Before the fourth quarter started in Game 1 of the 2021 WNBA Finals, Diana Taurasi was asked by ESPN's Ros Gold-Onwude how the Phoenix Mercury were dealing with fatigue against the Chicago Sky, after having just played on Friday in the semifinals. Taurasi, in her usual brutally honest tone, set the record straight for the Mercury's performance Sunday afternoon.
"Yeah, we're not tired we're just getting our ass kicked right now, that's the bottom line," Taurasi said. "We gotta be better on both sides, they're playing really well. Tired, not tired we gotta play better, and that starts with me."
After the game, in which the Sky won 91-77, Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello offered a different perspective.
"I don't want to make excuses, but we were fatigued," Brondello said. "I understand that. The second quarter, we only lost by three in the second half, but if you're not physically tired, then when you get mentally tired, the execution wasn't really there where we needed it to be on both ends of the floor. The most important thing for us is we've got to freshen up these next few days. That's actually good we don't play again until Wednesday. We can regroup, watch the video, and play a better game on Wednesday."
Both Taurasi and Brondello are right. The Mercury were visibly fatigued, but they were also getting outplayed in every facet of the game on Sunday. As a result, the Sky got whatever they wanted on offense in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. After a first quarter in which the Mercury got out to a hot start, Chicago settled into the game, and with three minutes remaining in the second quarter, took the lead and never looked back.
Phoenix provided little resistance on defense, but some of that has to do with the fact that Chicago boasts a ridiculously deep offensive team, forcing opponents into a "pick your poison" situation every trip down the floor. Like the possession below to end the third quarter in Game 1:
Candace Parker got a defensive switch off a screen from Allie Quigley, forcing Taurasi to guard her. That put Kia Vaughn in a tough position to either help Taurasi guard Parker, or get out to Quigley to stop a potential 3-pointer. Meanwhile Brittney Griner was pulled away from the basket, as she was focusing on limiting the possibility of Stefanie Dolson knocking down a shot from deep. With no one down low in the paint as a last line of defense after Parker blew by Taurasi, it resulted in an easy layup to end the quarter. It was a combination of excellent offense by the Sky, and miscommunication by the Mercury.
But that wasn't the only area where Phoenix struggled on defense. Allowing second-chance opportunities and giving up points in the paint were other headaches for Phoenix. The Sky ranked second in the league in the regular season in points in the paint (38.9), and they certainly flexed that muscle by putting up 48 points down low in Game 1.
It was rather surprising to see, considering Phoenix ranks second in the league during the playoffs in opponent points in the paint, limiting teams to just 33.4 points per game. Not to mention the Mercury boast a frontcourt that features two All-Defensive players in Brianna Turner and Brittney Griner. But all game, the Mercury weren't boxing out, allowing Kahleah Copper to get five of Chicago's 10 offensive rebounds, which resulted in her getting buckets like this:
After the game, Turner touched on adjustments Phoenix needs to make in regards to limiting those second-chance points.
"We just have to make sure we're hitting them first," Turner said. "We know they're all really long. Even their guards get in there too. We have to make sure the shot goes up, everyone's hitting somebody, and that way we're going to collect the first rebounds, so they don't have those second-chance opportunities."
Fortunately for the Mercury, they'll have two days of rest before Game 2 in Phoenix on Wednesday. Brondello said after the game that the team would take tomorrow off given the quick turnaround from the semifinals to the Finals, which should give them fresh legs entering Game 2.
However, just being well-rested won't solve some of these defensive issues for the Mercury. They'll need to make adjustments for how to handle the potent offensive attack by Chicago, specifically Copper who put up 21 points on 53.8 percent from the field and 50 percent from deep. Otherwise, the Mercury could head into Game 3 in Chicago facing an 0-2 hole.