Classic bulletin-board material: The Chicago Sky weren’t sure whether they’d face the Phoenix Mercury or the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals, but with just a day between the deciding game in the Phoenix-Vegas semifinal series and the first game of the Finals, they figured they ought to head out west a little early, to get their bodies rested and used to the time difference. The Sky took a little gamble, flew to Vegas, and it was a sensible gamble, really. After two blowouts in a row put them down 2–1 in a best-of-five series, the Aces looked like their fearsome regular-season selves again in the next game. Crucially, the Mercury didn’t; less than a minute into Game 4, Kia Nurse, Phoenix’s best perimeter defender, tore her ACL. Sophie Cunningham, the second-best perimeter defender and a threat from three, has been out with a calf strain since the second half of Game 3.
But it’s one more short plane ride for the Sky, who were waiting in the wrong place. The Mercury outlasted the Aces, 87–84, somehow, in one of the stranger, more thrilling games in WNBA playoff history. The Finals not a single person could envision, like, two weeks ago, between the fifth- and sixth-seeded teams, begin this afternoon.
How … how did Phoenix do that? On the road! and shorthanded! and half-hobbling!, the Mercury weathered a 14–0 Vegas run to start the third quarter, slow starts from their “Big Three” of Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith, and the stresses of a highly physical game on a roster with zero margin for further injury. Spirit and score felt misaligned for so much of the game, as if it were fluky playoff hockey and not playoff basketball. With some key steals and scrappy defense, our old friend and miracle worker Shey Peddy kept Phoenix alive enough to have a small lead at halftime. If you haven’t, read Lindsay Gibbs’s thread on Peddy, an incredible tale of training camp cuts and passport drama, and a good look at the itinerant life of top women’s basketball players. “I got so much respect for Shey,” said Diggins-Smith, in tears in her postgame press conference. “Her story is just so inspiring. She just works so hard.” Yesterday, Peddy tweeted, “FYI: This is my first season in the league NOT getting cut.”
But with all due respect to Peddy, they were dead. They were dead! Once Phoenix lost their lead in the third quarter, they seemed unlikely to regain it; harried possession after harried possession for the Mercury ended in a weird, bad shot or a turnover. Vegas’s small late-game defensive lapses opened the window just barely enough for Phoenix to shimmy through, but you can even imagine the Aces being OK if this were a seven-game series, and slowness to make adjustments weren’t so costly. Head coach Bill Laimbeer attributed the loss to his team’s lack of “mental toughness.” Lack of “good coachness” may have played a role here, too.
Mental toughness, desperation, guts—whatever it was, it fueled a 10-0 Mercury run to start the fourth quarter. In the funniest sequence of the night, the 6-foot Taurasi blocked 6-foot-8 Liz Cambage from behind and then hit a go-ahead three on the other end with just over a minute left. But it would take Griner’s block on A’ja Wilson to truly slam the door.
The 6-foot-9 Griner, and the inside-out offense built around her, offer the ultimate defensive assignment for the Sky, a team with five players averaging double-digit scoring in their fast, pass-heavy system. “We’ve asked her to do everything—play 40 minutes, defend the best player, block shots, score, rebound. She’s incredible,” Taurasi said, when asked about Griner, playing the best basketball of her life this season.
The night made a lasting impression in another way for Taurasi. She and her wife, the retired Aussie great Penny Taylor, announced this summer that they were expecting their second child in October. That Taurasi might miss a game was a mini-storyline of the series. “Any minute now. I’m on call,” Taurasi said before Game 3 last weekend, admitting that Taylor going into labor on a game day would trigger “a decision that Penny and I will have to make.” On Friday night, to end her postgame interview, Taurasi pointed to the camera and said, “Hold it in, babe. I’m coming,” before taking a jet back home to Phoenix. Dramatic timing is the family business. The baby was born later that night.