The 2021 WNBA Finals presented by YouTube TV is set as the Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky will battle for the championship beginning on Sunday. It is a rematch of the 2014 WNBA Finals – the last appearance for both teams – a series won by the Mercury in a three-game sweep.
The 2021 matchup will feature four key players from that 2014 series – Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner for Phoenix, and Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley for Chicago – as well as some important new faces that we’ll discuss shortly.
- Game 1: Chicago at Phoenix – Sun Oct. 10, 3:00PM, ABC
- Game 2: Chicago at Phoenix – Wed Oct. 13, 9:00PM, ESPN
- Game 3: Phoenix at Chicago – Fri Oct. 15, 9:00PM, ESPN2
- Game 4*: Phoenix at Chicago – Sun Oct. 17, 3:00PM, ESPN
- Game 5*: Chicago at Phoenix – Tue Oct. 19, 9:00PM, ESPN2
How They Got Here
Since the WNBA adopted its current playoff format in 2016, the Finals have featured a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup four times and a single No. 1 vs. No. 3 matchup. But the No. 5 Mercury and No. 6 Sky had no intentions of following history and succumbing to higher seeds this postseason.
They both survived two single-elimination playoff rounds, then ousted the well-rested top seeds that had earned the double-bye to the semifinals. Chicago took down the No. 1 Connecticut Sun – a team that entered the playoffs riding a 14-game win streak – in four games. The Mercury went the distance with the No. 2 seed Las Vegas Aces, winning a thrilling Game 5 on the road thanks to another spectacular clutch performance from Taurasi and a game-winning block by Griner.
- Defeated No. 7 Dallas 81-64 in single-elimination first round
- Defeated No. 3 Minnesota 89-76 in the single-elimination second round
- Defeated No. 1 Connecticut 3-1 in best-of-five semifinals
- Defeated No. 8 New York 83-82 in single-elimination first round
- Defeated No. 4 Seattle 85-80 in overtime in the single-elimination second round
- Defeated No. 2 Las Vegas 3-2 in best-of-five semifinals
The Mercury swept the season series with the Sky, with Taurasi and Parker both missing the first two meetings in early June. The final regular season matchup on Aug. 31 came in the middle of Phoenix’s 10-game win streak coming out of the Olympic break and featured a 3-point barrage. The Mercury shot 14-27 (51.9%) from beyond the arc leading to a 20-point win.
Skylar Diggins-Smith averaged a team-best 24.0 points (her second-highest scoring average against any opponent) as well as 5.7 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and shot 54.2% from the field and 41.7% from 3-point range in three games against the Sky this season. Kia Nurse (who suffered a torn ACL in the semifinals) averaged 17.7 points, while Brittney Griner added 15.7 points and 8.0 rebounds for the Mercury.
The Sky were led by Diamond DeShields (15.0 PPG), Kahleah Copper (13.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG), Courtney Vandersloot (12.0 PPG, 7.7 APG), and Azura’ Stevens (10.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG) in three meetings with the Mercury this season. Allie Quigley was held to 8.0 PPG and 31.8% FG and 25.0% 3P shooting in two games against Phoenix, while Candace Parker was held to two points in her one game in the series.
Parker has been held without a field goal made against an opponent only twice in her career – both have come against Phoenix. The first happened in May 2019 during her time in L.A. as Parker left the game due to injury after playing only four minutes. The other came against the Mercury on Aug. 31 as Parker shot 0-2 from the field and 2-2 from the free throw line in 24 minutes.
Five Key Storylines
Can hometown hero Candace Parker deliver a title to Chicago?
Another version of this question is does Candace Parker get her storybook ending? After playing her first 13 seasons in Los Angeles, winning two MVPs and winning a championship, the Chicago native decided to sign with her hometown team as a free agent and turn a playoff caliber team into a championship contender.
It’s always good to be from Chicago, but this year is especially sweet. Congratulations to the @ChicagoSky for making it to the WNBA finals, and to the legend, @Candace_Parker, for making all of us proud. We’ll be rooting for you. https://t.co/yW4d1OUYpF
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) October 7, 2021
So far, the story is playing out like a Hollywood script. Between the regular season and playoffs, the Sky have gone 20-9 (0.690 win percentage) with Parker in the lineup and just 1-8 (0.111) in the games she’s missed due to injury. She’s the only member of the Sky with a championship ring (2016 with L.A.) and that experience and leadership makes her impact go well beyond her points, rebounds, and assists.
