Griner injured, but it’s win or go home for Chicago Sky in WNBA Finals

“We want to be physical in all aspects of the game, but being strong mentally would help us out a lot more.”

Pokey Chatman, Chicago Sky head coach and general manager, on managing in the WNBA Finals

The ‘School of Hard Knocks’ opened at the WNBA Finals between first-time contenders Chicago Sky and 2007 and 2009 WNBA Champion Phoenix Mercury.

In a bruising game Game 2 in Phoenix Tuesday night,  6’6 Sky center Sylvia Fowles cut (accidentally or no?) 6’8 center’ Brittney Griner’s eye, for which Griner sat out four minutes. Reportedly, Phoenix point guard Diana Taurasi asked her…”Don’t you have TWO eyes?” And she was back in the game. Later,  the Sky’s Sasha Goodlett caused further damage when she elbowed Griner hard in the mouth, knocking out a tooth.  Griner spit the tooth onto the US Airways Center court and kept playing.

But damage was done. On Thursday, Griner underwent a procedure for a ‘retinal issue’ in Phoenix and is listed as a game-time decision if she will play Friday night in Game 3 at the UIC Pavilion.  If ophthalmologist Dr. Jay Schwartz clears Griner to play, she’ll hop a plane from Phoenix and join the team in Chicago.

Griner’s possible absence gives some hope to the Sky, who are first-time contenders for the WNBA crown. Down 0-2 after two humiliating games in Phoenix, the Sky could force a Game 4 on Sunday.

But it’s going to be tough, Griner or not. All five Mercury starters, including Griner, scored in double-digits in a 97-68 slaughter, a Finals record. Diana Taurasi, with 18 points, moved into second place on the Finals all-time scoring list, passing Katie Smith.  She trails only Deanna Nolan, who has 256 career points in the Finals.Despite what had to be excruciating pain, Griner finished the game with 19 points and four blocks.

But the scrappy Sky, who’ve endured lengthy absences this season from superstar Elena Delle Donne, All-Star Sylvia Fowles, Ephiphanny Prince, and Courtney Vandersloot, and came together relatively healthy in the postseason, have surpassed all expectations. Vandersloot explained:

“We’ve faced elimination in Round 1 and Round 2, and somehow we find a way to win it.  We’ve been through a lot this season.  We fight, we’ve got fighters on this team, we’re not happy with just being in the Finals, and I think if anything these first two games have been a huge wake up call for us.  Obviously, we need to be better and we’re going to find a way to be better.”

Other encouraging signs from Tuesday night included Delle Donne, clearly suffering from a back strain, bouncing back from a dismal, painful Game 1 by delivering a game-high 22 points in 28 minutes. How about Epiphanny Prince turning in her best performance of the playoffs, scoring 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting? She also had 3 steals.

An extra day of rest also benefits the hurting Sky. Delle Donne said her back felt better. Sylvia Fowles is eager to get back home and onto the court that launched her career at the UIC Pavilion. And they know their competition pretty well. Delle Donne analyzed the keys to the Mercury’s success after Tuesday night’s loss:

“They have several superstars on their team and they’re all very unselfish as well.  You know if you pay extra attention to D [Diana Taurasi], she will have 11 assists.  So they really know how to spread the floor, read the floor and get each other open.”

The key to extending the season will be Delle Donne’s health and her ability to play.

Other keys include:

  • Limiting turnovers
  • Scoring points in the paint
  • Outside shooting
  • Avoiding blocks from Griner
  • Successfully guarding Dupree and Taurasi

And for those who think ‘no one’s watching…the WNBA reports the Finals are averaging 688,000 viewers per game across all networks, up +92% versus last season’s Finals (between the Minnesota Lynx and Atlanta Dream) to-date (358,000 viewers) through two games.

Game 1, where the Mercury beat the Sky 83-62, was the most viewed WNBA Finals Game 1 since 2000.