CHICAGO -- The Chicago Sky took care of business in convincing fashion in Game 3 of the 2021 WNBA Finals on Friday night, beating the Phoenix Mercury 86-50 to set a new record for the largest margin of victory in Finals history. Now up 2-1 in the best-of-five series, the Sky are just one win away from their first-ever WNBA title.
Ahead of Game 4, which is set for Sunday afternoon in Chicago, let's break open the notebook and take a look at some key storylines that will decide how much longer this series lasts.
Can the Mercury slow down Kahleah Copper?
Coming into this series, much of the focus was on stars such as Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. But while Copper might not have had the same name recognition going in, at least among casual fans, that's changed quickly. She's arguably been the best player in the series so far.
"She's a high-level player," Sky head coach James Wade said after Game 1. "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."
Through three games Copper is averaging 19.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals, while shooting 54.1 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from 3-point land and 100 percent from the free-throw line. In the 98 minutes that she's been on the floor, the Sky have outscored the Mercury by 40 points.
Her quickness and athleticism has been a major issue for the Mercury's guards, who simply can't keep her out of the paint. Once she gets a path to the rim, it's usually all over. She's shooting 62.5 percent inside five feet in the Finals, and her 14 free throw attempts are the most by any player so far.
"She's been a hard matchup for everybody this year," Skylar Diggins-Smith said following Game 3. "She's improved. She's great at -- she likes to baseline drive. She has a quick first step. I think she has improved her three-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."
The problem for the Mercury is when the Sky space the floor with four other reliable shooters it makes it difficult to send help to Copper, as Brittney Griner is often pulled away from the paint. Perhaps the most obvious counter would be to sit back and dare Copper to shoot. So far in the series, she's shot the ball well but was only at 30.6 percent from 3-point land in the regular season. Another option would be to increase the physicality, both before and after she catches the ball, but that runs the risk of putting the team in foul trouble.
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Mercury need Taurasi to show up
Prior to Game 1 of the Finals, the WNBA announced the results of the "Vote for the GOAT" campaign, in which fans chose Diana Taurasi as the best player in league history. During an in-game ceremony, commissioner Cathy Engelbert presented her with a special basketball in recognition of the honor.
So far, however, save for the overtime of Game 2, Taurasi has not played like the GOAT. She's averaging 14 points, three rebounds and one assist per game, while shooting just 36.1 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from behind the arc. In addition, her 11 turnovers are more than any other player in the series. Her most notable moment, in fact, came in the early stages of Game 2 when she made contact with a referee and was fined $2,500.
Much of that has been the Sky's defensive approach. They've hedged extremely hard on ball screens, and that aggressive and physical tactic has kept the Mercury out of rhythm. Not only has Taurasi struggled to score, but she hasn't been able to facilitate in the same way either.
"I was pretty pathetic with the basketball today," Taurasi said after Game 1. "For playing so much basketball, that was pretty pathetic and that's on me. We can't turn the ball over like that, especially not in the Finals. That's just me being a bad basketball player. We'll adjust some things, and hopefully we'll be in better positions to get out of those traps on the court."
But to this point, Taurasi and the Mercury haven't been able to find any answers. Even on the rare occasions where Taurasi has been able to break free and find some space, she just hasn't been making shots. This play from the second quarter of Game 3 really summed things up.
The Mercury at their best are a top-heavy team, but that's even more true now with Kia Nurse out and Bria Hartley still not back to her pre-injury levels. Simply put, they don't have enough secondary offense to win on a regular basis when Taurasi struggles. She knows that and, given her history in elimination games, you can't count her out.
"Yeah, I think we can take the easy way out and say [shots just didn't go down]," Taurasi said after Game 3. "Or we can really look at the mirror at ourselves and make sure we come with a little bit more intent in the next game."
Parker has a chance to make good on her promise
In the offseason, Candace Parker made perhaps the biggest free-agent decision in league history when she left the Los Angeles Sparks to join the Chicago Sky. Returning home was obviously part of the draw, but Parker was clear at the time that she was coming to win a championship.
"This isn't me just coming home to play," Parker said in February. "This isn't me just going somewhere. Chicago has great players. They have a great organization and I played against them for a number of years. I like what they're doing and I like how they play. And in terms of fits and pieces, I think I add a piece to that. And they add so much to me."
Now, despite all of the ups and downs both her and the Sky have been through this season, she's just one win away from accomplishing that goal. While she hasn't put up huge numbers, she's done a little bit of everything for the Sky and her imprint has been all over this series on both sides of the ball.
But despite how well things have gone so far, Parker doesn't want her team to get ahead of themselves. Everyone knows how special it will be if she leads the Sky to their first title in franchise history but, for now, she's focused on Game 4.
"You know, on the verge," Parker said after Game 3. "Obviously finishing this game feels good. This is right where we want to be is to have an opportunity. I want us to enjoy this game today, and then on [Sunday] we've got to refocus because they're a great team. You know, I think the biggest thing is not getting ahead of ourselves. So I would like to delay that response."