Can Diana Taurasi add a fourth championship to her stacked resume?
Another version of this question is who is going to bet against Diana Taurasi with a championship on the line? As she proved yet again in Game 5 of the semifinals, when the game is on the line she will deliver. After shooting 0-5 from 3-point range in the first three quarters, Taurasi made three 3s in the fourth quarter, the last of which came after blocking a shot by 6-8 Liz Cambage with the game tied at 81 with under 90 seconds to play.
— Phoenix Mercury – X (@PhoenixMercury) October 9, 2021
Yes, she’s got the bum ankle. Yes, there is a broken bone in her foot. Yes, she and her wife just welcomed their second child just hours after the Mercury punched their ticket to the Finals. Does Diana have enough left in the tank for three more wins against a Sky team that is peaking at the absolute right time?
A Star-Studded Affair
This series features the all-time leaders in scoring average (Diana Taurasi, 19.4 PPG), assist average (Courtney Vandersloot, 6.7 APG), and blocks average (Brittney Griner, 2.8 BPG).
The accolades earned by the players in this series are staggering: three MVPs (Parker 2x, Taurasi), three Finals MVPs (Taurasi 2x, Parker), three Defensive Player of the Years (Griner 2x, Parker), two Sixth Player of the Years (Quigley 2x), one Most Improved Player (Diggins-Smith), seven scoring titles (Taurasi 5x, Griner 2x), three rebound titles (Parker 3x), six assist titles (Vandersloot 6x) and 10 blocks titles (Griner 8x, Parker 2x).
Last month, the league announced the W25 – the top 25 players in the 25-year history of the WNBA. The list features 10 active players in the WNBA and 15 former players. Three of those active players are in this series – Taurasi, Parker, and Griner.
We already mentioned the ankle and foot issues that Taurasi is playing through, but the Mercury also lost Kia Nurse to an ACL tear and Sophie Cunningham to a calf strain during the semifinals against Las Vegas.
Being shorthanded not only puts more pressure on Phoenix’s Big Three of Taurasi, Griner, and Diggins-Smith, but it means opportunities for others to step up and help fill the void. Shey Peddy averaged 9.8 points in the semifinals (nearly double her regular season average of 5.4 PPG). Bria Hartley missed nearly the entire season as she recovered from a torn ACL from last season. After scoring two total points in 11 combined minutes in the first three games of the semifinals, Hartley averaged 17 minutes over the final two games against the Aces and contributed 4.5 points and 3.0 assists per game.
The Mercury and Sky became the first two teams to ever reach the Finals while playing every round of the postseason (in the new format). Phoenix played seven games in 16 days to reach the Finals. Chicago was able to close out Connecticut in four games, so they got a few extra days of rest before the Finals.
Individual Matchups and Defensive Strategy
With the talent level so stacked in this Finals matchup, the individual one-on-one matchups and double-teaming strategies will be fascinating to watch game by game.
The matchup of Courtney Vandersloot and Skylar Diggins Smith features two of the league’s top point guards. Diggins-Smith is more of a scorer than the playmaking Vandersloot, but don’t forget Chicago’s closeout Game 4 win over Connecticut, when it was Vandersloot that led the Sky in scoring with 19 points. Diggins-Smith did average 24 points against the Sky this season and was one of only two players this season (along with New York’s Betnijah Laney) to rank in the top 10 in both scoring (9th) and assists (6th).
After having to defend the 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson in the semifinals, now Brianna Turner gets a two-time MVP to defend in Candace Parker in the Finals. Turner – who is averaging a double-double for the playoffs – has the size, length and athleticism to match Parker and makes it harder for her to score, rebound and facilitate. So far this postseason, Parker is averaging 13.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists.
The next matchup we’ll call Brittney Griner vs. Everybody as the Sky will have to find the answer between Azurá Stevens, Stefanie Dolson, Astou Ndour-Fall, and potentially Parker to try to contain the Mercury’s top scorer (averaging 21 points per game in the postseason). But beyond the bigs that will have the assignment on Griner, the key to watch here is how often the Sky double-team her, where the double-team comes from and how Griner handles the double-team.
And we can’t forget about the shooters as this series has two of the best to ever do it in Diana Taurasi and Allie Quigley. Will we see an epic 3-point shootout between these two over the course of this five-game series?