This isn’t your typical sixth seed.
The Chicago Sky continued to prove their regular season was a fluke with a dominant showing in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, taking a 91-77 win over the No. 5-seeded Phoenix Mercury at the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix on Sunday.
Game 2 of the best-of-five series is 9 p.m. ET Wednesday in Phoenix on ESPN.
Kahleah Copper finished with her second career double-double, notching 21 points and 10 rebounds. Copper is the 10th player to record that feat in her Finals debut.
“Her speed, her athleticism and her tenacity. Those are three things that really make her a hard matchup, but also her talent,” Sky coach James Wade said of Copper. “She’s a high-level player. Now I think, as the Finals goes on, people are going to start paying attention to her. I think people will notice what we know.”
Courtney Vandersloot also had a double-double for the Sky with 12 points and 11 assists. She had zero turnovers, the first Finals player to have at least 10 points and assists with five rebounds and no turnovers, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The Sky’s balanced attack had six players score in double figures, matching a Finals record, according to Across The Timeline. Four teams previously had six players with double-digit scoring in a Finals game, including the Mercury twice and both during championship runs (2007 and 2009).
The Sky assisted on 24 of their 36 baskets, one of the league's best assist teams. They outrebounded the Mercury 34-29.
Rested Sky adjust to cool off Mercury
After finishing off their semifinals series on Wednesday in four games against the top-seeded Connecticut Sun, the Sky used the rest to their advantage and traveled to the Pacific time zone to get acclimated while the Mercury were forced into the win-or-go-home Game 5 in their semifinals series against the Las Vegas Aces.
Chicago went 16-16 in the regular season, the third team to advance to the Finals with a .500 or worse record. The Sky, along with the Mercury, are the first teams outside of the top-three seeds in the Finals since the playoff format changed in 2016.
The Mercury continued their string of hot starts in the first quarter, jumping out to a five-point lead after one behind Skylar Diggins-Smith’s eight points in the quarter. She finished with 15 points.
But fatigue started to set in and the Sky made adjustments. They outscored the Mercury 26-10 in the second quarter. Chicago finished the first half on a 17-2 run, taking its first lead of the game during the stretch.
“We thought we started the game really well. Focus, with a lot of energy, and then they just took it to a different level. That had nothing to do with us being tired,” Mercury veteran Diana Taurasi said. “If you followed them for the last month, they were just playing at a different level. That’s what they did today for 40 minutes. And we didn’t. That was all for today.”
From there, the Sky punished the Mercury’s tired legs and lack of bench depth. The Mercury played Friday in Game 5 of their semifinals series against the Aces and needed every second of their closeout game to advance to the Finals, then took the short flight home late Friday.
The fatigue might have been most prominent for Taurasi, who welcomed her second child with wife Penny Taylor early Saturday morning. She started the game with intensity, but ran into foul trouble and struggled with turnovers. Taurasi had 17 points and six turnovers.
“I was pretty pathetic with the basketball today. For playing so much basketball, that was pretty pathetic and that’s on me,” Taurasi said. “We can’t turn the ball over like that, especially not in the Finals. That’s just me being a bad basketball player. We’ll adjust some things, and hopefully, we’ll be in better positions to get out of those traps on the court.”
The Mercury rotation was again short with Kia Nurse (torn ACL) and Sophie Cunningham (calf strain) out. Cunningham could be available for Game 2, coach Sandy Brondello said before Sunday’s Game 1.
“I don’t want to make excuses, but we were fatigued. I understand that,” Brondello said postgame. “The second quarter, we only lost by three in the second half, but 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. The most important thing for us is we’ve got to freshen up these next few days. That’s actually good we don’t play again until Wednesday. We can regroup, watch the video and play a better game on Wednesday.”
Brondello said the Mercury would take Monday off and would go through a lighter practice on Tuesday.
