CHICAGO — It took Kahleah Copper precisely one possession to indicate the Phoenix Mercury she was to not be examined in Recreation 3 of the 2021 WNBA Finals. Copper locked on Phoenix’s dwelling legend Diana Taurasi as she ran off a display screen from Brianna Turner after which one other from Brittney Griner. Griner’s display screen leveled Copper, forcing a swap as Taurasi popped out to the highest of the three-point line. That left the 6’1 Copper within the submit with the 6’9 Griner, the seven-time All-Star, two-time scoring champ, and one of many best gamers of this era in her personal proper.
That is the kind of mismatch Phoenix wished to hunt to determine Griner offensively early within the sport. Taurasi had teammate Sophie Cunningham extensive open on the wing because the Sky protection scrambled to recuperate, however this play was at all times meant to get the ball inside to their star massive. As Taurasi threw an entry cross into the submit, Copper flew in entrance of Griner and soared to tip the ball along with her outstretched left arm.
The Sky recovered the unfastened ball, and sped off to assault on the different finish.
Copper has been Chicago’s beating coronary heart all through this charmed run to the WNBA Finals, and he or she might have saved her greatest postseason efficiency but for Friday evening in a tied collection with the Mercury. She bolted downcourt at each alternative to burn the Phoenix protection in transition. She busted the Mercury within the halfcourt along with her impossibly fast first step and tender contact across the basket. She even knocked down 2-of-3 three-pointers, which has traditionally been the weakest a part of her sport however not feels stunning.
Copper has carried out all of this with Taurasi as her main defensive task. Taurasi has a case as the best participant in WNBA historical past, however she’s 39 years previous, taking part in by means of a number of decrease physique accidents, and simply watched her spouse give beginning to the couple’s second youngster days earlier. Taurasi remains to be one of many league’s most explosive scorers — she dropped 37 factors on the mighty Las Vegas Aces within the semifinals two weeks in the past — however she hasn’t been capable of sustain with Copper on this collection.
In Taurasi’s protection, nobody else has been capable of sustain with Copper both.
Chicago blew open Recreation 3 of the Finals early within the second quarter when Candace Parker picked up a unfastened ball and threw a no-look cross to Copper in transition. Copper gathered the ball, contorted her physique, and completed by means of contact for a three-point play. Copper made her free throw to place Chicago up 19 factors, and the sport was a wrap from there.
The Sky received, 86-50, to maneuver one win away from the primary championship in franchise historical past. It was probably the most lopsided sport in WNBA Finals historical past in entrance of an electrical offered out crowd that includes main politicians (governor JB Pritzker and mayor Lori Lightfoot), native sports activities icons (Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields and stud linebacker Roquan Smith), and Chicago native Likelihood the Rapper all within the stands.
When it was over, Likelihood the Rapper hugged Copper at centercourt whereas sporting her jersey. He had mentioned earlier than the sport he would get a Sky tattoo if the crew received the championship. He looks like simply one in every of hundreds of latest followers the crew has created with this run.
“Copper, she was only a handful,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello mentioned after the sport. “They had been isolating her. Like I mentioned, we are able to’t depend on one-on-one protection. Copper made a whole lot of nice performs.”
“She’s been a tough matchup for everyone this 12 months,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith mentioned when requested about Copper after the sport.
The Sky embody an egalitarian method to the sport. The headline title is Parker, the famous person ahead who made the crew’s title desires potential when she signed in her hometown as a free agent in the course of the offseason. There’s additionally the purpose guard Courtney Vandersloot, who has led the WNBA in assists the final 5 years, and her spouse Allie Quigley, arguably one of the best shooter within the historical past of the league. Chicago’s function gamers have all stepped up in a giant approach all through this run, from Azurá Stevens and Stefanie Dolson within the paint to Diamond DeShields on the wing.
There’s little question who the breakout star of the playoffs has been for Chicago, although. With yet another win, Copper is more likely to be named Finals MVP. It’s a growth that may have shocked anybody taking note of the league coming into the playoffs with the lone exception of Copper herself.
