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There will be an unusual look to the WNBA Finals that kick off later this afternoon. For the first time in league history, two teams that had to endure two single-elimination games in the first two rounds will meet in the finals. In a rematch of the 2014 WNBA Finals (won by Phoenix in a 3-0 sweep), this has the potential to be one of the greatest finals series in the league’s history. Let’s take a look at both teams:
Road To The Finals
Opening Round: defeated Dallas Wings single-game elimination
Second Round: defeated Minnesota Lynx single-game elimination
Semifinals: defeated Connecticut Sun 3 games to 1
During the regular season, the Chicago Sky had an up and down run. In a season with championship expectations, Chicago finished with a 16-16 record. After winning their opening two games, the Sky lost seven games in a row (all of them without Candace Parker) and were sitting at a 2-7 record.
When Parker returned, the Sky won eight of their next nine games and they seemed to have figured out the winning formula. But with injuries and inconsistent defensive performances (11 games allowing over 85 points), Chicago put themselves in the sixth seed in the playoffs.
Put since the playoffs have begun, the Sky have found that rhythm that they had early in the season. They defeated both Dallas and Minnesota by double-digits and they held the 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones to 45% shooting, and knocked out the team with the best overall record in four games.
Parker has been worth every penny so far this season and has taken it to another level, as she has lead her hometown team to the finals. Her game four performance against Connecticut (17 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists) will be remembered as one of her most legendary performances of her career. One of the greatest players to ever put on a WNBA Jersey has rubbed off her greatness on her frontcourt mate Kahleah Copper. Not only did she make her first all-star team: since the playoffs have begun to become the team’s best player. She leads the team with at 18.2 points per game.
Chicago possesses one of the best backcourts in the league in the dynamic Courtney Vandersloot and the sharpshooting Allie Quigley. Vandersloot’s elite passing not only leads to open looks for Quigley, but easier looks for Copper, Parker and Azura Stevens. Their bench is led by Diamond DeShields and Olympic Gold Medalist Stefanie Dolson.
Defense has been an issue with head coach James Wade’s team all season long. They allowed 81.9 points per game and have allowed 89 or more points nine times this season. In those games they lost eight of them. So far in the playoffs, Chicago’s defense has improved tremendously and they are playing their best at the right time. But the real question is, can it stay that way against Phoenix?
Road to the Finals
Opening Round: defeated New York Liberty single elimination
Second Round: defeated Seattle Storm single elimination
Semifinals: defeated Las Vegas Aces 3 games to 2
In the Chicago preview, I mentioned the injury to Parker having an effect on Chicago, but the injuries to Diana Taurasi might have impacted Phoenix just as much or even more. Taurasi missed exactly half the season and the Mercury were two different teams. When she was on the floor, Phoenix was 12-4.
But not having Taurasi on the floor led to Skylar Diggins-Smith having arguably her best season of her career. Diggins-Smith had big scoring nights when the team needed and was able to create for her teammates at the same time. She made her third 1st team All-WNBA team this season.
Taurasi and Diggins-Smith have been outstanding in the backcourt, but the play of Brittney Griner has made Phoenix elite. Griner has been dominant all season long. She set the franchise record by winning the player of the week award five times this season. Griner can impact the game in just about every single way. She can score (2nd in the league), rebound (6th in the league) and block shots (led the league).
Griner and front-court mate All-WNBA 1st team All Defensive team member Brianna Turner form an elite defensive duo in the paint. Turner normally guards the opposing team’s best interior player, allowing Griner to have some pressure taken off of her on defense. Her footwork on defense is one of the league’s best and she is always making some kind of hustle play at the most important times for Phoenix.
Unlike Chicago, Phoenix is not very deep and the injury bug has not helped the situation, either. The Mercury lost starting small forward Kia Nurse to a torn ACL in game four of the semifinals against Las Vegas. Sophie Cunningham has been slowed by a calf injury and Taurasi is dealing with a high ankle sprain and a potential fracture in her foot. Shey Peddy, who was a major player off the bench, has moved into Nurse’s spot and has been brilliant when called upon. But Bria Hartley, Alana Smith and/or Megan Walker will have to step up, especially if Cunningham is still not at 100 percent.
Matchup to Watch
Brianna Turner vs. Candace Parker
Turner is the best defense player not named Sylvia Fowler in the league. Anyone that Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello has put Turner on has had to work harder than normal to even get close to their regular statistics. Guarding Parker is different because Parker effects the game in more ways than scoring. Her passing and her ability to rebound allows Chicago to excel in the half-court.
Both teams are tired and especially Phoenix are hurting. Wade should tell his players to get Phoenix in foul trouble to force the Mercury to go deep into the bench. If they can accomplish that and get off to a good start after halftime, the Sky’s dream scenario of winning a championship is in reach. But after game five, the only way you count out a Taurasi led team is when she is not on the court.
Phoenix wins in Five games and I’m picking Brittney Griner to win Finals MVP.