The 2021 WNBA Finals have arrived. It's a matchup few were expecting, but none will turn down, as Diana Taurasi leads the Phoenix Mercury against Candace Parker and the Chicago Sky. Two all-time legends going head-to-head, two of the best offenses in the league and a rematch of the 2014 Finals. It doesn't get better than this.
Heading into the Olympic break, the Mercury were under .500 and trending towards another disappointing season. But when play resumed they immediately ripped off 10 wins in a row to turn things around, and after surviving a number of close matchups in the first few rounds of the playoffs they have a chance to win their fourth title in franchise history. That would tie them with the Minnesota Lynx, Seattle Storm and Houston Comets for the most all-time.
The Sky also had a lackluster regular season, finishing in 6th place at 16-16. They had their moments but were never able to find any consistency, in large part due to multiple ankle injuries limiting Parker to 23 games. Once the postseason began, however, they turned the page and have finally put everything together. Now, they're back in the Finals for just the second time and will try to win their first title in franchise history.
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Let's take a closer look at what should be a thrilling series:
(5) Phoenix Mercury vs. (6) Chicago Sky
(All times Eastern)
- Game 1: Sky at Mercury | Sunday, Oct. 10, 3 p.m. | TV: ABC | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
- Game 2: Sky at Mercury | Wednesday, Oct. 13, 9 p.m. | TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
- Game 3: Mercury at Sky | Friday, Oct. 15, 9 p.m. | TV: ESPN2 | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
- Game 4*: Mercury at Sky | Sunday, Oct. 17, 3 p.m. | TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
- Game 5*: Sky at Mercury | Tuesday, Oct. 19, 9 p.m. | TV: ESPN2 | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Players to watch
Mercury: Brittney Griner
As per usual, the player to watch with the Mercury is Griner. She's a matchup nightmare who single-handedly dictates how opposing defenses have to play, and has arguably been the best player in the world the last few months. Few players are capable of taking over a game in the way Griner can.
Sky: Candace Parker
No surprise here either. Parker returned home in the offseason because she wanted to bring the Sky their first title, and now she's three wins away from making it happen. She's not going to score a ton of points, but she impacts the game in every single department and her leadership is going to be even more important at this stage.
Three keys that will decide the series
1. How will the Sky defend Brittney Griner?
This has been a key to every game and series that the Mercury have played this postseason, and that's not going to change in the Finals. Griner is the biggest matchup problem in the league, and her size and skill around the basket make teams design their entire defensive game plans to slow her down.
Because most teams don't have anyone who can deal with her one-on-one, they're forced to send multiple defenders her way when she catches the ball. That can be an effective strategy at times, especially if the Mercury's perimeter players are cold from the outside like we saw in the first round against the Liberty. But Griner has become such an improved passer that she usually makes the right decision and creates open looks for her teammates. Over the course of most games and series, those opportunities pay off, which is why the Mercury have the best offense in the playoffs so far.
In Azura Stevens and Candace Parker, the Sky have two of the better interior defenders, but neither has the strength to deal with Griner by themselves. They're going to have to send double teams at some point, and the question really becomes how aggressive are they going to be in forcing the ball out of her hands?
Against the Sun in the semifinals, the Sky were determined not to let Jonquel Jones beat them and packed the paint to an extreme degree. It won't be as easy to do that against the Mercury because Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith are much more dynamic than the Sun's backcourt. At the same time, few teams have the length and athleticism to fly around in rotations like the Sky, and that will give them a chance to be more flexible in their schemes.
2. Can the Mercury slow down Courtney Vandersloot?
While the Sky's coaching staff will be up at night worrying about how to defend Brittney Griner, the Mercury's coaches will be doing the same in regards to Courtney Vandersloot. Chicago's veteran point guard is the best passer in the league and is capable of picking apart opposing defenses at will.
Against the Sun in Game 1 of the semifinals, she set a new WNBA playoff record with 18 assists, while also recording just the second triple-double in playoff history. But while she prefers to be a playmaker, she'll score if you make her, as the Sun found out in the series-deciding Game 4 when they went under time and again on screens, and Vandersloot buried five 3-pointers en route to 19 points.
Vandersloot is not a physically dominant player, and is usually not going to score a bunch of points, so at times her impact can fly a bit under the radar. But not for opposing players and coaches, who are well aware of the way she controls the pace and manipulates defenses. When she's been on the court in the playoffs, the Sky have a 108 offensive rating. When she sits, it plummets to 79.7.
The chess match on the perimeter is going to be intriguing because the Mercury are not a great defensive team and would much rather outscore you. That plays right into Vandersloot and the Sky's hands, however, and it's going to be very interesting to see if the Mercury are able to slow her down in this series.
3. Do the shorthanded Mercury have enough left in the tank?
Since the league adopted this new playoff format in 2016, no teams had started play in the first round and made it all the way to the Finals. Both of these teams made history by accomplishing that feat, but running the gauntlet has taken a much bigger toll on the Mercury.
Diana Taurasi has been playing through a sprained ankle and a fracture in her foot, which despite some of her clutch performances has clearly limited her at times. Then Sophie Cunningham suffered a calf strain which knocked her out of Games 4 and 5 against the Aces and Kia Nurse is done for the season after tearing her ACL in Game 4 of that series.
During Game 5 versus the Aces, the Mercury were essentially just playing the starters. All of Taurasi, Griner, Diggins-Smith and Brianna Turner played over 35 minutes. The only other players who got in the game for brief stretches were Bria Hartley, who just returned from a torn ACL in late September and is still not herself, and Kia Vaughn.
The Mercury are likely going to follow that same formula the rest of the way unless Cunningham is able to return at some point. And while rotations always get shorter in the playoffs, this is the extreme end of that scenario. With their injuries and just a 36-hour break between the end of the semis and the start of the Finals, it's fair to wonder if the Mercury will have enough left in the tank to deal with a Sky team who loves to play at an up-tempo pace.
These two teams are similar in the sense that no one ever questioned their talent, but rather their ability to reach their potential on a consistent basis. In a funny twist, they both put it together in the postseason and are now meeting in the Finals. Both teams are playing at a high level right now, and enter this series with all sorts of confidence.
This series really could go either way, but we're going to take the Sky. They have the offense to keep up with the Mercury and are much better on the defensive end. Plus, they are healthier and have had more rest. In a fairly even matchup, those margins can make the difference.
Sky in 4