October 16, 2021 

A star turn from Kahleah Copper has Chicago one win from a title

Copper shines with 22 points as Sky smash Mercury in record-breaking blowout in Game 3

CHICAGO — If it wasn’t clear in the WNBA semifinals, then it’s become quite evident through three games of the WNBA Finals. Kahleah Copper is turning into a bonafide superstar—and she has the Chicago Sky on the cusp of their first championship.

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Copper was an unstoppable force on the offensive end, scoring 22 points in the Sky’s 86-50 evisceration of the Phoenix Mercury in Game 3 on Friday night—the biggest blowout in the WNBA Finals in league history. In front of a sold-out Wintrust Arena, Copper was 6-for-10 from the field, 2-for-3 from 3-point range and 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.

“Copper, she was just a handful,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “They were isolating her. Like I said, we can’t rely on one-on-one coverage. We wanted to push her back to congestion, so we didn’t really execute what we wanted to do there. Copper made a lot of great plays.”

It’s the ultimate crescendo of a player who, only two years ago, was not in Chicago’s starting lineup once and was averaging fewer than seven points per game. Now, across the nine games of the 2021 WNBA playoffs, Copper is averaging 18.6 a night and 20.4 per game in the last five games.

It’s pretty clear at this point that Copper is the runaway favorite to win Finals MVP if the Sky can finish off the series with a win—and she may even get votes if they don’t, too. If she wins, she would become the just third player to win Finals MVP who either had never been named an All-Star or was a first-time All-Star that year.

But consider that the first such player was Cynthia Cooper, who was an All-Star and Finals MVP in 1997 in the league’s first year, and the second was Ruth Riley in 2003, who had not been an All-Star to that point but was the Final Four Most Outstanding Player on a national championship-winning Notre Dame team in 2001. Copper, a first-time All-Star this season, won one game in the NCAA Tournament in her four years at Rutgers.

It’s an unprecedented star turn, especially on this stage, but it doesn’t surprise her teammates. In the eyes of Sky guard Allie Quigley, the work Copper has put in and the patience she has displayed in waiting for this chance during her time in the Windy City is paying off.

“I think that she had just years of overseas experience, just getting better every single year, and she was just patient, waiting for her opportunity,” Quigley said. “I think she knew going into the bubble that she was going to have that opportunity. She just took advantage of it. She was ready. I think the main thing was she was ready and she was prepared for it.”

She has done it in several different ways, too. There have been games where she has attacked the offensive glass and gotten multiple put-back baskets. She has developed confidence in her 3-point shooting ability, making 39.2 percent of her shots from deep during the playoffs. And she is getting to the free-throw line more often—and making them at an 83 percent clip.

Even in a series with 6’9 Brittney Griner on the other team, it’s Copper who is the biggest mismatch of the series. The Mercury’s switching defense means almost everyone has had a chance to guard her, but Copper is too fast for post players, too strong for guards and both too fast and too strong for Phoenix’s lone healthy wing in Sophie Cunningham. Perhaps a healthy Kia Nurse may have had a better chance at containing Copper, but it’s tough to envision Nurse stopping Copper at this point.

“You have to rely on your team defense, and we allowed her to sweep it and go baseline way too much,” Brondello said. “Yeah, when she gets shooting it from outside, you’ve got to give up something, don’t you? She was making it. She had a really good game, and obviously that took the life out of us a little bit.”

This run is undoubtedly setting her up to receive quite the payday when she hits unrestricted free agency this offseason—if Chicago even gives her a chance to listen to other offers, that is. Her respect around the basketball world is, very clearly, at an all-time high.

“She’s been a hard matchup for everybody this year,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said. “She’s improved. She’s great at—she likes to baseline drive. She has a quick first step. I think she has improved her 3-point shot this year. It makes you have to put a hand up on that as well. I think they do a good job of putting her in positions to iso, and when she’s going downhill, she’s a good finisher at the rim.”

Copper has even been a vital part of the Sky defensive effort that led to Friday’s record-breaking night, holding Phoenix to a WNBA Finals-worst 25.8 percent shooting from the field. Primarily tasked with guarding Diana Taurasi, Copper held her to five points on 1-for-10 shooting from the field and 1-for-8 from 3-point range. Copper’s ability on that end allows Chicago to find the right balance of athleticism and instincts to form a deadly defensive front.

“I think it’s huge for her to have the games that she’s had and then also be tasked with defending Diana,” Chicago’s Candace Parker said. “I think sometimes, those contributions on that end of the court get overlooked, and I think we depend on her athleticism, as we depend on Diamond [DeShields]’s athleticism.

“Me and Allie are not over the hill yet, but we’ve got to use more of our IQ a little bit. So I think we have a great mixture where she’s able to go out and defend and then everybody behind is just reacting. We try to have a solid team defense, and her and Diamond are the ones that really bring that athleticism and being able to stay in place so we can use our IQ.”

Now, a team that went 16-16 in the regular season is one win away from winning the championship. Not only would the Sky have the worst winning percentage by a champion in WNBA history by a wide margin, they would have the fewest wins by a league champion—even fewer than the champion had when the league only had a 28-game schedule in 1997 or a 22-game slate in the bubble in 2020.

The Sky also broke several other records on Friday night in front of 10,378 fans. The 36-point win is the largest margin of victory in the history of the WNBA Finals, eclipsing Seattle’s 92-59 championship-clinching victory over Las Vegas last year in the bubble. Chicago’s 22-point halftime lead was tied for the largest in WNBA Finals history with, hilariously, Phoenix over Chicago in Game 1 in 2014.

Chicago was always thought to have the talent level to make it this far, but a myriad of injuries in the regular season didn’t give the rotation a chance to settle in. Now, when the lights are brightest and the moments the biggest, it’s clicking in every aspect of the game—and it makes the regular season feel like a proverbial lifetime ago.

“Honestly, that injury part of the season feels like another season ago,” Quigley said. “I think that when we finally got everyone healthy, this is what we saw our season looking like. I think just having everyone healthy gave us confidence, knowing that, ‘Okay, well, we are full [strength]. Now let’s see what we can do.’”

What they just did is the biggest blowout in the 25-year history of the WNBA, in front of a sellout crowd, to put themselves one win away from a championship.

And don’t, for a second, doubt how much that title would mean—to the city, the franchise, the coaches and the players.

“It would be really special,” DeShields said. “I remember when [head coach and general manager] James [Wade] got here and just talking to him about what we wanted to accomplish. Having the players that we had, obviously having Candace here now, it would be an incredible accomplishment, not only just because we won but because of who we could do it with. This group is really special, so yeah, it would mean a lot.”

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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