October 11, 2021
Copper’s big night lifts Chicago Sky in Game 1 of WNBA Finals
Wade: 'As the Finals goes on, people are going to start paying attention to her'
“We’re not tired. We’re just getting our ass kicked right now.”Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi to ESPN’s Ros Gold-Onwude during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals
Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi had every reason to cite fatigue after a wearying 48 hours prior to Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. After an “emotional” Game 5 win over the Las Vegas Aces on Friday night, Taurasi arrived home in time to witness the birth of her second child with wife Penny Taylor. She then got ready for Game 1 of the WNBA Finals and was named the WNBA G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) in a ceremony at the Footprint Center in Phoenix.
What was the Chicago Sky’s game plan to beat the G.O.A.T. and fellow WNBA All-Time Top 25 member Brittney Griner? “Our big focus this postseason has been about our defense, our rebounding, our ability to move and share the ball,” said yet another Top 25 member, Chicago’s Candace Parker, in a previous press conference.
Sky ain’t ‘fraid of no G.O.A.T.
But no G.O.A.T., or 10,191 fans at the Footprint Center, could stop the Chicago Sky as they took full advantage of a fatigued Mercury team that didn’t have guards Kia Nurse and Sophie Cunningham. After shaking off some first-half jitters, they recovered midway through the second quarter to get their first WNBA Finals victory in franchise history, 91-77.
After rallying, the Sky outscored Phoenix 48-32 in the paint and held them to 28 total rebounds. Six players scored in double figures, marking just the fifth time in league history a team has done so in a Finals game and the first since Indiana in 2009.
“Everybody had first-game jitters except Candace,” Sky All-Star Kahleah Copper said postgame. “She was that calmness for us.”
Parker said that that was part of her role as a leader on this team. “The biggest thing for me that I don’t think I understood when I was younger is that you have to be the calm for the storm, and you have to be the storm when everyone’s calm,” she said.
Even with the jitters, the Sky trailed by only five points after the first quarter, and they finally started to connect in the second quarter. With the Mercury leading by nine, Courtney Vandersloot shook things up with a driving finger roll layup with 8:41 left, and Azura Stevens tied it with two free throws at 4:22. In the intervening minutes, Copper fueled the run by putting back Allie Quigley‘s missed shot, then getting another offensive rebound and lobbing the ball to Stevens, who made a cutting layup.
Copper’s big night included her second career double-double with 21 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Wade couldn’t say enough postgame about her performance. “Her speed, her athleticism and her tenacity, those are three things that really make her a hard matchup, but also her talent,” he said. “She’s a high-level player. Now, I think, as the Finals goes on, people are going to start paying attention to her. I think people will notice what we know.”
By the end of the first half, the Sky had produced a 26-6 run, including a 17-0 spurt, to take a 46-35 lead at the half.
The Sky had an up-and-down third quarter but never relinquished the lead, and they saved their best for the fourth quarter.
Stefanie Dolson, who had 14 points off the bench, made a floating jumper and an alley-oop lay-up to put the Sky up by 15 points with eight minutes left in the game. Then Copper made two free throws and a 3-pointer to push the lead to 20 with six and a half minutes remaining.
“I told [Dolson] before the series, ‘You’re going to be big for us next series, and we are going to need you to be locked in,’” Wade said. “In the last series versus Connecticut, we knew we were going to think differently heading into this matchup. That’s why we needed her locked in, and she’s going to be big for us this series.”
Keys to Game 2
Both teams will have ample time to rest before Game 2 in Phoenix on Wednesday, Oct. 13. Here’s what the Sky need to do to go 2-0 in Phoenix.
Make them uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.
Dolson summed up the main factor in winning the game: “For us, it’s going to be about making them uncomfortable and making them do things they don’t want to do.”
Find a way around Griner
As the starter, Stevens will get first crack at containing Griner, who is arguably the least containable player on the Mercury. However, by substituting in Dolson and Astou Ndour-Fall, the Sky may be able to create enough different looks and confusion to limit Griner more than she has been in three regular-season Phoenix victories.
Listen to the leaders (especially Parker)
Parker has been here before, and she is smart, is savvy and knows how to distribute the ball. Under her tutelage this season, the Sky are playing on a much higher level than at any point in their history. Parker was “the missing piece we needed,” said Vandersloot, who celebrated her 10th anniversary and second WNBA Finals run by scoring 10 points in the first half on Sunday.
I’m going with the Sky in five. They’ve overcome everything in their way, and with Taurasi nursing a high ankle sprain, Nurse out for the season and Cunningham recovering from a calf injury, it’s going to take a force of nature for Phoenix to match the pace the Sky set in Game 1.