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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: WNBA Finals Series Preview

The Phoenix Mercury and the Chicago Sky will play – again – for the WNBA championship, and bring a load of historical context with them when the series opens Sunday in Arizona.

This matchup will mark the first time either team has been to the Finals series since 2014, when they played one another and the Mercury won in a three-game sweep.

The championship series will match the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds, the first time that a No. 1 seed has not appeared in the Finals in the past five seasons.

The Mercury will be going for its fourth title, potentially joining Houston and Minnesota and Seattle at the top of the trophy collectors in the WNBA. Chicago is playing for its first title.

These are the things we know. Now for the questions…

What does the regular-season series tell us about this Finals matchup?

Probably not a lot, despite the fact that Phoenix won all three matchups against Chicago this season. Two of those games were decided by a total of four points (both without Diana Taurasi on the floor), and the other, back on August 31, was a decisive Mercury win when Phoenix was both healthier and fresher than they are now. There is every reason to expect that this is going to be a competitive, compelling matchup between two teams with experienced, seasoned veterans. Chicago is a team with balance, versatility, and great guard play. Phoenix is a team that wants to play through Brittney Griner in the paint, where she has been dominant in the postseason. Oh, and they have Diana Taurasi, who has been stellar during this postseason run.

Will fatigue be a factor? 

Both of these teams came through a pair of single-elimination games before surviving the semifinals series to punch their Finals ticket. Phoenix is two players down in their main rotation – going without Kia Nurse (knee injury) and possibly Sophie Cunningham (calf injury) – and has Diana Taurasi playing on a sprained ankle and fractured foot and she gutted out a physical, exhausting Game 5 on Friday against Las Vegas. Mercury coach Sandy Brondello admitted after Friday’s game that her team is “dead tired.” And the turn-around is going to be less than 48 hours before they take the floor again. Chicago played a four-game series against Connecticut and has a couple of days rest under its belt before the opening game on Sunday. The Sky are healthy and at full strength. As the series rolls on, does that tip the scale to the Sky, who have depth that Phoenix can’t match?

Can Chicago continue to stay consistent?

After finishing the regular season with four losses in six games, the Sky have reeled off six wins in seven games in the postseason, playing at a peak level on both ends of the floor and have reveled in a city that seems so excited about the possibility that this team could deliver its first championship in 23 years. This is a team that muddled through a 16-16 season, fighting through injuries and inconsistency and have found a way to put it together at the perfect time, behind the leadership of Candace Parker, the star-making play of Kahleah Cooper, and the unmatched point guard gifts of Courtney Vandersloot. In a series against a veteran team like Phoenix, the Sky will need to stay balanced in their offense to stretch short-handed Phoenix defenders, and they will need to play some very strong post defense to keep Griner after holding her to 18, 16, and 13 points in three regular-season matchups.

Who will win the battle of the hungry, hungry guards?

Skylar Diggins-Smith came to Phoenix to take a shot at getting a championship ring after eight years in the league. Courtney Vandersloot played in that Finals series back in 2014, and came up short, and after 11 seasons in the WNBA, Sloot is also looking for her first title. Diggins-Smith is averaging 14.6 points and 5.7 assists in the playoffs. Vandersloot has averaged 14.0 points and 8.7 assists per game with a triple-double in the semifinal opener against Connecticut. These two players will have a lot to say about whether their teams will be hoisting a trophy come the end of next week.

Who adds to their legacy, Diana or Candace?

At 39, Taurasi knows as well as anyone that the chance to win a title doesn’t come around very often. It’s been eight seasons since she took her last shot at the chip and injuries have hampered her in each of the past three seasons (including 16 missed games this season). Parker, 35, has one title on her resume from Los Angeles and came home to Chicago because she thought the Sky were built to put her in a position for another. Both are the emotional centers of their teams. Two players destined for Hall of Fame induction someday. Taurasi has played through pain to hit some huge shots in late-game situations, while Parker has been the steady facilitator and motivator. Both have the opportunity to add to their legacies with another title run.

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.