PHOENIX — There were nerves for Candace Parker’s first WNBA Finals game with the Chicago Sky. Even in her 14th WNBA season and third Finals series, the 2016 champion felt some jitters as she took the court in Phoenix on Sunday for Game 1 against the Mercury.
The Sky had three full days of rest in between the semifinals and start of the Finals, giving them extra time to prepare and, perhaps, overthink the matchup. The Mercury, coming off of a thrilling semifinals Game 5 win over the Las Vegas Aces on Friday, rode that momentum straight through the opening tipoff Sunday, jumping out to a five-point lead by the end of the first quarter.
Whatever mental paralysis overcame Chicago in that first quarter, Parker made sure it didn’t last. The veteran forward led her team on a 26-6 run in the second quarter that ignited the entire lineup and propelled them to a 91-77 Game 1 victory on the road.
“I think once you realize you’re going to settle into the game eventually, it’s just who can settle in early. And then your mind gets lost in it and you start playing basketball like you played all your life,” Parker said. “There’s no reason to flip out. They’re a great team, they’re here for a reason, and we had to settle into the game and get back to what we do.”
The last time the Sky were in the Finals in 2014, only Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley were on the team. They remember the feeling of losing to Diana Taurasi and the Mercury 3-0 in that series, but so much has changed for this organization in the seven years since then.
“We were babies then, not really experienced in that situation,” Quigley said.
Even Sky head coach James Wade, who was an assistant with the Minnesota Lynx during their 2017 Finals run, said he leans on Parker in situations like the first quarter Sunday, when the players need an example to follow.
“She’s accepted that role, and now everybody has a sense of comfort when it comes to those moments,” Wade said. “We just have to keep on riding it until we get to our ultimate destination.”
As soon as Parker reentered the game with 7:46 left in the second quarter, Chicago’s offense switched into another gear. Every Sky player on the court got involved as they chipped away at Phoenix’s lead and went into halftime up 46-35.
CANDACE PARKER, Y'ALL!@Candace_Parker | #skytown pic.twitter.com/aZgnlCqaNg— Chicago Sky (@chicagosky) October 10, 2021
CANDACE PARKER, Y'ALL!@Candace_Parker | #skytown pic.twitter.com/aZgnlCqaNg
Parker, who contributed seven of her 16 points in the quarter, was one of six Sky players to finish the game in double-digit scoring. After the game, the 35-year-old praised her teammates and especially Stefanie Dolson, who scored 14 points off the bench and was a big reason the Sky were able to hold the Mercury to just 32 points in the paint.
“I think that’s what’s special about our team,” Parker said. “I think everybody during this postseason has had a moment or had a game, where if we didn’t have them at that moment, then we wouldn’t win. I think it’s understanding that and being patient in that and knowing it, and that’s what Stef’s done.”
It’s that depth and resilience that most concerns Mercury coach Sandy Brondello in the series. Even when they key in on one player — as they have with Kahleah Copper, who still had a game-high 21 points and 10 rebounds — another player steps up.
Parker feels the same way about Chicago’s veteran group. She’s picked up leadership qualities from many WNBA greats along the way, such as Lisa Leslie during their two seasons together with the Sparks, but she’s also learned something from each of her Sky teammates.
As Parker explains it, the Sky’s willingness to trust in each other, even on a team with multiple superstars, has helped take them from a 2-7 regular-season start to the doorstep of a WNBA championship. And against a team with its own superstar core of Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith, that bond is their most dangerous weapon.
“I don’t think I understood when I was younger that you have to be the calm for the storm and you have to be the storm when everyone’s calm,” Parker said. “But we have leadership internally across the board. It’s not just me. I think it’s been fun for me to learn.”
Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.