Copper’s arrival in Chicago wasn’t precisely celebrated when she was traded to the crew forward of the 2017 season. On the time, Copper was coming off an unremarkable rookie 12 months with the Washington Mystics as the previous No. 7 total decide within the draft out of Rutgers. She was traded to the Sky as a part of the bundle for famous person ahead Elena Delle Donne, who had received league MVP in Chicago two years earlier. Delle Donne yearned to be nearer to her native Delaware, and threatened to take a seat out of the season if the Sky didn’t commerce her. The Sky actually didn’t have a alternative.
Dropping arguably one of the best participant on this planet was a large set again for the franchise, and ushered in a full scale rebuild. For some time, it was exhausting to inform how a lot of an element Copper would actually be within the crew’s long-term plans.
Copper began solely 12 of her first 101 video games with the franchise, averaging about seven factors in quarter-hour per evening off the bench for the Sky. Vandersloot and Quigley had been the crew’s foundational items, and DeShields was regarded as a rising star after the Sky took her with the No. 3 total decide within the 2018 draft. Copper was simply attempting to indicate she belonged within the league.
All the things modified for Copper when the WNBA went to the
bubble wubble in Bradenton, Florida for the 2020 season amid the pandemic. DeShields confirmed as much as camp with an injured knee and would ultimately go away the crew earlier than the top of the season. Stevens left with DeShields as she battled her personal knee damage. Copper entered the beginning lineup and by no means turned again. Her scoring common jumped from 6.7 to 14.9 factors per sport, and firmly entrenched herself as a core piece shifting ahead.
The Sky by no means actually appeared just like the rising crew they had been regarded as after the 2019 season whereas they had been within the wubble. They battled to a 12-10 document, however had been knocked out by the Connecticut Solar of their playoff sport.
All the things modified for the Sky when Parker signed as a free agent. Out of the blue, the crew had reliable title aspirations, however for some time it appeared like they might by no means get there. Parker suffered an ankle damage within the second sport of the season, and the crew promptly misplaced seven video games in a row. When she returned, the Sky received seven video games in a row. Chicago entered the playoffs at 16-16 with an offensive score, defensive score, and web score that each one ranked in the midst of the league. This was a median crew by any metric.
Copper by no means stopped ascending, although. She led the crew in scoring, and was named an All-Star of the primary time in her profession. Whereas Parker and ‘VanderQuigs’ obtained all the eye, Copper was quietly turning into a significant component on the wing.
This playoff run has been her coronation. She scored 23 factors on 10-of-14 taking pictures in opposition to the Dallas Wings as Chicago survived a single elimination sport to open the playoffs. Chicago needed to win one other single elimination sport after that, and entered because the underdog to the Minnesota Lynx. Copper put up 16 factors and 10 rebounds within the win, and the Sky moved on to the semifinals.
Few thought the Sky might defeat the Connecticut Solar to achieve the Finals. Connecticut was the crew with the WNBA’s greatest document, the crew with the second greatest protection in league historical past, and the crew with the newly topped MVP in Jonquel Jones. Chicago received a double OT thriller to open the collection earlier than the Solar tied issues up with a win within the subsequent sport. Because the collection returned to Chicago for Recreation 3, Copper painted a masterpiece: 26 factors on 9-of-14 taking pictures to present the Sky a good win. They’d shut out the collection within the subsequent sport.
Copper opened the Finals with 21 factors and 10 rebounds — 5 of them on the offensive finish — in a Recreation 1 win. The Sky misplaced a carefully contested Recreation 2, and Copper supplied probably the most memorable second of the sport when she stared down Phoenix’s Sophie Cunningham after an open courtroom foul.
The depth that burned in Copper’s eyes in that second has been the gasoline that has led the Sky to the precipice of a championship. After her unimaginable efficiency within the Recreation 3 beatdown, it’s exhausting to consider there’s something Phoenix can do to cease her.
Copper’s depth has been contagious for Chicago all through the playoffs. Her relentless vitality on each possession at each ends of the ground is a perfect match with the genius IQ of veterans Parker, Vandersloot, and Quigley. Up to now, there’s not a participant within the WNBA who has confirmed they will keep in entrance of her when she’s within the open ground or remoted in opposition to a helpless defender on the wing.
The Sky are a win away from the title, and Copper is yet another massive sport away from stitching her title into the material of the league eternally as Finals MVP. At this level, it looks like the one approach Copper’s star flip within the playoffs can finish.