Inside The W with Michelle Smith: How Phoenix Can Force A Game 5

The stakes in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals presented by YouTube TV are pretty simple. The Chicago Sky are a win away from the franchise’s first championship, while the Phoenix Mercury need to win or their season ends.

Friday night’s 86-50 Game 3 victory by Chicago – the largest margin of victory ever in a WNBA Finals – was as complete as it was impressive, and it puts the Sky, who will be playing in front of another sellout crowd at Wintrust Center, into the driver’s seat in this series.

But the Sky know well that the job isn’t done yet. Four teams have come back from a 2-1 deficit to force a Game 5 and win a title since 2005. And the Mercury have done it twice – in 2004 and 2007.

But Phoenix, which shot an all-time Finals low 25.8 percent in Game 3, has a long to-do list to pull out two wins. Let’s run through it.

1. Get the ball to Brittney Griner early and as often as possible. Griner is the one thing that the Mercury have that Chicago can’t match. The Sky have stellar backcourt players, they can shoot 3s, they have experience and veteran leadership. They have bench contributors. But they don’t have one of the most dominant post players on the planet. Griner needs a lot of touches, and some assistance…

2. Stretch the defense. Taurasi, who scored just five points in Game 3, hit the nail on the head when she said that Griner, the only player to score in double figures in Game 3, will need her and Diggins-Smith to be hitting shots from the perimeter to give her the space and defensive relief to work.

“BG (Griner) is a mismatch for any team,” Taurasi said. “There has to be a healthy balance of getting her involved early and often then also being able to stay aggressive on the perimeter and making sure to keep the defense honest.”

While Chicago played stellar defense in holding Phoenix to 50 points, the Mercury missed their fair share of open looks. No more time for that.

3. Protect the rim. Chicago outscored Phoenix 36-14 in the paint and 24-2 in the first half of Game 3 and that just can’t happen for the Mercury to push this series to a Game 5. The Sky don’t have a dominant post. But they have players like Kahleah Copper, Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot and Diamond DeShields who know how to get to the rim (and the free-throw line). Griner and Brianna Turner have to step up defensively.

4. Stay out of foul trouble. With a bench that’s been too quiet (a total of 40 points in the first three games of the Finals), the Mercury can’t afford to go deep into it for scoring or minutes if Taurasi or Turner or Griner picks up a couple of quick fouls.

5. Skylar Diggins-Smith to come up big. Diggins-Smith has played hungry all season in her quest to win her first championship, but she has struggled offensively in the three games of this series – a combined 12-of-36 from the floor and 4-of-13 from beyond the arc. The Mercury rely on their “Big 3” and Diggins-Smith needs to be a bigger contributor, starting in Game 4.

6. Help from the bench. At the end of a long season, someone has to come off the bench and really help. Shey Peddy has been bottled up most of this entire series so far, and was 0-for-4 from the floor in Game 3. Bria Hartley could be a candidate, but is clearly still working herself back from last year’s knee injury. Alanna Smith came off the bench to score seven points and pull down seven rebounds, but she hasn’t gotten many minutes in the last part of the season. Kia Nurse’s season-ending knee injury in the semifinals has really impacted Phoenix’s depth. And they are having a difficult time picking up the slack.

7. Minimize mistakes. Chicago scored 22 points off of 19 Phoenix turnovers. The Sky have forced Phoenix into 49 turnovers in the first three games. Too many possessions to give up against a Chicago team that is rolling on the offensive end.

8. Contain Kahleah Copper. Obviously much easier said than done considering the way that Copper, who has been the scoring leader in two of the three games in the series thus far, is continuing to dominate this postseason run for Chicago. Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said her team would prioritize cutting off Copper’s driving lanes in Game 3, so she scored from beyond the 3-point arc too. Copper, looking like the Finals MVP front-runner at this point, has turned into a tone-setter for Chicago, who is following her explosive lead. Phoenix has to find a way to minimize the damage she’s been causing up to this point.

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.