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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Game 1 Recap

The Chicago Sky essentially earned themselves home-court advantage for the rest of the WNBA Finals Sunday by opening with a 91-77 win over the Phoenix Mercury at the Footprints Center, sputtering to a slow start, but then finding their way in the second quarter with a game-altering 17-0 run and holding off a visibly fatigued Phoenix team the rest of the way.

It wasn’t just one thing that Chicago did that made the difference and that’s the problem that Phoenix must solve heading into Game 2. The Sky, back to the Finals since making their only other appearance in 2014, are where they are – 6-1 in the postseason so far – because they have done a multitude of things at a championship level. And many of them were on display in Phoenix on Sunday.

For example:

Kahleah Copper.

Copper’s regular season unquestionably positioned the 6-foot-1 wing as an emerging star in the league in her sixth season, but her postseason play has been the exclamation point of her season. In her first WNBA Finals game, Copper played as if she’s been there a time or a few with a team-high 21 points and 10 rebounds, to go with three assists and two steals. It was the second double-double of her career, both of them coming in this postseason run. Copper is averaging 18.6 points a game in the postseason, including three games with at least 20 points. She played with confidence and swagger and she is setting the early bar for being an MVP in this series.

Copper said she wanted to play both level-headed and with a sense of urgency akin to a single-elimination game and she managed to accomplish both.

“I’m just trying to contribute to my team in different ways,” Copper said after the game.

Sky coach James Wade says it’s Copper’s “speed, athleticism and tenacity” that is separating her game. Oh, and “her talent.”

“As the Finals go on, people are going to start paying attention to her.”

Done and done.

A 17-0 run in the first half.

In the early minutes of the second quarter, Phoenix held a 31-24 lead on a pair of Brittney Griner free throws. The Mercury looked strong and in control. And then the game began to turn. Chicago would score 17 unanswered points at one point, going from a 33-29 deficit to a 46-33 lead in the matter of about four and a half minutes. They closed the half on a 22-4 run in total that turned the game into a struggle for the Mercury to keep pace and close the gap. Phoenix got within 52-45 with 7:12 left in the third quarter, but then no closer.

“They went to another level and we couldn’t sustain it,” said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello of the Sky’s big run. “We lost our way a little bit.”

Wade said it was a matter of working out the “Finals jitters”, as he put it.

“The last person here to play in the Finals was Candace (Parker) and she was the most settled,” Wade said. “They attacked us the way that they wanted to attack us early and I don’t know if we were 100 percent ready for it at the time. We’ve got our feet up under us (now).”

But Parker admitted she wasn’t without her own butterflies.

“But there’s no reason to flip out. We were going to settle into the game eventually and do what we do,” Parker said.

Chicago played fast.

The Sky play an up-tempo game that relies heavily on a transition game and a pace set by their veteran PG Courtney Vandersloot, not to mention players like Copper and Diamond DeShields. Against a tired Phoenix team that had just played a draining Game 5 on Friday night, it was all the more effective.

Chicago definitely picked things up during the second quarter.

“It took us a little while,” Wade said. “Once we got into that pace, we felt pretty comfortable there.”

Brondello said it was a “big factor” in the outcome on Sunday.

“This is how Chicago plays,” she said. “The biggest key of the game was trying to make them a half-court team. That starts with having good execution on the offensive end and hopefully taking it through the net. Didn’t quite happen today. They put us on our heels. That’s tiring when you’ve got to chase a team like this that’s a little fresher than us, to get out and run.”

Chicago was rested.

The Sky, who have their full roster available for this series, closed out their series on Wednesday. They had four days to recover and regroup before tipping off in Phoenix. The Mercury had just 40 hours after a grinding series against Las Vegas and injuries to Kia Nurse and Sophie Cunningham that have considerably shortened the Mercury’s bench. Phoenix will offer no excuses, but there is no question that the Mercury struggled to be in the right place defensively and that the Sky were able to establish a speed of play and efficiency offensively that Phoenix couldn’t match, or slow.

“If you’re not physically tired, then when you get mentally tired, the execution wasn’t really there where we needed it to be on both ends of the floor,” Brondello said.

Stefanie Dolson came up “big”.

Dolson played more sparingly in the semifinal series against Connecticut as Wade admitted that he had different matchups he preferred against the Sun. But Wade said he told Dolson, who played a total of 17 minutes in the last two games of the semifinal series, to be ready.

“I told her, it doesn’t matter who we play, you’re going to be big for us in the next series,” Wade said. “I need for you to be locked in.”

Dolson was just that. She came off the bench to score 14 points in 17 minutes, going 6-of-8 from the floor and hitting a pair of 3-pointers that further stretched the Phoenix post defense. She also contributed to the trapping team defense that held down Brittney Griner and kept her from taking over the game as she did against the Aces on Friday night.

Chicago owned the paint.

The Sky finished with a 34-29 rebounding advantage and scored 48 points in the paint against a team with one of the most dominant post presences in the league. They held Brittney Griner to just six rebounds and Brianna Turner to nine, and after that, there wasn’t enough help for the Mercury inside, and that’s where Phoenix’s depth issues are showing themselves without Nurse or Cunningham to help crash from the wings.

Chicago was balanced.

The Sky are a very difficult defensive matchup when the opposing team has no good choices about who they need to, or don’t need to, guard. Six players scored in double figures in Game 1 – a WNBA Finals record – led by Copper’s 21. But Allie Quigley added 18, Candace Parker pitched with 16 points and eight rebounds, Dolson put up her aforementioned 14 points off the bench, Azura Stevens added 10 points and eight rebounds and Courtney Vandersloot orchestrated it all with 12 points and 11 assists, and perhaps most importantly zero turnovers, making her the first player in Finals history to have at least 10 points and assists with no turnovers.

“That makes it hard when you are putting a place in plan to limit their effectiveness,” Brondello said.

“It’s fun,” Copper said. “I think we’re just out there moving the ball. At any point, anybody out there can get a bucket…our offense is so great that at any moment anybody can be able to score…we appreciate making the defense move.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.