The No. 5 and No. 6 seeds playing for the WNBA championship seems difficult to believe at first sight.
However, it’s fitting that the two hottest teams in the league will face off in the Finals as the Phoenix Mercury and the Chicago Sky are set to battle in a rematch of the 2014 WNBA Finals, the last time the Mercury won a title.
An up and down regular season had Chicago as the sixth seed heading into the playoffs, but since the postseason began, the Sky have looked like the team they were projected to be.
Despite beating the Dallas Wings and Minnesota Lynx in the first and second rounds, they were heavy underdogs against the No. 1 Connecticut Sun.
The Sky found ways to break down the Sun’s defence, which let their offence shine as they won the best-of-five series 3-1.
Kahleah Copper has continued to be a star for the Sky, averaging 18.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists a game during this playoff run. Thriving alongside Copper is Courtney Vandersloot, who is averaging 14 points, 5.7 rebounds and 8.7 assists a game. Vandersloot, who was on the Sky team that lost to the Mercury in the 2014 Finals, said Chicago was missing one piece, and that piece was Candace Parker.
Parker, who left the Los Angeles Sparks after 13 years, returned to Chicago in hopes of delivering a title to her hometown and she is three wins away from accomplishing that feat. Her 8.3 rebounds per game lead the team and she is third on the Sky with 13.3 PPG.
The @chicagosky and Coach James Wade embrace @Candace_Parker as she comes over after helping them punching their ticket to the WNBA Finals 🧡— WNBA (@WNBA) October 7, 2021
In just her first season with the Sky, Parker has helped lead this team to a Finals appearance for the first time since 2014 ‼️ pic.twitter.com/2f2YC8xi8E
However, where Parker has arguably made her biggest impact is on the leadership side. She brings championship experience, having won a WNBA title in 2016 and is one of Chicago’s most vocal leaders on the court.
The Mercury, on the other hand, had to go the distance to finish off the No. 2 Las Vegas Aces in five games. Las Vegas was built for a championship run, but it was the exploits of Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner that made sure Phoenix was moving on.
Taurasi started slow, but she came alive when the team needed her most. With 14 points in the fourth quarter of the decider and knocking down three-of-four from beyond the arc, the 39-year-old is now 16-2 in winner-take-all games in her career, the best record in such contests in league history.
For Griner, she finished the game with 28 points, but her most memorable play of the night came in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter as her block on A’ja Wilson prevented her from tying the game.
Phoenix’s depth took a hit in this series as injuries to key players forced the Mercury to lean even more heavily on their ‘Big Three’ of Taurasi, Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith as well as the rest of the roster.
Canadian Kia Nurse went down in the opening minute of Game 4 with a torn ACL and will miss the remainder of the season. Nurse had become a fixture in the starting lineup in her first year with the Mercury and was relied upon heavily by head coach Sandy Brondello.
Sophie Cunningham, a key piece off the bench for the Mercury, has also missed the last couple of games due to a calf strain. Her 21-point performance against the New York Liberty in the first round was a big reason why the Mercury edged them by one point.
One player who will continue to be an X-factor for the Mercury in the Finals is Shey Peddy. Without Nurse and Cunningham, it has meant a lot more minutes for Peddy and she has delivered so far.
After Nurse went down in Game 4, Peddy stepped up with 13 points, six rebounds and three assists. She saw 32 minutes in Game 5, and came through with 15 points and five rebounds. She sunk two-of-three free throws with 4.8 seconds remaining in the fourth to give the Mercury a critical two-point lead.
Trying to call a favourite between two underdogs playing at their best is a tall order. Chicago has the edge health-wise with Phoenix missing Nurse and Cunningham while Taurasi continues to play through her ankle injury.
However, counting out a team that boasts Taurasi and Griner, especially after the way they played in the fourth quarter of Game 5 against the Aces, is foolish.
Two magical playoff runs so far, but only one can take home the trophy. Can Parker deliver her hometown a championship? Will Taurasi cement her legacy with a fourth WNBA title? The storylines write themselves in what will be a memorable Finals.