Above the Break: Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray and the Storm defense

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This week, Above the Break looks at the state of each playoff series, including Chelsea Gray, the smothering Storm defense and Candace Parker stepping up.

On Sunday, the four remaining WNBA teams will take the court for the two Game 3s of the WNBA Semifinals. Heading into these games, both series are tied 1-1.

What that means: the lower seeds now have a chance to lock this series up with consecutive home games. The higher seeds need one win to send it back to their homecourt for Game 5…unless they just go win a pair of games on the road.

So, how did we get to this point? Let’s examine where these series are and how we got her

The Storm defense has held Vegas

The eye test says that this has been a very, very physical series, and the Storm defense has done an excellent job limiting one of the greatest offenses in WNBA history.

Vegas averaged 90.4 points per game this season, the third-highest mark in league history, behind only the 2009 and 2010 Mercury teams. The team had the second-best offensive rating of all time at 108.1, only behind the 2019 Mystics per Her Hoop Stats.

In this series, Vegas scored 73 in Game 1 and 78 in Game 2.

What happened?

The Storm have just been really aggressive on that end.

During the regular season, the Aces were blocked 4.1 times per game and allowed 5.6 steals per game. In Game 1, Seattle had six steals and five blocks. In Game 2, that number slipped to three steals and five blocks, but in both cases, Seattle’s aggressive defense was forcing miscues from the Aces:

Kelsey Plum, in particular, has struggled with this defense. Plum shot 46 percent from the floor and 42 percent from 3 in the regular season. In this series, she’s 3-for-13 from deep and has shot 34.7 and 40 percent overall in the first two games.

Seattle is smothering the Aces. And it’s been most apparent when Vegas has played its starting five, as the group of Stokes/Wilson/Young/Plum/Gray has a net rating of minus-20.3, with an 81.3 offensive rating per WNBA.com. Stokes lacks versatility, which makes it tougher for the Aces to adjust to this Storm defense. Seattle’s figured out a way to slow this group down, and there’s not too much that can be done about that, other than to counter by going small, which the team has done more and more. The 17 minutes where they’ve subbed Riquna Williams in for Stokes and have just tried to outshoot the Storm have worked, with a plus-38.5 net rating in those minutes.

Now that Vegas knows they can spread it out, play small and counter what Seattle has been doing that way, can the Seattle defense adjust again?

Chelsea Gray steps up

A’ja Wilson. Breanna Stewart. Those two are the story of these playoffs.

But another story is emerging: Chelsea Gray.

Gray has long been in the conversation for the league’s best point guard, but something has stopped her from surpassing Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot. Maybe it’s a consistency issue, as Gray can fade from games at times. Maybe it’s that she’s always played on such talented teams that she hasn’t always needed to assert herself.

But in this series, Chelsea Gray has gone out there and taken over games, on both ends of the floor. Whether it’s been her getting in there and tying up Seattle players to force jump balls or her putting up a 19-7-7 in Game 2, Gray is asserting her dominance on both ends of the floor.

Gray has played 73 of the 80 minutes in this series. The Aces have a 101.4 offensive rating with her on the floor vs. a 35.3 offensive rating when she isn’t. I don’t want to read too much into a seven-minute sample, but uhh…that’s a big difference.

During the regular season, Vegas seemed to be extra careful with Gray’s minutes, and she finished fourth on the team in minutes per game. That looks like it’s paid off. Gray has so much energy out there right now. She’s aggressive on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, Gray is able to create her shot off the dribble, making her dangerous when a screen gets set and she can be switched onto someone like Sue Bird, who gets a little lost on the play above and allows Gray to have way, way too much space.

Gray can make the tough shots too. She doesn’t necessarily need to have things like “space.” Sometimes, she’ll fire up an off-balance 3 with two players in her face and it will just…go in the basket.

There’s also Gray’s passing ability. While Vandersloot is the first name people think of when they think of assists in the WNBA, Gray’s the second-best passer in this league at worst. She can make any pass — into traffic, no look, just whatever you need from Gray, she can do it.

A’ja Wilson might be Vegas’ best player, but Chelsea Gray has arguably been their most important one in this series.

Candace Parker puts Chicago on her back

Let’s take a moment to look at the other series. I know that Vegas/Seattle has gotten a lot of the media attention because of the A’ja/Stewie matchup, but there’s a whole other series going on between two really good teams.

Connecticut’s size has given Chicago some trouble in this series. In Game 1, the Sky scored just 63 points in the loss. Candace Parker had 19 of those, plus 18 rebounds, five assists, four steals and six blocks. Parker was the only reason that game wasn’t a blowout. The Sky backcourt combined for just 12 points and Emma Meesseman shot 36.4 percent. Kahleah Copper played well, but Parker’s heavy involvement on both ends kept that game close. Chicago offensively played like a team that should have only scored 63. But Connecticut — take away the turnovers forced by Parker, and that’s a team that should have scored a good bit more than the 68 they got.

In Game 2, Parker continued her excellence. She scored 22 points in Chicago’s 85-77 win.

One of the most impressive things about Parker is how she can make a difficult situation look easy. In the play above, we have Parker dribbling at the top of the arc. Connecticut sends another player at her to thwart her drive, and she’s forced to pick the ball up. But instead of giving the basketball up to a teammate, Parker shoots the turnaround instead, sinking it.

Parker got a little more help in Game 2. Meesseman shot well. Allie Quigley drained three 3s. Vandersloot added eight assists.

But Parker remained that engine that fueled the Sky. She blocked three shots. She was a plus-18 on the day. If the Sky are going to repeat as WNBA champions, the team is going to need Parker to keep doing these things.

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