CHICAGO — With just over four minutes to go in the second quarter of Friday’s Game 3 between the Sky and the Mercury, Chicago wing Kahleah Copper found Diana Taurasi guarding her on the right wing. Copper, whose confidence has never wavered, drove baseline, blowing past the three-time WNBA champion en route to scoring what was at that juncture her 14th and 15th points of the night. Just over 90 seconds later, and already trailing by 20, Taurasi missed both an open three-pointer and layup, her seventh and eighth misses of the first half. It proved to be an especially telling sequence of events.
No one, not Taurasi, not Skylar Diggins-Smith, not Shey Peddy and not Sophie Cunningham could stop Copper on Friday night. She finished Chicago’s 86–50 win with 22 points in 24 minutes and would have surely added to her total had she played even a single second in the fourth quarter. The 36-point margin of victory proved to be the largest in Finals history as every Sky player who saw the floor in Game 3 scored. In doing so, the Sky are on the brink of their first championship in franchise history. For the Mercury, center Brittney Griner finished with a team-high 16 points but Taurasi and Diggins-Smith both struggled to mustard anything on offense, combining to score just 12. Here are three thoughts about Chicago’s Game 3 win.
Copper Overwhelms Phoenix’s Defense
The Sky find themselves within 40 minutes of their first championship largely because of how Copper performed. The explosive wing, whose minute totals were limited for consecutive games early in her professional career, played what was perhaps the best offensive game of her career, especially considering the circumstances, shooting 60% in an efficient 22-point showing. She knocked down two of her three shots from behind the arc and slashed through Phoenix’s defense with ease, finishing under, above and through any opposing defenders.
“We used to see it every day, even when she wasn't playing as much,” Sky coach James Wade said. “It's no surprise to us because we know what we have in her, and this is just—now she's letting the world know. It's just who she is.”
Copper started Game 2 in a similar fashion as she did Game 3. But while the Mercury limited her in the second half of Wednesday’s overtime loss, Copper remained aggressive in Friday’s victory. On average this season, Copper took more shots from within five feet of the rim than some of the game’s best bigs, such as A’ja Wilson, Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart. Her ability to attack the basket is a big reason why the Sky have gotten this far, and why this series looks the way it does.
Mercury Big Three Struggles to Get Into an Early Rhythm
Phoenix’s Big Three never got comfortable on Friday night, shooting a combined four-for-22 in the first half. Maybe it was a function of the sold-out Wintrust Arena crowd ,which Sky guard Diamond DeShields described as “what you dream about.” But Taurasi said afterward that the Mercury will need to open Game 4 with more “intent” in if they hope to extend their season.
“Today, honestly, nothing worked, inside, outside. They really just took us out of everything we wanted to run,” Taurasi said.
The 50-point outing was the Mercury's lowest total in a game that Taurasi has played since her rookie season in 2004. Phoenix’s 25% shooting percentage was also the lowest in Finals history.
Diggins-Smith said that the Sky were the “aggressors” on Friday night, with Chicago’s perimeter defense being especially disruptive. “They flood the ball hard on on-balls, and we just didn't do a good job of handling it and getting out of it,” she said.
With just over nine minutes to play, Griner, Taurasi and Diggins-Smith checked out of the blowout loss, having each played less than 30 minutes. They should be well-rested entering Game 4, but so too are their opponents.
Does Phoenix Have an Answer in Game 4?
Ahead of Friday’s defeat, Taurasi told a group of reporters that at this point in the season the biggest changes made between games are “attitude adjustments” and “a mindset adjustment.” It was a sentiment that Mercury coach Sandy Brondello echoed afterward, when asked about what changes her team needs to employ ahead of Sunday. “I don't think it's X's and O's now, it's just the attitude that we're going to come out and play in the next game," she said.
Nevertheless, it would appear as if more significant changes are going to be needed if Phoenix wants to extend the 2021 Finals.
Through three games, the Mercury have not found a consistent way to slow down Copper, or any of the Sky’s other talented wings for that matter. Copper has scored in double-figures in every game this series, and it’s likely a number of her teammates would have also kept their double-digit scoring streaks alive had Game 3’s outcome come more into question.
Phoenix’s offense, which was No. 2 in the league in the regular season scoring 104.3 points per 100 possessions, has also failed to generate as easy of looks, especially compared to their opponent. Griner remains a mismatch in the paint, but she alone will not be able to ship the series back to The Valley. Taurasi and Diggins-Smith will need to make more than three field goal attempts and the Mercury’s supporting cast will have to try and replicate the impact they made in what is thus far their lone win this series.
The Mercury were the league’s best road team in the regular season and have gone 3—0 in possible elimination games this playoffs. But Sunday presents their most difficult test yet.
“All year we've faced adversity, and we have a veteran group,” Diggins-Smith said. “We'll go back and look at it and see what changes we can make. We don't have a choice. We've got to win. We have to win from here on out."
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