Chicago. Phoenix. The Finals.
The most talented pure scorer in the league going up against the fiercely talented and sometimes controversial frontcourt force. Two of the sport’s most marketable stars stepping onto the league’s biggest stage for ownership of the game’s most coveted prize.
No, this isn’t 1993, when Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls took on Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns in what turned out to be an epic NBA Finals series.
This is the 2014 WNBA Finals, which pits Elena Delle Donne and the Chicago Sky against Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury. Game 1 of the best-of-five series tips off this Sunday at 3:30 p.m. EST on ABC. But unlike ’93, when Jordan was at the height of his powers and the Bulls were working on their first three-peat, Phoenix is the runaway favorite here.
The Mercury set a WNBA regular-season record for victories during this summer’s 29-5 rampage, while the Sky made history of their own as the first WNBA team to make the playoffs with a losing record (15-19).
And if that was all you knew about these teams, then this would look like an NCAA Tournament 13-seed surviving and advancing all the way to the championship game, where their final hurdle happened to be a No. 1 seed loaded with lottery picks.
Except this isn’t quite that.
Despite their record, Chicago is good. They’re no Cinderella. They’re actually among the league’s elite when they’re anywhere close to healthy. But the main reason the Sky fell below .500 this season was due to an unfortunate spate of injuries.
Delle Donne, the 6-5 wing who surprisingly beat out Griner for WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2013, missed more than half of this season due to complications of Lyme disease. Fortunately for the Sky, she has mostly looked like herself – i.e., the WNBA’s answer to Kevin Durant – during Chicago’s run to the Finals. Delle Donne scored 34 points in a first-round series-clinching win over Atlanta and is averaging 17.3 points per game in the postseason.
The Sky also struggled during the early-season absence of 6-6 center Sylvia Fowles. The two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and two-time Olympic gold medalist missed 14 of Chicago’s 34 games due to injuries. She quickly returned to form, however, and is averaging 17.2 points (63.3% FG), 10.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the postseason. The third member of the Sky’s Big Three is point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who missed exactly half of the regular season with injuries. Vandersloot’s 6.0 assists per game would have led the league had she played enough games to qualify, and in the playoffs she’s averaging 7.5 points, 6.3 dimes and 1.5 steals per game.
So no, the Sky is not the plucky bunch of underdogs their record would imply. Chicago is the most talented team in the Eastern Conference. Had Delle Donne, Fowles and Vandersloot been on the court together more and on the sideline less, the Sky would’ve cruised in the playoffs instead of barely making it. That’s why, even with the losing record, Chicago coach Pokey Chatman made a good case for WNBA Coach of the Year; she held things together with duct tape and worn shoelaces until the cavalry came back to save the day.
The Sky’s stars got healthy at the right time, and now – with the help of guard Epiphanny Prince (15.0 ppg in the regular season), forward Tamera Young (9.7 ppg in the postseason) and guard Allie Quigley (24 points in Wednesday’s conference finals-clinching win over Indiana) – they’ve taken their rightful place in the WNBA Finals.
And yet this still seems like Phoenix’s title to lose.
Griner, the reigning WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, blocked 3.8 shots and grabbed 8.0 rebounds per game in the regular season and is averaging 2.4 blocks and 5.8 boards in the playoffs to go with 17.2 points. She can dominate a game without scoring, but the Mercury don’t have to worry about that; their 6-8 anchor has never been better offensively.
As good as Griner is, however, she is not Phoenix’s undisputed leader. That would be Diana Taurasi. The closest thing the WNBA has to Kobe Bryant, Taurasi is a well-worn 32 years-old but apparently doesn’t know it. The league’s No. 2 all-time scorer decided she was going to play point guard this year, and all she did was lead the WNBA in assists (5.6 apg) while scoring 16.2 points and guiding the Mercury to more wins than any other team in league history.
Taurasi has been even better in the playoffs, scoring 22.8 points to go with 5.4 assists. When Phoenix eliminated the two-time defending champion Minnesota Lynx in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday, Taurasi dropped 31 points, five boards and seven assists.
Another Mercury player who can take over a big game is 6-2 forward Candice Dupree (14.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg). Chicago knows all about Dupree. Not only did she play for the Sky for her first four years in the league, but on July 2 she put up 26 points and 14 boards against her former squad.
Phoenix’s X-factor is DeWanna Bonner, the 6-4, 137-pounder who has a knack for back-breaking threes and clutch defensive plays. Bonner is averaging 11.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals in the postseason. Phoenix is also getting key contributions from forward Penny Taylor, who is averaging 11.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
As stacked as Chicago’s roster appears on paper, Phoenix’s roster is better. And the Mercury have the advantage of having been healthy enough to play all season together and develop a chemistry and rhythm that Chicago is still trying to capture. First-year coach Sandy Brondello has kept Phoenix’s ship on course and it seems no team can stop them.
I’ve seen enough to be convinced. I’m picking the Mercury to beat the Sky 3-1 and claim the franchise’s third WNBA championship.
What do you think?
Follow Amaar on Twitter at @UmmahSports.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.