontcourt should be well-positioned to defend against the combination, Reese and Cardoso still aren’t set up to match that inside-out game on the other end of the court.

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) passes the ball from under the basket while being defended by Seattle Storm guard Jordan Horston (23) and center Mercedes Russell (21) on May 30, 2024, in Indianapolis. (Doug McSchooler/AP)
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) passes the ball from under the basket while being defended by Seattle Storm guard Jordan Horston (23) and center Mercedes Russell (21) on May 30, 2024, in Indianapolis. (Doug McSchooler/AP)

While the Sky are developing connections between their guards and frontcourt, they have to win games by shoring up other strengths to their offense: pushing the tempo in transition and protecting the ball in the half-court.

Forcing the Fever into early errors will be a key. The Sky forced 16 turnovers in their last matchup, a crucial production point for the offense. Clark continues to struggle with ball protection, averaging 5.6 turnovers. If the Sky can get the Fever off-balance early, their transition game will create the downhill momentum necessary to get Carter, Marina Mabrey and the frontcourt cooking offensively.

Ultimately, this matchup holds higher stakes than a typical regular-season game. Part of that hype is due to the stars at its center — Clark and Reese were the top two rookies in the first returns of All-Star voting and remain focal points for debate and discussion throughout the league.

And amid rebuilding seasons centered on first-year stars, the Sky and the Fever are on track to duke it out for one of the final spots in the playoffs. At 5-9, the Sky enter Sunday trailing the Fever by a half-game for the last postseason spot.

It’s still too early to worry about playoff standings. But as the Sky attempt to shake off a skid and get back above .500, Sunday’s game will present an opportunity to separate themselves from the bottom third of the league.

To do so, they’ll need to go through Clark.

Anna Harden

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