PHOENIX — Just over 36 hours before Game 1 of the 2021 WNBA Finals tipped on Sunday, the Mercury found themselves locked in battle in a different city, against a different team and in an entirely different series. It took five grueling games to advance past the Aces in the league’s semifinals, a challenge made even more daunting by injuries to key contributors Sophie Cunningham and Kia Nurse. There was no rest for the weary.
Ten-time All-Star Diana Taurasi opened the '21 Finals by nailing each of her first two field goals to help Phoenix jump out to an early six-point lead. But the Sky’s depth proved overwhelming in their 91—77 Game 1 victory. It accentuated just how difficult Phoenix’s turnaround really was, and, in doing so, silenced a home crowd that seemed eager to erupt.
"I don't want to make excuses, but we were fatigued," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “When you’re tired, it’s like the brain goes a bit dead, and you’re just trying to survive out there."
Taurasi, who arrived back in Phoenix early Saturday morning in time for the birth of her second child, not surprisingly offered a different assessment about Sunday’s 14-point loss, failing to go so far as to say that fatigue played any factor. “They just took it to a different level,” she said. “That had nothing to do with us being tired. If you followed them for the last month, they were just playing at a different level.”
Yet, it was impossible to overlook how the cavalry of talented Sky scorers seemed to overmatch the Mercury defense. Chicago trailed 25—20 after the game’s opening 10 minutes, but settled in early in the second quarter. A 26—4 Sky blitz turned a nine-point deficit into a 13-point cushion with just under 40 seconds to play in the first half.
While six-time All-Star Candace Parker and three-time All-Star Courtney Vandersloot led Chicago in the game's first 20 minutes with 11 and 10 points, respectively, the duo scored only seven points combined after the break. Instead, they gave way to the talented roster around them.
Sky coach James Wade has called forward Kahleah Copper one of her team’s emotional leaders, noting that she also has an ability rise up over players and make contested shots that puts her in an elite class. She flashed her repertoire on Sunday, slashing the Mercury to the tune of 14 second-half points, en route to a game-high 21. Reserve center Stefanie Dolson notched nine of her 14 points in the second half as well, providing a key lift for Chicago off the bench.
All told, six different Sky players finished the win in double figures, compared to merely three from the Mercury.
“I think that’s what’s special about our team,” Parker said. “I think it’s Stef knowing that and being ready. I think everybody during the postseason has had a moment or had a game, where if we didn’t have them at that moment, then we wouldn’t win.”
In 2014, the Sky and Mercury met in the Finals, marking the last time either franchise had played for the league title. While Phoenix took home its third-ever champion in that 3-0 sweep, only four players remain between the two rosters, with Vandersloot and backcourt mate Allie Quigley being the longest-tenured Sky participants and star center Brittney Griner and Taurasi serving as Phoenix’s lone holdovers.
Taurasi was honored pregame as the winner of the league’s W25 G.O.A.T vote, much to the delight of the more than 10,000 fans in Footprint Center. But she made just three more field goals after hitting her first two jumpers and finished with a game-high six turnovers.
“I was pretty pathetic with the basketball today,” she said. “For playing so much basketball, that was pretty pathetic and that's on me. We can't turn the ball over like that, especially not in the Finals.”
Chicago, meanwhile, remained poised and led by double figures for all but one minute and 13 seconds in the second half.
The Sky looked onward on Friday night as Phoenix traded blows with Las Vegas. Having wrapped up their semifinal series with the Sun last Wednesday, they traveled to Sin City late last week ahead of the Mercury’s eventual Game 5 win, flying again on Saturday to finish preparation for Sunday's opener. The added days off appeared significant. And with their blowout win, they improved to 6—1 this postseason and re-claimed the Finals' home-court advantage.
Phoenix dropped its first game against Las Vegas in the semifinals, and has more than enough talent to recover again. With Game 2 not until Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET, Brondello said that her team will have ample time—at least by this postseason’s standards—to try and refresh their bodies and minds, in hopes of better containing Chicago’s multitude of weapons.
“We lost. Sh--. We lost,” said Griner, who led the Mercury with 20 points. “It’s a series. That’s what’s positive…We’ll be able to fight another.”
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