Phoenix was able to find its range after a dismal 3-point shooting night Friday in the semifinals. The Mercury shot 66% from long range in the first quarter and finished shooting 46.7%.
Brittney Griner led the Mercury with 20 points, six rebounds and three assists.
“They have Diana, they have BG, they have Skylar, and they have the rest of those players. We just have to make sure that we're not satisfied with winning the first game,” Wade said. “We want to come with the same rigor and aggressiveness that we came out with this game and just try to do our best. That’s the only thing that we can do.”
Diana Taurasi earns GOAT title by fan vote
As part of the WNBA’s 25th anniversary season, the league announced its top 25 players and asked fans to vote for the GOAT from that list.
Taurasi earned the most votes of the 25 players on the list, followed by Sue Bird, Maya Moore, Candace Parker and Cynthia Cooper, the league announced prior to Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
Diana Taurasi. The Greatest. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/y7DeKvxmVB
— Phoenix Mercury - X (@PhoenixMercury) October 10, 2021
“Congratulations to Diana Taurasi on being voted as the greatest WNBA player of all time by the fans who have followed her illustrious career and saw her rise above the rest,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a release. “This well-deserved recognition reflects her sustained excellence on the court and her leading role in advancing the WNBA and women’s basketball and being a role model for young athletes everywhere. The opportunity to honor Dee is yet another special moment in celebration of our historic 25th season.”
Taurasi is in her 17th season, all with the Mercury, and leads the WNBA in points, made field goals and made 3-pointers. She has been named to a league-record 14 All-WNBA Teams and 10 All-Star Games, second-most in WNBA history.
Taurasi and the Mercury are vying for the fourth championship in franchise history. She has won two WNBA Finals MVPs and was the regular-season MVP in 2009 and Rookie of the Year in 2005.
A number of players from the W25 list were honored between the first and second quarters of Game 1, receiving varsity jackets with WNBA logos and their names emblazoned on the back.
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 10, 2021
WNBA to pay for charter flight for Game 3
Travel problems have plagued the league this season, as teams continue to fly commercial and deal with delays, lost luggage and splitting one team over several flights.
Before Game 1 on Sunday, Engelbert announced that the league would pay for the Mercury and Sky to take charter flights to Chicago when the series shifts there for Game 3 and Game 4, if necessary.
“Finally, because I know you're going to ask about this, with Game 2 set to take place here in the Pacific time zone on Wednesday and Game 3 scheduled for Friday in the Central time zone, we will arrange and cover the cost of a charter flight for both teams to Chicago between Game 2 and 3,” Engelbert told reporters. “As you know, we did this in 2019 on a west-to-east with no rest days in between. We have that same pattern this year in the Finals, so that's something that I know is important to our players and the player health and safety.”
Game 2 of the best-of-five Finals series is scheduled for 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday in Phoenix, while Game 3 is 9 p.m. ET on Friday in Chicago. Game 4, if necessary, would tip off at 3 p.m. ET next Sunday.
After the Connecticut Sun and Sky pointed out the taxing travel accommodations when their semifinals series moved locations, New York Liberty owner Joseph Tsai said he is working with Engelbert to find a charter sponsor for the entire league.
The collective bargaining agreement currently does not allow individual teams to book charter flights because not all teams (read: team owners) will pay for those flights.
The Sky flew to Las Vegas before Game 5 of the Aces-Mercury semifinals series Friday to position themselves near either Finals location. From there, they took a quick flight to Phoenix for Games 1-2.
2021 WNBA Finals schedule
Game 1: Sky 91, Mercury 77 (Chicago leads, 1-0)
Game 2: Sky at Mercury, 9 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPN)
Game 3: Mercury at Sky, 9 p.m. ET Friday (ESPN2)
Game 4: Mercury at Sky, 3 p.m. ET Oct. 17 (ESPN) (if necessary)
Game 5: Sky at Mercury, 9 p.m. ET Oct. 19 (ESPN2) (if necessary)