By: Lyndsay Helfrich
IT’S FINALS SEASON BAYBEEEE! The 2021 WNBA season was one for the books, going all the way down to the wire in order to determine the final playoff teams. The playoffs themselves have not disappointed either; legends have been reminding us why they are legendary, and young stars have continued to find their footing in the hopes of one day becoming legends themselves. The last two weeks have been intense, and fun, but it’s time to get down to business and determine who will be crowned 2021 WNBA Champions. The following is your guide to the final two contenders in this heavyweight bout, so settle in and pick your side accordingly.
Regular Season: 19-13
In the other corner we have the Phoenix Mercury, one of the OG’s of the league led by one of the greatest to ever do it, Diana Taurasi. Heading into the season they were hoping to make the pieces click and find more success than the previous year, with Skylar Diggins-Smith now in her second year with the team and Taurasi healthy to start the season. Add in new addition Kia Nurse alongside dominant big Brittney Griner, sharpshooting Sophie Cunningham and the Mercury were set for success. They struggled out of the gate and failed to find consistency through the first half of the season, heading into the Olympic break at 9-10. They dealt with injuries to key players and inconsistent play as new additions like Nurse found their footing, but taking the break provided an opportunity for the players to recoup and the team started to gel when they returned. They pulled off a 10-game winning streak to vault themselves up the standings and back into the playoffs and chasing the title they entered the season determined to win.
Finishing the season in fifth, they booked their place in what has become an annual tradition in Phoenix: the single elimination first round. Phoenix dispatched Taurasi’s long-time friend and rival Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm before stealing an 83-82 win over the New York Liberty in the second round on the back of a scorching shooting performance from Sophie Cunningham. They entered their series with the second seeded Las Vegas Aces as underdogs, subsequently losing Game One to the Aces 96-90. The Mercury were not to be counted out, however, taking Game Two 117-91 on the back of a career high 37 points (11 made 3-pointers) from Taurasi and continuing the onslaught in Game 3. A’ja Wilson and the Aces hung in to keep their season alive and win Game Four before losing on their home floor in the final seconds to the Mercury. The plucky five seed led by their playoff killers are back in the finals for the first time since 2014, will DT add another ring to her collection?
Regular Season: 16-16 (.500)
In one corner we have the Chicago Sky, the plucky six seed who have scrapped and clawed their way to their first Finals appearance since 2015. The Sky entered the 2021 season as a trendy favourite to win the title after bringing in Candace Parker in free agency. The addition of Parker to the stellar backcourt of Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley and ascendent wings Diamond DeShields and Kahleah Copper was supposed to be the move to push the Sky over the top after years of early playoff exits and knocking on the door of contention. Chicago had a top draft pick which they used on Australian guard Shyla Heal, who was supposed to relieve pressure on the aforementioned Vandersloot. In reality, however, things did not roll out as smoothly for Chicago as we all had predicted. Parker got injured in the first game of the season, missing more games due to injury through the season. When she was on the court, the Sky looked unbeatable, but inconsistency plagued the team. Top draft pick Shyla Heal struggled to find her place on the court and was traded to Dallas for Louisville guard Dana Evans, whom the Sky arguably should have drafted in the first place, and the team ultimately finished with the 6th seed and a .500 record.
As a result of this, they were forced to run the table through the first two single elimination rounds of the playoffs, first defeating seventh ranked Dallas and then upsetting four seed Minnesota. Chicago entered their series with the best team in the WNBA, the Connecticut Sun, as underdogs. After a dramatic double overtime game one win, where Courtney Vandersloot registered the second playoff triple double in WNBA history and a playoff record 18 assists, and a double-digit loss in game two, Chicago came back to even up the series in game three before a commanding win at home to take the series and punch their ticket to the Finals. Candace Parker returned to Chicago to help bring a championship to the Sky organization and a return to championship tendencies in Chi-town. The Sky appear to be peaking at the right time, can the sixth seed party crashers take home the chip?
Matchup: Chicago and Phoenix played three times this season, with Phoenix sweeping the season series. Chicago only had Candace Parker during one of those games and generally struggled through the regular season with consistency. The matchups between these two teams are equally as exciting in the back and front courts with the Vandersloot and Quigley facing off against Taurasi and Diggins-Smith. Brittney Griner presents a challenge to the Sky frontcourt with her size and versatility, but much like in the Connecticut series with Jonquel Jones, Stefanie Dolson and Candace Parker will have the task of trying to keep her out of the paint. One thing to watch will be Chicago’s wings in Diamond DeShields and Kahleah Copper; Copper is on fire right now and Phoenix’s depth is being challenged. Their two best wing defenders are out with injuries; Sophie Cunningham is on the sidelines with a calf strain she sustained in Game 3 against the Aces and Kia Nurse went down with a torn ACL in Game 4, so look for the Sky to try and exploit this. They aren’t the only injuries either, with Diana Taurasi playing with an ankle sprain and a broken bone in her foot. Both teams are capable at defending at a high level, but it wouldn't be surprising to see this series turn into a shoot-out. Taurasi was quoted before Game 5, saying she loved playoff time because some players show greatness and some players crumble and that she was not one of those players [who crumble]. She has never crumbled in her career, but Candace Parker isn’t going down without a fight.
When: October 10, 2021 3:00pm ET
Where: Phoenix, Arizona
How to Watch: ABC, Sportsnet