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2021 WNBA finalist Chicago Sky peaking at right time

After a regular season defined by mountains and valleys, the Chicago Sky are playing their best basketball when it matters most. They’re headed to their first WNBA Finals since 2014.

2021 WNBA Semifinals - Connecticut Sun v Chicago Sky - Game Three
In Candace Parker’s first season in Chicago, the Sky are zeroing in on a WNBA championship.
Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

The Chicago Sky are officially headed to the WNBA Finals after defeating the Connecticut Sun in the semifinals three games to one. It’s Chicago’s deepest postseason run since 2014, when the Sky were swept in that year’s Finals by the Phoenix Mercury. It’s also one of the more enigmatic Finals appearances by any WNBA team in recent memory.

Expectations for the 2021 Sky were high to begin the season, and for good reason. Chicago had added WNBA legend, reigning Defensive Player of the Year and hometown hero Candace Parker to a roster that had seemingly everything else it needed to compete for a championship: an elite point guard in Courtney Vandersloot, one of the league’s best shooters in Allie Quigley, remarkably athletic wings in Diamond DeShields and Kahleah Copper and a mixture of long and skilled bigs in the frontcourt.

For a multitude of reasons, things didn’t go quite as planned — at least not immediately — and Chicago spent much of the 2021 regular season either playing down to lesser competition or handily defeating fellow contenders.

At times, the Sky looked lottery-bound. They bottomed out at 2-7 early in the season — some of the losses coming in downright heartbreaking fashion — with a depleted 11-player roster missing Parker and Chicago veterans Quigley and Stefanie Dolson. So concerning was the Sky’s lack of depth that the team shipped 2021 first-round draft pick Shyla Heal off to Dallas and made a series of roster transactions that could only be described as salary cap gymnastics just to sign reserve guard Lexie Brown as soon as it could.

At times, they looked like world-beaters. With a healthy Parker, Quigley and Dolson all back in the lineup, Chicago won seven consecutive games from June 9 through June 24, outscoring its opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions during that span. It was during this period that the Sky looked to have shrugged off their early-season struggles and seemed primed to salvage a top-four finish in the standings.

The rollercoaster continued, however, and somewhat fittingly, Chicago finished the regular season at 16-16. In a way, it was the perfect compromise between the team’s highs and lows. The Sky had climbed out of the early hole they dug themselves, and yet a .500 record and sixth-place finish in the standings were underwhelming for a team that had such an exciting offseason just months prior. Failing to land a top-four playoff seed meant that the Sky would have to begin their postseason in a single-elimination game and face better-rested opponents if they advanced. FiveThirtyEight’s playoff prediction model gave the Sky just a two percent chance to make it all the way to the WNBA Finals.

2021 WNBA Semifinals - Connecticut Sun v Chicago Sky
The Chicago Sky celebrate after defeating the Connecticut Sun and advancing to the WNBA Finals.
Photo by Kena Krutsinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, come playoff time, the slate is wiped clean. Regular season records and statistics are thrown out. Every team that qualifies starts over at 0-0. The WNBA’s postseason format, while unfavorable to lower playoff seeds, leaves the door wide-open for chaos with single-elimination games in the first two rounds.

Essentially, the Sky got another chance to prove they were a championship-caliber team — and that’s exactly what they did.

Chicago cruised to a first-round victory over Dallas before beating Minnesota on the road, both wins convincing enough to build the momentum crucial to surviving a grueling playoff schedule. The Sky’s win over the Lynx, in particular, showed what they were capable of. They outscored a stout defensive team in the paint 48-32 and obliterated them in transition, 22-4.

It was the ensuing semifinal series against the No. 1 seed Connecticut Sun, though, that gave Chicago faithful what they had largely been expecting since Parker signed with the team in early February. Undeterred by Connecticut’s lofty regular-season success and host of hardware, the Sky outlasted the Sun in a thrilling double-overtime victory to open the series. Chicago then dropped Game 2 before roaring back at home, squeaking past the Sun in a nail-biting third game and finally sending Connecticut home in Game 4 — a win in which the Sky never trailed.

It was, many would agree, a championship-caliber performance.

In advancing to the WNBA Finals, the Sky have already made history. Chicago is the lowest seed to make the Finals since the league changed its postseason format prior to the 2016 season. It’s an interesting case in the “rest versus rust” argument; the Sky didn’t seem to need either homecourt advantage or extensive preparation time as they felled several higher-seeded teams who had earned those advantages.

Ultimately, though the Sky put themselves in a position that wasn’t exactly to their liking, no one can say that they didn’t make the most of it, turning a difficult playoff road into a transformative team journey. The disappointing regular season that yielded a lukewarm playoff seed is now a distant memory; the Sky are sitting right where they expected themselves to be when they broke camp back in May, and they’re now just three wins away from reaching their loftiest goal.