The 2021 WNBA playoffs got underway on Thursday night with the single-elimination first round, and the second game of the doubleheader between the Phoenix Mercury and New York Liberty was a showcase for this format. After a thrilling, back-and-forth fourth quarter, the Mercury escaped with an 83-82 win thanks to a last-second free throw by Brianna Turner.
Skylar Diggins Smith went for 22 points, four rebounds and five assists, while Brittney Griner added 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. But it was Sophie Cunningham who stole the show, stepping up in the absence of Diana Taurasi to bury six 3-pointers en route to a career-high 21 points.
The first game of the night was not quite so dramatic. While the Chicago Sky did allow the Dallas Wings to get back in the game in the second half, they pulled away in the fourth quarter to make sure they would advance to the second round with an 81-64 win.
Kahleah Copper finished with 23 points to lead all scorers on the night, while Candace Parker put up 11 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in an all-around effort. Courtney Vandersloot came up clutch with 11 points in the fourth quarter to put the game away and ended with 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Next up in the second round, the Mercury will travel to Seattle to face the Storm, while the Sky will head north to Minnesota for a matchup with the Lynx. Both of those games are once again single-elimination, and are set for Sunday afternoon. Before we get there, however, here are some takeaways from the first round.
Turner's late free throw finishes instant classic
The New York Liberty finished the season 12-20, and their 0.375 winning percentage was the worst of any playoff team in WNBA history. As a result, they were understandably massive underdogs heading into Thursday night's meeting with the Mercury. But you never would have known with how the game played out.
In fact, with just a few minutes to play, the Liberty held a three-point lead and were closing in on a massive upset. That's when what had already been a fun and entertaining game crossed the threshold into instant classic territory.
Diggins-Smith hit an outrageous 3-pointer that caught every part of the rim more than once to tie things up at 77-77, but Sabrina Ionescu quickly answered with a layup to put the Liberty back in front, 79-77. Then Cunningham responded with her sixth triple of the game, and Diggins-Smith got loose in transition to put the Mercury up 82-79 with just under a minute to play.
An empty possession from each team later, the Liberty got the rebound with 10 seconds left and decided not to call a timeout. Betnijah Laney calmly brought the ball up the floor and drilled a game-tying 3-pointer with two seconds left. It seemed like overtime was on the cards, but the Mercury had other ideas.
They got the ball to Griner on the inbounds, and she found Turner out of the double team. Sami Whitcomb was a split second late trying to rotate over and fouled Turner, sending her to the line. The first free throw rimmed out in a comical fashion, but the second one went in.
When Ionescu's last-gasp heave fell short, the Mercury had their win.
Cunningham steps up with Taurasi out
One of the main reasons the Mercury were huge favorites in this game was because of Griner. She played at an MVP level after the Olympic break, and the Liberty had no one to matchup against her size-wise. In two regular-season contests against the Liberty, Griner feasted.
New York decided that wasn't going to happen in this game. They may not have had the size to deal with Griner, but they made up for that with extra effort and extra bodies. No matter where Griner went, she couldn't escape the Liberty's pressure. At times she was triple-teamed when she caught the ball and had no option but to pass.
Griner still played well, finishing with 16 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three blocks, but she didn't dominate. She also had to work extremely hard to get those numbers and only took eight shots, which was her fourth-lowest total of the season. For most of the game, the Liberty's strategy of forcing the ball out of her hands was working.
The reason the Liberty were comfortable playing that way was because Diana Taurasi was out for the game due to an ankle injury. Without her shooting and playmaking, the Mercury are much less dynamic, and the Liberty put the onus on the role players to step up.
Cunningham did just that. She knocked down six 3-pointers, including five in the second half to lead the Mercury's comeback, and dropped a career-high 21 points. It wasn't just her best playoff game, it was her best WNBA game, and it came at the perfect time for Phoenix.
Sky pass the first test but need more consistency
The regular season didn't quite go to plan for the Chicago Sky, and their sixth-place finish left them staring at two single-elimination games just to make it to the semifinals. Since the WNBA moved to this new playoff format in 2016, no team has ever started in the first round and made it to the Finals, let alone win a title.
If the Sky want to accomplish their goal, they'll have to be the first. They'll also have to play with more consistency than they did against the Wings. This game was, in many ways, a microcosm of the Sky's season. In the first half, they were awesome and jumped out to a 21-point lead. Then they scored 11 points in the third quarter, looked like they had never met each other before, and by the beginning of the fourth quarter were clinging to a three-point lead.
While they eventually got back on track and secured the win, that sort of up-and-down play has plagued them all summer long. You just don't know which version of the Sky are going to show up game-to-game, or in cases like Thursday night, even quarter-to-quarter. Better teams than the Wings will punish that inconsistency.
Copper comes to play
Kahleah Copper isn't the biggest name on this Sky team, or even one of the biggest names. But she's very quietly become an extremely important player over the past few seasons. In fact, she actually led the Sky in scoring this season at 14.4 points per game.
She was back at it again on Thursday night. Just a few minutes into the game, she got free for back-to-back layups and never slowed down. Finishing with 23 points, Copper led all scorers in the game and set a new playoff career-high. That's to say nothing of her defense, as she played a big role in limiting the Wings to 36.2 percent shooting.
"You should be talking to Kah right now," Parker said postgame. "Kah carried us. Not just in the first quarter, but the third quarter when we couldn't get a stop, she's the one that kept us going. I'm so proud of her. She's been doing it all season. But to see her do it in the playoffs ... and her energy, defensively. Her and Sloot really finished it for us."
Wings, Liberty have bright futures ahead
In recent years, the Wings and Liberty had become well acquainted while battling for the No. 1 overall pick in the lottery. This season they were fighting for playoff positioning and ended up both getting in. For the Liberty, it was the first playoff appearance since 2017, and for the Wings, the first since 2018.
Both of their seasons came to an end on Thursday night, but not without a lot of fight. The Wings simply ran out of gas in the fourth quarter against a much more experienced side, while the Liberty experienced the pain of a last-second playoff defeat. Neither should hang their heads for too long, because they have bright futures ahead.
In Arike Ogunbowale, Satou Sabally, Allisha Gray and numerous other former lottery picks, the Wings have arguably the most young talent in the league. Plus, they have another lottery pick coming this year thanks to a previous trade with the Sparks. Meanwhile, the Liberty have Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney alongside veterans like Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb and Rebecca Allen. If they stay healthy next season, they'll be even more dangerous.