Mercury overwhelm Sky in WNBA Finals opener

PHOENIX — A basketball clinic is scheduled for Monday at US Airways Center, but the Mercury rolled out a detailed-oriented dress rehearsal one day early.

Instead of giving demonstrations for 75 wide-eyed kids, the home team schooled the Chicago Sky in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.

The Mercury shot 58.5 percent from the floor — ringing up 27 assists on 38 field goals — and the Sky unleashed a garbage-time rally to reach 31.9 percent.

The Finals-level statistical milestones were legion. When all of the numbers are crunched, we expect to be informed the Mercury established a record for breaking records.

So, after an 83-62 rout that seemed even worse, it would be easy to gaze recklessly ahead and insinuate historical chatter into the one-step-closer-to-a-championship narrative.

"I’ll wait on that," Mercury floor leader Diana Taurasi said from her perch inside the Phoenix locker room. "Ask me in two weeks."

Even amid rampant optimism, Taurasi remains pragmatic enough to suppose a five-game series.

"They’re a good team," she said of the Eastern Conference champions, who staggered through a regular season that was compromised by injury and now must deal with a Mercury powerhouse while top offensive gun Elena Della Donne is limited by lower back pain. "They’ll play much better the next game."

If Phoenix is in the vicinity of duplicating its Game 1 precision in Tuesday night’s Game 2, the Sky may fall regardless.

After accounting for some sloppy ball handling early and the familiar lapses in defensive rebounding throughout, the Mercury looked absolutely mighty.

Where should we begin?

The opening bow goes to the league’s most-efficient defense, which suffocated Chicago to the tune of 8 points and 18 percent shooting in the opening quarter. At the opposite end, the Phoenix shooters were on target early, but an atypically-clunky offensive flow (four turnovers) allowed the Sky to get out of the first period down only 15-8.

The defensive commitment from Phoenix, however, registered as severe enough to make a seven-point deficit loom as far more profound to the Chicago coach.

"I don’t think we ever quite recovered from that first quarter," the Sky’s Pokey Chatman said.

With Della Donne far less than spry, the Chicago offense was attempting to attack the middle with 6-foot-6 center Sylvia Fowles, who happens to be considered the WNBA’s best physical match-up candidate for Phoenix’s 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner.

When Game 1 was officially over, Della Donne had played just over 10 minutes and contributed four points. ("She felt like she was hurting us," Chatman said. "She couldn’t move.") But Fowles managed a seemingly -stellar 19 points and 11 rebounds.

Griner — whose numbers against Fowles in two regular-season wins were below pedestrian level — checked in with 12 points and seven rebounds. But the Mercury’s rapidly rising difference-maker also cancelled 8 Chicago shots (another of those Finals records), including consecutive second-quarter attempts from a temporarily befuddled Fowles, who was 2 of 9 from the field and had only four points at intermission. By then, Phoenix had seized command at 42-20 (yep, a Finals record for halftime margin).

"She really does cover up the mistakes we make," Taurasi said of Griner’s impact on the Phoenix defense, "and she covers so much ground.

"When she plays like that, she really is unbelievable."

And so was the typically dialed-in level of the Mercury help defense, which — with Fowles rolling and diving to the rim on pick-and-roll action — seemed even more pristine than usual.

Rather than reacting when Fowles followed a mandate to barge toward the hoop as Griner stepped over to close the road on a Sky ball handler, Griner’s teammates anticipated these maneuvers. Reacting as the ball handler began using the screen, the likes of DeWanna Bonner, Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree were in pre-help position to break up passes inside.

With such early assistance available, any Mercury players not directly involved in chaperoning Fowles were busy hustling to make help-the-helper rotations.

"Today we made sure we had each other’s back," Taurasi said when asked about defensive floor positioning against the Sky, "because they’re a deadly offensive team. Their shooters … Syl inside … every time we did give ’em a little space, they hurt us.

"So we had to make sure there were lines of defense. We had the first line, we had the second line and it worked pretty good."

By the way, the league’s most-efficient offense started working as planned in the second quarter. With Dupree (26 points, 13-of-17 shooting) — often using side-action, pick-and-roll dimes from Taurasi (19 points, 11 assists) — firing 6 for 6, Phoenix put up 27 in that period.

Mercury forward Candice Dupree looks to pass against the pressure of Sky forward Elena Delle Donne on Sunday.

Chicago’s Chatman, who gives her team a shot at winning this series even if Della Donne doesn’t bounce back strong — "Because we’ve been there and done that" — thinks her team requires a few tactical upgrades rather than a comprehensive renovation.

But the Sky coach admits dealing with the 6-2 Dupree is a large concern.

"She’s goooood," Chatman said of a Mercury player she’s coached overseas. "She connects the dots. She plays at pace. She has the IQ of a guard. She’s just damn good."

There was a lot of damn good going on — from a Phoenix perspective — Sunday.

To continue marching toward the awaited glory, Dupree, Taurasi and their on-court cronies must maintain a season-long emphasis on the here and now.

"For some reason, this group is just very in the moment," Taurasi said of the Mercury. "Just very grounded on what we have to get done.

"You ask anyone, they’re just worried about coming in tomorrow at noon and working on getting ready for Game 2."

And when these preparations have been discussed and performed, the Phoenix Mercury will get to work on that other, previously scheduled clinic.

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