Chicago may have beaten Phoenix decisively in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals over the weekend, but they hardly shocked the Mercury — both teams have seen it all.
They are, after all, two of the more experienced teams in the league, and core players from each roster faced off all the way back in the 2014 Finals as well. Add in longtime Mercury foe Candace Parker, who is in her first season with the Sky, and it quickly becomes clear this series won’t be won by surprising the other team with major chess moves or adjustments. These are veteran teams know what they are and what they do best, and this series figures to be about who can execute and impose their will on the other.
“I don’t think anything’s going to change, and we’re going to come back and give a better effort and hopefully Game 2 can turn out a different way,” star guard Diana Taurasi said postgame on Sunday after calling her own performance “pathetic” and “bad basketball.”
Still, after two days rest and time to break down what happened in Sunday’s opening skirmish, there are some changes we can expect to see from the Mercury if they are going to even the series on Wednesday night.
Absences On The Wing
It’s impossible to talk about Phoenix’s 91-77 loss without addressing the team’s injuries. Starting wing Kia Nurse, an integral shooter, defender and ball-mover for Phoenix all year, tore her ACL in last Friday’s Game 5 against the Aces and will miss many months. That only exacerbated the Mercury’s wing depth issues with backup Sophie Cunningham nursing a left calf strain.
“Our starters have carried us all season long,” said head coach Sandy Brondello before admitting the lack of depth hurt Phoenix.
That will need to be especially true the rest of this Finals series, but after playing two single-elimination games and a five-game semifinal series against Las Vegas, the Mercury are also just flat-out tired.
“The most important thing for us is we’ve got to freshen up these next few days,” Brondello said.
Their freshness will be tested in Game 2 as Cunningham is slated to return.
Using Size Effectively
The presence of MVP runner-up Brittney Griner in the paint hardly mattered for Phoenix on Sunday. Chicago mashed the Mercury post players in Game 1, out-rebounding Phoenix 35-24 and out-scoring them in the paint, 48-32.
Chicago’s offense was able to get easy baskets inside. Parker was her typical efficient self with 16 points, eight rebounds and three assists while backup Stefanie Dolson had a strong 14 points off the bench. Even spark plug wing Kahleah Copper got in on the action down low with several putbacks off of her five offensive boards.
Maybe more importantly, the Sky defense held steady, holding Griner to 7-15 shooting and Phoenix to 43.5 percent from the field. They did so by mixing up coverages and playing their characteristic aggressive brand of defense.
All postseason, Parker’s timing and mobility have brought Chicago’s defense together, and Game 1 was no exception. The Sky hedge when defending the pick and roll, with all their bigs able to move on the perimeter and also rotate on the back line to protect the rim, and Phoenix did not have enough answers for it.
Candace Parker’s defense was on point the entire game, and it’s on full display here. With Azurá Stevens showing, Parker takes on Brittney Griner on the roll. Brianna Turner cuts, putting Parker in a precarious position. But she times her contest perfectly and blocks the layup. pic.twitter.com/5Tv32OKp6x
— Positive Residual (@presidual) October 11, 2021
When the Mercury did move the ball, Chicago swarmed. Here you can see how the Sky go over the screen at the top of the key, trap Taurasi on the perimeter to get the ball out of her hands, then rotate and contain. Phoenix finally gets the ball to Griner in the post, and the Sky are right there to double her as well.
Here’s another “elbow” call from the Mercury (see Diana Taurasi holding up her arm a second into this clip). The Sky switch, and Allie Quigley goes right into DT to prevent the 3. The Mercury score in the post, though. pic.twitter.com/ofr9GXraGw
— Positive Residual (@presidual) October 11, 2021
“We didn’t quite exploit that as well as we should have, but that’s areas we know we can work on when we’re a little bit fresher mentally,” Brondello said. “It’s a coverage we’ve seen multiple times this year. It’s not a new thing for us. Things we wanted to do, we couldn’t quite get through. Like I said, when you’re tired, it’s like the brain goes a bit dead, and you’re just trying to survive out there.”
This didn’t just happen when Chicago’s starting unit with all its size and length was on the court. Dolson was a huge part of the defensive execution in her 17 minutes as well, as she also was able to hedge and recover like Parker and fellow starter Azura Stevens to close off the middle of the floor and force the Mercury into tough shots.
“Each team has a way of doing their defense, and we got to see that look tonight,” Griner said. “It wasn’t nothing that I’ve never seen before honestly, but just didn’t really — ball didn’t really roll the way I wanted it to roll.”
When the buzzer sounded, Chicago had created 10 turnovers, including six from Taurasi, in addition to a fairly quiet scoring night from Griner.
As the Mercury all noted, Phoenix has seen all this before. Griner, who is averaging 3.6 assists per game in these playoffs, has handled just about every coverage thrown at her. In the semifinals, Las Vegas doubled her constantly and she was able to move the ball while players like Cunningham and Taurasi smartly moved in space and the Mercury offense generated great looks in the halfcourt consistently. Phoenix knows how to play off its stars and create high-level offense, but now they have to execute it.
Phoenix wins because they have an inside-out attack that seesaws defenses and go-to isolation bucket getters who come through in the clutch. If they lose interior scoring because of the challenges of a matchup with Chicago, the Mercury need to compensate by making shots.
That didn’t happen in Game 1. The Sky were 8-of-23 from three-point rnge compared with just 7-of-15 from Phoenix. The Mercury must get more attempts up to keep pace with Chicago, an area where Cunningham will help and a more effective Taurasi will be vital.
Phoenix will also need more from its third star, Skylar Diggins-Smith. She is averaging 5.5 three-point attempts per game and making an impressive 34 percent so far, but took just three triples in Game 1 and just nine shots overall. Throughout her career, Diggins-Smith has gotten motivation from being tougher and more determined than her competition. In her first Finals, the five-time All-Star has to be consistently great as a driver, shooter, defender and play-maker for Phoenix to overcome the Sky’s depth and win the franchise’s fourth title.