The story of the WNBA playoffs so far has been closely contested games with dramatic finishes. Unfortunately, Game 1 of the Finals did not follow the trend. The Chicago Sky went on the road and put together a comprehensive performance on both ends of the floor to secure a 91-77 victory over the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday.
After trailing by nine points early in the first quarter, the Sky regrouped and used a 17-0 run in the second quarter to take control of the game. They entered the halftime break up double digits and despite some flurries here and there from the Mercury, the outcome was never really in doubt the rest of the way.
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Kahleah Copper continued her breakout campaign with 21 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in an impressive all-around performance. Courtney Vandersloot ran the show as per usual with 12 points and 11 assists, while Stefanie Dolson stepped up off the bench to chip in 14 points.
The Mercury, who didn't finish their semifinal series until late on Friday night and are shorthanded due to injuries, seemed out of gas at times. Brittney Griner went for 20 points, six rebounds and three assists, but was not quite as dominant as she has been at times in this run. Diana Taurasi, meanwhile, had 17 points but was rather ineffective, overall. She dealt with foul trouble all game long and turned the ball over six times.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
1. Copper continues to deliver
Kahleah Copper isn't the biggest name on this Sky team, but she's arguably been their best player during the postseason. She offered further evidence to support that claim on Sunday, delivering 21 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in the Game 1 win.
Copper has consistently made an impact throughout this run because she's versatile enough to impact all aspects of the game. She can score at the rim or from the outside, is a menace in transition, rebounds extremely well for a wing and makes plays on the defensive end.
"I think I was just trying to be special, trying to contribute to the game in different ways," Copper said. "I can't just affect the game scoring because I need to get my team extra possessions on the rebound inside of it, and it's also playing good defense. I think it's important for me to bring all those aspects in order for us to win."
We saw all of those skills come together in this game. When the Mercury tried to give her space on the perimeter, she accepted the challenge and buried two 3s. And when they tried to crowd her, she easily got into the lane to finish or get fouled. The Mercury could not keep her off the glass either, and she came up with five big offensive rebounds that helped the Sky score 15 second-chance points. Defensively she came up with two steals, each of which led to buckets on the other end.
Between the regular season and the playoffs, the Sky are now 14-6 when Copper gets to at least 15 points, and 5-1 when she scores 20. When she gets going on the offensive end like this, in addition to everything else she brings, the Sky are just really tough to beat.
2. Dolson steps up off the bench
After starting for much of the season, Stefanie Dolson moved into a bench role down the stretch, and at times in the playoffs has played limited minutes. But in Game 1, when the Sky needed a little more strength inside to match up with Brittney Griner, and some shooting to space the floor on the other end, Dolson got the call.
"I told [Dolson] during the last series, it's like it doesn't matter who we play, you're going to be big for us the next series," Sky head coach James Wade said. "So I need for you to be locked in."
That she was, finishing with 14 points on 6 of 8 from the field in 16 minutes. The 14 points were the third-most she's scored in a game all season, and were the only bench points the Sky got on the afternoon. Even so, they were enough for Dolson to outscore the Mercury's bench all by herself, 14-9.
"I think that's what's special about our team," Candace Parker said. "I think it's Stef knowing that and being ready. I think everybody during this postseason has had a moment or had a game, where if we didn't have them at that moment, then we wouldn't win. I think it's understanding that and being patient in that and knowing it, and that's what Stef's done. I was just so proud of the way defensively she was playing, but also like her aggressiveness and decisiveness offensively."
Dolson, who shot 40.4 percent from 3-point land this season, is the best outside threat in the Sky's frontcourt rotation, and because of that she should see extra playing time this series. While Griner is a strong defender, she does her best work inside and prefers not to stray too far away from the basket. That's going to leave Dolson wide open more often than not on pick-and-pop opportunities, and if she keeps knocking shots down the Sky will be even more difficult to defend.
3. Fatigue, injuries catch up to Mercury
During an interview with Ros Gold-Onwude on the broadcast between the third and fourth quarters, Diana Taurasi refused to make any excuses for how the Mercury were playing. "We're not tired, we're just getting our asses kicked," Taurasi said, with the team down by 13 at the time.
It was not surprising at all to hear Taurasi go that route, but even if she would not admit so publicly, it certainly seemed like the events of the past few days caught up to the Mercury in this game. While they started off strong, they faded as the game went along and you never felt like they were actually going to make a comeback.
After the first quarter, during which they shot 10 of 19 and led 25-20, the Mercury went 17 of 43 the rest of the way, turned the ball over 14 times and scored just 52 points. On the other end, they couldn't keep the Sky out of the paint or off the glass. Simply put, it looked like a team that was worn out. Head coach Sandy Brondello admitted as much after the game.
"Definitely. 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," Brondello continued. "That's actually good we don't play again until Wednesday. We can regroup, watch the video, and play a better game on Wednesday."
The Mercury's semifinal series with the Aces went the distance, and Game 5 didn't get done until late on Friday night in Las Vegas. They had just about 36 hours before tip off of Game 1 of the Finals, and had to travel back to Phoenix. They're also really only playing seven players at this point due to injuries to Kia Nurse and Sophie Cunningham. On top of all of that, Taurasi's wife, Penny Taylor, gave birth to a baby girl early on Saturday morning, and it's hard to imagine she was fully rested given an event of that magnitude.
That fatigue wasn't the only reason the Mercury lost, but it definitely didn't help. And now they've lost home-court advantage and find themselves down 1-0 in a short five-game series. The good news is they have three days off to recover for Game 2.