Astou Ndour, Sky will be tested against Aces in second-round of playoffs
The Sky’s next test will come Sunday when they play the fourth-seeded Aces in a win-or-go-home game at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
The Sky’s depth was tested when forward Jantel Lavender went down with a foot injury that required season-ending surgery in early August. The Sky were in the midst of a playoff race at the time.
But through the first round of the playoffs, the fifth-seeded Sky’s well-rounded roster has passed the test. Everyone has stepped up in Lavender’s absence, but no one has had a bigger breakout than forward Astou Ndour.
At first, Ndour seemed timid and overwhelmed when she moved into the starting lineup. Now, she’s visibly more confident.
After averaging 2.5 points in her first 10 games this season, Ndour is averaging 11.3 points in the last 12 games as a starter and has grabbed nine or more rebounds in five of those games.
‘‘She’s more disciplined,’’ coach James Wade said after practice Friday. ‘‘Now you’re held to a higher standard once you’re playing with All-Stars. . . . And I’m probably more impatient with the starting group, so the fact she can execute at a higher level is probably better.’’
In the Sky’s first-round victory Wednesday against the Mercury, Ndour scored 16 points and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
‘‘Astou has always had what she’s showing,’’ forward Cheyenne Parker said. ‘‘She’s just finally getting [an] opportunity to spread her wings. This bench has a lot of depth, and whoever’s on the court is going to get it done. So now is her time.’’
The Sky’s next test will come Sunday, when they play the fourth-seeded Aces in a win-or-go-home game in Las Vegas. And Ndour, who was held scoreless the last time the Sky played the Aces, will be someone to watch. They need her on both ends of the court.
Like the Sky, the Aces play an up-tempo game. Both are among the top three teams in the WNBA in scoring in transition.
Sky forward Diamond DeShields, one of the fastest and most athletic players in the league, is especially deadly in transition. Sixty-four percent of her points this season were scored on fast breaks.
But the Aces’ defense sets them apart. They lead the WNBA with a 95 defensive rating. The Sky, meanwhile, rank ninth out of 12 teams with a 100.1 rating.
The only way the Sky can win Sunday is if they stop All-Stars Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson, both of whom averaged more than 20 points against them this season.
How will the Sky do that?
‘‘I don’t know,’’ Wade said. ‘‘We’re just going to try to make their catches difficult and play defense.’’
Easier said than done.
Ndour will be challenged, but she won’t be in the fight alone. DeShields and center Stefanie Dolson also will be battling with Cambage and Wilson.
When the Sky played the Aces in August, the matchup between Dolson and Cambage got heated. Dolson was limited to a season-low 10 minutes, 37 seconds because of foul trouble. Afterward, Wade accused the refs of protecting Cambage.
Parker is still boiling from that game.
‘‘I wish we could get a clean slate of refs who don’t know any of the players because a lot of times — just being A’ja Wilson, Cambage — it’s like they just automatically want to call a foul because that’s who they are,’’ Parker said Thursday.
The Sky hope Sunday will be different.
“[We’re going to] make them uncomfortable, try to disrupt them as much as possible,’’ Parker said. ‘‘Frustrate them. Get them out of their rhythm.’’