Phoenix Mercury WNBA Finals life hinges on containing Copper in Game 4
CHICAGO — Copper is historically important to Arizona — remember the five Cs growing up? — but the Phoenix Mercury and their fans have had quite enough of Kahleah Copper.
The sixth-year forward, in just her second season as a full-time starter, is positioned to earn WNBA Finals Most Valuable Player if the Chicago Sky close out the Mercury in Game 4 on Sunday. Or, should Phoenix survive a fourth elimination game this postseason, in Game 5 on Tuesday.
For the Mercury to keep their hopes of a record-tying fourth WNBA title alive, they must find a way to prevent the 6-1 Copper from driving them into the ground like in Games 1 and 3 when she scored 21 and 22 points in Sky wins. Her 20 first-half points Friday fueled a 22-point halftime lead that spun into the most lopsided margin in 25-year Finals history, 86-50.
That's the fewest points for the Mercury since 47 in a 2012 game during a seven-win season.
"When you think about games like that and watch film, it wasn't that bad," Diana Taurasi said Saturday, spinning forward out of necessity given that the Mercury season again is on the line. "The playoffs are ebbs and flows. It's about energy and momentum. I always say none of that carries over to the next game. You think it does, but it doesn't. Each game is its own entity. Tomorrow we have to create our own energy and style of play that's going to help us win."
The Mercury have been all over the map in their 10-game (6-4) postseason, winning by 26 and losing by 36. They've survived in overtime twice and won by a point when their season could have ended in the first round on Sept. 23. What carries over is an internal faith that there's enough talent to win the next game regardless of what preceded it.
The Sky, 7-2 in the playoffs, are testing that conviction with a team peaking on both ends to live up to its preseason championship contender billing after a 16-16 regular season.
"When their offense started to take off (after a 2-7 start), they realized we can be even more aggressive on defense," said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello, who husband Olaf Lange is a Sky assistant coach. "They rely on their smarts behind the ball. They're really active. It makes you overthink it, maybe rush it a little. We've got to make sure we're moving the ball more."
Because the Mercury shot so poorly in Game 3 (23.5 percent in the first half, 25.8 overall), the Sky were constantly pushing the ball in transition, leading to a 10-2 edge in fast break points. Chicago also scored 22 points off 19 Phoenix turnovers.
Improvement in those areas is a must for the Mercury to have a chance of overcoming a 2-1 Finals deficit like they did in the 2007 and 2009 Finals against Detroit and Indiana. Taurasi, 39, doesn't recall losing in a championship game or series since she was in high school.
"If I had to be in an elimination game or the last game of any series, I'd rather be on the Phoenix Mercury, that's all I know," Brittney Griner said. "Because we've proven we normally succeed."
Griner, averaging a team high 21.2 points in the playoffs, already had her game face on Saturday. The 6-9 center was the only Mercury player who scored in double figures (16) Friday but even she had a rough first half (1-of-8 shooting) before going 6-of-9 in the third quarter primarily using her hook shot.
"The hook shot is always good," she said. "I probably should start off with that."
Brondello wants her guards to keep going to Griner when she's being single covered. "I say if you can see her number, get the ball inside," she said. "She missed some (in the first half) then I just thought we had too many quickies that fell right into their hands and they poof (in transition). It was great shot, layup (for Chicago) or turnover, layup."
Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith scored a combined 12 points on 3-of-19 combined shooting (2-of-12 from 3-point) in Game 3. One or both need to be closer to the form that made them Tokyo Olympians and Diggins-Smith All-WNBA first team for the Mercury to match a Sky offense that's had three to six double-figure scorers in the first three games.
"We've been in this position a lot now as far as elimination or tough road environments, and I always feel like we thrive in these situations," Diggins-Smith said. "We've got to show up, respond, be professionals, make some adjustments. We've seen everything, and that's why we're not getting too high or low about any of the games.
"We got excited after we won Game 5 in Vegas and we bring it in and Dee's like we ain't did s--- yet."
Brondello said forward Alanna Smith, who had seven points and seven rebounds in 11 minutes in Game 3, could see more time because of her 3-point shooting range and speed. The Mercury need 6-3 Brianna Turner on the floor for defense and rebounding, but 6-4 Smith provides a different defensive challenge.
Limiting Copper is job No. 1 for Phoenix. Brondello seems more willing to take chance with her 3-point shooting if that better allows team defense to keep her out of the paint.
"She obviously took the life out of us," in Game 3, Brondello said.
If she does it again, the Mercury will confront Finals death for the first time since 1998 when they dropped a best-of-3 series to the Houston Comets.
Mercury comebacks in WNBA Finals
- 2007: Trailing 2-1, the Mercury win 77-76 at home and 108-92 on the road for a 3-2 series victory over the Detroit Shock.
- 2009: Trailing 2-1, the Mercury 90-77 on the road and 94-86 at home for a 3-2 series win over the Indiana Fever.
Phoenix Mercury at Chicago Sky, noon Sunday, Wintrust Arena, ESPN — The No. 5-seeded Mercury (19-13 regular season, 6-4 playoffs) face their fourth elimination game this postseason. No. 6 Chicago (16-16, 7-2) leads 2-1 in the best-of-5 WNBA Finals after a record-setting 86-50 win Friday. The Sky are one win away from their first championship.
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