Holy choke! The Chicago Sky entered a deciding Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals last night with history on their minds. Not since the 2001 and 2002 Sparks had a WNBA team won back-to-back titles. This phenomenon defies explanation. There are not many teams in the league to begin with, there was not much in the way of player movement for a long time, and the 2010s were essentially dominated by a dynasty—just a weird one that won its four championships in alternating years. The Sky won’t have a chance to defend last year’s title, but they can rest easy knowing they did make history, for worst-ever playoff collapse. Down nine points with just under five minutes to play, the Connecticut Sun closed the game on an 18-0(!) run to win 72-63. They’ll play the Aces in the Finals, which begin Sunday in Las Vegas.
After being held to eight points in the third quarter, the Sun held the Chicago offense to just five points in the fourth quarter, something any admirer of the Chicago offense—a passing, cutting, and shooting clinic most nights this season—knows is difficult to do. But all series long, even when trailing, the Sun have refused to let Chicago settle into an easy rhythm. It’s to the Sky’s credit that the offense managed OK for as long as it did. Doubt Connecticut’s offensive capacity in the playoffs—I certainly have—but the defense plays. It always has. The Sun caved in on Candace Parker, putting her in the Connecticut frontcourt’s long-limbed hell. To compensate, the Sky needed backcourt shooting, and they got none. Allie Quigley finished 1-for-12, and 0-for-6 from three.
In the postgame press conference, Curt Miller wrote the story himself. “I do want to get on the record for this,” he said. “We’ve knocked Candace Parker out of the playoffs three out of the last four years. She is an incredible, all-time great in this league. But I hope someone writes the combination of JJ, AT, and Bri Jones have knocked her out three out of the last four years.” Wish granted: The combination of Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones have knocked Candace Parker out of the playoffs three out of the last four years. Parker left the court quickly after the game ended, but sounded her usual measured and contemplative self in the postgame. She has said often that she’ll retire the moment she feels she can no longer meet her own high standards. “I don’t ever want to cheat the game. I won’t cheat the game,” she said last night. Parker, 36, looks to be in no danger of that. In two seasons with Chicago, she played as well as she ever has. An MVP in her 2008 rookie season and a candidate as recently as this year, she is still the rare athlete so good her “prime” can’t really be located. But Parker has also little to prove in her sport and a sure full-time broadcasting career ahead. She promised to “re-evaluate” her next steps in the offseason.
When a championship is still in a team’s sights, looming crises can be set aside. But now they’ve come roaring back into view for the Sky. Maybe this is the answer to the back-to-back mystery: Championship success is hard to sustain because it typically requires veterans with fewer and fewer good seasons ahead of them, and unsung role players who quickly become sung and then paid. An older team with lots of short-term deals, the Sky are due for serious roster turnover this winter. Parker might re-sign, but what about UFA Courtney Vandersloot, whose contract negotiations went not-so-smoothly last year? Or Quigley, who is 36 and may be mulling retirement too? The silver lining for the Sky next year is that at least they won’t be trying to go back-to-back.