The Chicago Sky Wins Their First WNBA Championship
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In front of an electrifying crowd at the Wintrust Arena, the Chicago Sky defeated the Phoenix Mercury 3-1 in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals on the night of Sunday, October 17, 2021. This outcome became a historic first championship win for the WNBA because for the first time in its history, two teams not seeded in the top four of their conferences reached the finals.
The Phoenix Mercury were not huge contenders for the finals, finishing fourth in a stacked Western Conference which included last year’s champions, the Seattle Storm, and the Las Vegas Aces. The team had a .594 record in the regular season and clinched the fifth seed in the playoffs. In the first and second rounds of the playoffs, the Mercury had to win both games against the New York Liberty and Seattle Storm in order to move on to the semifinals. They then went head-to-head in a grueling best of five against the Las Vegas Aces before they could reach the finals against the Sky.
Center Brittney Griner, guard Diana Taurasi, and guard Skylar Diggins-Smith led the way for the team’s unexpected success. However, there were still a few bumps in the road.
Taurasi was plagued with injuries all season. She had a sternum fracture from May 21 to June 27, a hip injury going into the Olympic break, and ankle and foot problems even going into the playoffs. Yet, she was still able to give stellar performances on the court, with 15.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game in the regular season and 17.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game in the postseason. Even at the age of 39, she’s still got plenty of competitive drive (she’s called the “White Mamba” for a reason), and now a 17-year WNBA veteran, she has become a great leader and mentor for the team.
Diggins-Smith was acquired through a sign-and-trade with the Wings last year. Despite the great regular season she had, averaging 17.7 points and 5.3 assists per game, her play has been inconsistent throughout the playoffs with a noticeable dip from last year (going from 16.0 points to 13.9 points a game in the playoffs). Nonetheless, she was a major force in defeating the first seeded Las Vegas Aces in the semifinals, and she still made an impact during the finals, such as in Game 2, when she was able to lay in a game-winning shot to seal the win for the Mercury in overtime.
The team’s biggest star, though, was center Griner. Griner’s season has been nothing short of phenomenal. Her biggest change in this season compared to previous seasons was being able to play with a certain calmness and learning how to communicate with her teammates, which she worked on through therapy. “I’ve seen so much growth. She’s playing the best basketball she’s played in her whole life, and, yeah, she communicates well on the court,” her teammate Sophie Cunningham said. The numbers reflect this change, as she averaged 20.5 points per game in the regular season and a dominating 23.5 points per game in the finals.
Griner’s contribution throughout the series was spectacular, and if anyone was giving the team a shot at winning, it was her. In Game 2, when it was thought that the team was going down in defeat to the Sky as they did in Game 1, Griner showed out with an electrifying performance of 29 points on 12-of-19 shooting, nine boards, and two blocks. In Game 4, her playing was crucial for a chance at winning the game. She scored 28 points while Taurasi and Diggins-Smith both had only 16. Her exhilarating low post game, making dunks and blocking shots, as well as her hard to guard frame at 6’9’’, made her a force to be reckoned with for the Sky.
However, despite Griner’s success this season, the team itself could not get it together throughout the final series. With many inconsistencies on the offensive end, missing key layups and having too many turnovers throughout, the Sky had the upper hand as a team.
The Phoenix Mercury are now 3-2 in finals appearances. With Taurasi getting closer to retirement, this playoff series may be one of, if not the last, we see from the WNBA’s “G.O.A.T.”
Despite the Sky’s unimpressive regular season finish, the players worked well together during the playoffs. They were not projected to go far in the playoffs, ending their regular season with a .500 record and going in as the sixth seed. The team was also riddled with injuries from players Candace Parker and Allie Quigley at the beginning of the season. Despite that drawback, they were able to look past their regular season struggles and prove themselves as a dominant playoff force. The Sky had to win against the Dallas Wings and Minnesota Lynx before matching up in the semifinals with the first-seeded Connecticut Sun.
All throughout the playoffs, one of the key pieces for the Sky was 10-year veteran guard Courtney Vandersloot, who has led the league in assists the last five years and dished 102 total assists throughout the playoffs (an average of 10.2 assists per game). Her ability to control the floor, score a bucket when needed, and make great plays stood out especially when playing against the Sun in the semifinals and eventually the Mercury in the finals.
Additionally, Vandersloot controlled the whole series with 50 assists throughout the four finals games and nearly scoring a triple-double in all of them, with some even saying that she should’ve been selected as the Finals MVP over Kahleah Copper. Sky veteran Quigley, one of the best shooters in the WNBA, saved her best performance for Game 4, making 26 points, 11 of them in the fourth quarter. And veteran Parker, who had just joined the team eight months prior, had 16 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists in Game 4.
During the finals, it was forward Copper, averaging 17.7 points a game in the series, who balled out and eventually received the Finals MVP award. Her energy through each play and possession was unmatched. Every drive, every steal, every layup, and every finish to the basket was explosive. Copper is also considered one of the most improved players in the league, going from barely playing any minutes her first four seasons to breaking out in 2020 and establishing her presence in 2021, averaging 14.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in the regular season and 17.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in the playoffs.
Most importantly, the Sky demonstrated the importance of a team first mentality. While many players like to show their individual results, the team prioritized ensuring that everyone played together on the court. In a post-game interview, coach James Wade explained this elite mentality. “We stayed together. It was a microcosm of our season, where you go down, and you keep pushing,” he said. “By the end of [the game], once we made one basket, two baskets, the crowd took over, our players stayed together, and they kept going, and you started to see who we were.”
The energy that came through in this series by both the teams and the crowd was unmatched. With both arenas packed each game and with two teams not expected to make the finals, it was exciting for the WNBA as a whole. Part of the reason for why Parker wanted to go to Chicago was to bring a championship to her hometown, having grown up in Naperville, Illinois. “Look at the city, man. They all showed up,” she said. “They all showed up.”