The 2021 WNBA Playoffs concluded with the Chicago Sky hoisting the championship trophy as they defeated the Phoenix Mercury 80-74 in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals.
The Finals matchup featured several all-stars, including the Sky’s Kahleah Copper and Courtney Vandersloot, and the Mercury’s Skylar Diggins-Smith and Britney Griner. But, the series was headlined by a showdown between two WNBA legends — the Sky’s Candace Parker and the Mercury’s Diana Taurasi.
It was an unlikely road to the Finals for the sixth-seeded Sky and the fifth-seeded Mercury. While higher-seeded teams received byes to the later rounds, the Sky and Mercury each played two single elimination games and the best-of-five semifinals before reaching the best-of-five Finals series.
Parker, a one-time champion, had been the Los Angeles Sparks superstar for 13 seasons before returning home to Chicago in February 2021. As the only player to earn Rookie of the Year and MVP honours in the same season, she brought with her a hope of delivering the Sky their first championship in franchise history.
The Sky reached the postseason in both 2019 and 2020, but never advanced past the second round. While the team featured a standout playmaker in Vandersloot and a prolific scorer in Copper, Parker proved to be the missing piece.
Parker was named defensive player of the year in 2020. The combination of her defensive prowess and veteran leadership made the difference in the 2021 playoffs in each playoff round, through to the finals.
In the first playoff round, Parker recorded an 11-point and 15-rebound double-double in the Sky’s commanding 81-64 victory. In the second round, an 89-76 victory against the third-seeded Minnesota Lynx earned the Sky a meeting with the first seed, the Connecticut Sun, in the semi-final round.
The Sun, despite holding a 14-game winning streak entering the playoffs, were no match for the Sky, who prevailed in four games in the best-of-five semifinal. Parker made her presence felt in this series, recording double-digit points in each game. In the series clinching victory in Game 4, Parker delivered in all aspects, scoring 17 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two blocks.
Taurasi, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and a three-time champion, has dominated the league since 2004. The 2021 playoffs saw Taurasi, aged 39, looking to add another championship to her illustrious resume.
The Mercury narrowly won their first round bout versus the New York Liberty 83-82, despite Taurasi being sidelined due to injury. Taurasi returned from injury in the second round, where the Mercury outlasted the Seattle Storm in a tense 85-80 overtime victory. Taurasi’s six points in overtime made the difference down the stretch.
The gruelling journey for the Mercury continued as they exchanged blowout victories with the Las Vegas Aces in the first four games of their series. In a decisive Game 5, the Taurasi and Griner tandem was clutch in a 87-84 victory. Griner posted 28 points to go along with nine rebounds, while Taurasi poured in 18 of her 24 total points in the second half to overcome the Aces and head to the Finals.
Game 1 of the Finals was a 91-77 victory for the Sky, with Parker’s 16 points helping the Sky prevail despite the Mercury capitalizing with an early lead. The Mercury answered back in Game 2 with an overtime victory, where Griner and Taurasi pitched in 29 and 20 points, respectively. Diggins-Smith ensured the Mercury win with a layup late in overtime.
Unlike the highly contested Games 1 and 2, Game 3 was a complete blowout. The Sky won 86-50, with Copper leading the way with 22 points. With the Sky up 2-1 in the best-of-five series after Game 3, Parker’s ultimate goal of a WNBA title for her hometown was in striking distance.
The Mercury had every intention of spoiling the Sky’s championship hopes, leading Game 4 72-65 with less than five minutes left. However, a late surge from the Sky helped them tie the game at 72-72 off of a Parker three-pointer that had fans at Wintrust Arena buzzing with excitement.
That excitement turned to frenzy as Vandersloot’s fadeaway put the Sky up by four with 24 seconds left, and the Sky captured their first championship in franchise history.
It was destiny fulfilled for Parker, who unwound after the game with a meal at Portillo’s, a Chicago staple. The team also received a call from Chicago native Barack Obama following their championship parade, who praised their team-oriented play and said he “could not be prouder” of them.
The matchup between the legends seems to have resonated with fans, as WNBA viewership has risen rapidly by 49 percent since the 2020 season. Engagement records were set on various social media platforms, with several NBA stars chiming in on Twitter throughout the playoffs.
The high level of play combined with the bolstered media presence bodes well for the WNBA and the game of basketball.