We’ve got a fairytale WNBA Finals between the No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury and No. 6 seed Chicago Sky!
Game 1 of the five-game series tips off on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.
While this is a rematch of the 2014 WNBA Finals, when the Mercury swept the Sky to win their last championship, the headliners of this version are Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi.
At the close of the 2020 season, it was hard to imagine either of the two GOATs adding another championship to their resumes. Both Parker’s then-Sparks and Taurasi’s Mercury had turned in multiple underwhelming seasons, with talented rosters repeatedly failing to reach their playoff potential. It seemed the two superstars’ careers would wind down with them never again raising the title trophy.
Yet, here we are.
Over the offseason, Parker departed LA for a team with a higher upside in Chicago. In Phoenix, a roster reconstruction that began last season started to bear fruit.
However, for both squads, the 2021 regular season was not quite a fairytale, as evidenced by their No. 5 and No. 6 seeds.
In Chicago, Parker’s triumphant homecoming soon was spoiled by an ankle injury that sent the Sky into a spiral. Even after Parker returned to the lineup, it was an uneven season for Chicago, despite the star turn of Kahleah Copper, the continued excellence of Courtney Vandersloot and the sharpshooting of Allie Quigley. Too often, impressive wins were balanced by dispiriting losses, resulting in a 16-16 record and the No. 6 seed.
Phoenix did not find a rhythm until the second half of the season, in part because Taurasi was in and out (and too often out) of the lineup with nagging injuries. In Taurasi’s stead, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith blossomed, with both turning in the best seasons of their careers. Across August and into September, the Mercury would reel off a 10-game winning streak, helping them secure a 19-13 record and the No. 5 seed. Yet, the majority of their 10-straight victories were racked up against subpar opponents, raising questions about their playoff quality.
Nonetheless, over the course of the 2021 WNBA playoffs, both Chicago and Phoenix have proven that they are, in fact, the best versions of themselves. Under the current playoff format, they are the first two teams to survive two single-elimination games and a five-game semifinals series to advance to the Finals.
So, how will this fairytale play out?
Phoenix swept the regular season series between the two teams, 3-0.
None of the three contests are particularly predictive, and not only because the Mercury now are without Kia Nurse, who is out for the Finals with a torn ACL after playing all 32 games during the regular season.
On June 1 in Chicago, the Mercury escaped with a one-point win, 84-83, thanks to a miraculous Nurse buzzer-beater. The Mercury were without Taurasi, while the Sky were missing Parker and Quigley. Two days later, on June 3, the teams traveled to Phoenix, where the contest went into overtime before the Mercury captured the three-point victory, 77-74. Taurasi and Parker again were absent, though Quigley returned to the court.
Encouragingly for Phoenix, Diggins-Smith was fantastic in both games, scoring 24 and 28 points, respectively. She also was spectacular in the third and final regular-season game between the two teams, with a double-double of 20 points and 10 assists. Although both Parker and Taurasi were active, the contest was not nearly as compelling as the previous two, with the Mercury running away with a 103-83 win.
Stymying Diggins-Smith thus should be a top priority for the Sky. In its semifinal series against the Connecticut Sun, Chicago did not have to be as concerned with offensive play from the guard positions. While the Sky’s defense against MVP Jonquel Jones and the stellar Sun front court was impressive, how will they handle a team that, although reliant on the post brilliance of Brittney Griner, can generate explosive offense from the perimeter? In addition to Diggins-Smith, the Taurasi factor, possibly boosted by Baby GOAT #2, looms, as these playoffs have reminded us on multiple occasions.
.@DianaTaurasi Elimnation Games— WNBA (@WNBA) October 9, 2021
Taurasi came ALIVE down the stretch, scoring 14 of her 24 points in the 4Q
DT's all-time record in #WNBA winner-takes-all games is NOW 16-2 #CountIt pic.twitter.com/5ziytIPryB
Yet, for all her supreme scoring exploits, Taurasi is a liability on the other end of the floor, even more so as she remains hampered by a high-ankle sprain. Against the Las Vegas Aces, Taurasi could be trusted enough to guard Jackie Young, a mostly unthreatening offensive player. Chicago’s starting guard and wing corps, in contrast, do not provide a clear “hiding place.”
Although it seems unwise to have her hound Courtney Vandersloot or chase Allie Quigley around screens, slotting Taurasi on Kahleah Copper, the Sky’s leading scorer during the regular season and playoffs, who can explode to the hoop in the blink of an eye, also is not a solution. While Taurasi’s offensive awesomeness certainly can outweigh her defensive shortcomings, the Sky have the personnel that consistently can cash in on her weaknesses.
Of course, the seasons of the Sky and Mercury, in combination with how these WNBA playoffs have unfolded, suggests it is foolish to try to hypothesize what will happen. The only thing to expect is that this WNBA fairytale will have an unexpected ending.
No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury (5-2) vs. No. 6 seed Chicago Sky (5-1)
When: Sunday, Oct. 10 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Footprint Center in Phoenix, AZ
How to watch: ABC, SN or NBA TV Canada
Key to the matchup: After a Friday night game in Vegas where all five starters played more than 30 minutes and only seven players saw the court, the Mercury must quickly get prepared for an early afternoon start time in the Valley on Sunday. In between, Diana Taurasi became a mom for a second time. Unfortunately, the littlest Taurasi-Taylor is not yet ready to suit up for the depleted Mercury. Off since Wednesday night, the Sky are rather well rested. However, they have been accustomed to the propulsive sprint through the playoffs, seeming to gain momentum with each successive game. Will this extra time off help or hurt? Will the Mercury, no matter how exhausted they might be, have the adrenaline edge? The unpredictable intersection of the physical and the emotional states of each team, as much as strategy, could significantly determine the outcome of Game 1.
Mercury injury report: Sophie Cunningham (questionable; left calf strain), Kia Nurse (out; right ACL)
Sky injury report: none