CHICAGO — It took Kahleah Copper exactly one possession to show the Phoenix Mercury she was not to be tested in Game 3 of the 2021 WNBA Finals. Copper locked on Phoenix’s living legend Diana Taurasi as she ran off a screen from Brianna Turner and then another from Brittney Griner. Griner’s screen leveled Copper, forcing a switch as Taurasi popped out to the top of the three-point line. That left the 6’1 Copper in the post with the 6’9 Griner, the seven-time All-Star, two-time scoring champ, and one of the greatest players of this generation in her own right.
This is the type of mismatch Phoenix wanted to hunt to establish Griner offensively early in the game. Taurasi had teammate Sophie Cunningham wide open on the wing as the Sky defense scrambled to recover, but this play was always meant to get the ball inside to their star big. As Taurasi threw an entry pass into the post, Copper flew in front of Griner and soared to tip the ball with her outstretched left arm.
The Sky recovered the loose ball, and sped off to attack at the other end.
Copper has been Chicago’s beating heart throughout this charmed run to the WNBA Finals, and she may have saved her best postseason performance yet for Friday night in a tied series with the Mercury. She bolted downcourt at every opportunity to burn the Phoenix defense in transition. She busted the Mercury in the halfcourt with her impossibly quick first step and soft touch around the basket. She even knocked down 2-of-3 three-pointers, which has historically been the weakest part of her game but no longer feels surprising.
Copper has done all of this with Taurasi as her primary defensive assignment. Taurasi has a case as the greatest player in WNBA history, but she’s 39 years old, playing through multiple lower body injuries, and just watched her wife give birth to the couple’s second child days earlier. Taurasi is still one of the league’s most explosive scorers — she dropped 37 points on the mighty Las Vegas Aces in the semifinals two weeks ago — but she hasn’t been able to keep up with Copper in this series.
In Taurasi’s defense, no one else has been able to keep up with Copper either.
Chicago blew open Game 3 of the Finals early in the second quarter when Candace Parker picked up a loose ball and threw a no-look pass to Copper in transition. Copper gathered the ball, contorted her body, and finished through contact for a three-point play. Copper made her free throw to put Chicago up 19 points, and the game was a wrap from there.
The Sky won, 86-50, to move one win away from the first championship in franchise history. It was the most lopsided game in WNBA Finals history in front of an electric sold out crowd featuring major politicians (governor JB Pritzker and mayor Lori Lightfoot), local sports icons (Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields and stud linebacker Roquan Smith), and Chicago native Chance the Rapper all in the stands.
When it was over, Chance the Rapper hugged Copper at centercourt while wearing her jersey. He had said before the game he would get a Sky tattoo if the team won the championship. He feels like just one of thousands of new fans the team has created with this run.
“Copper, she was just a handful,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said after the game. “They were isolating her. Like I said, we can’t rely on one-on-one coverage. Copper made a lot of great plays.”
“She’s been a hard matchup for everybody this year,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said when asked about Copper after the game.
The Sky embody an egalitarian approach to the game. The headline name is Parker, the superstar forward who made the team’s title dreams possible when she signed in her hometown as a free agent during the offseason. There’s also the point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who has led the WNBA in assists the last five years, and her wife Allie Quigley, arguably the best shooter in the history of the league. Chicago’s role players have all stepped up in a big way throughout this run, from Azurá Stevens and Stefanie Dolson in the paint to Diamond DeShields on the wing.
There’s no doubt who the breakout star of the playoffs has been for Chicago, though. With one more win, Copper is likely to be named Finals MVP. It’s a development that would have surprised anyone paying attention to the league coming into the playoffs with the lone exception of Copper herself.
Copper’s arrival in Chicago wasn’t exactly celebrated when she was traded to the team ahead of the 2017 season. At the time, Copper was coming off an unremarkable rookie year with the Washington Mystics as the former No. 7 overall pick in the draft out of Rutgers. She was traded to the Sky as part of the package for superstar forward Elena Delle Donne, who had won league MVP in Chicago two years earlier. Delle Donne yearned to be closer to her native Delaware, and threatened to sit out of the season if the Sky didn’t trade her. The Sky really didn’t have a choice.
Losing arguably the best player in the world was a massive set back for the franchise, and ushered in a full scale rebuild. For a while, it was hard to tell how much of a factor Copper would really be in the team’s long-term plans.
Copper started only 12 of her first 101 games with the franchise, averaging about seven points in 15 minutes per night off the bench for the Sky. Vandersloot and Quigley were the team’s foundational pieces, and DeShields was thought to be a rising star after the Sky took her with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Copper was just trying to show she belonged in the league.
Everything changed for Copper when the WNBA went to the
bubble wubble in Bradenton, Florida for the 2020 season amid the pandemic. DeShields showed up to camp with an injured knee and would eventually leave the team before the end of the season. Stevens left with DeShields as she battled her own knee injury. Copper entered the starting lineup and never turned back. Her scoring average jumped from 6.7 to 14.9 points per game, and firmly entrenched herself as a core piece moving forward.
The Sky never really looked like the rising team they were thought to be after the 2019 season while they were in the wubble. They battled to a 12-10 record, but were knocked out by the Connecticut Sun in their playoff game.
Everything changed for the Sky when Parker signed as a free agent. Suddenly, the team had legitimate title aspirations, but for a while it seemed like they would never get there. Parker suffered an ankle injury in the second game of the season, and the team promptly lost seven games in a row. When she returned, the Sky won seven games in a row. Chicago entered the playoffs at 16-16 with an offensive rating, defensive rating, and net rating that all ranked in the middle of the league. This was an average team by any metric.
Copper never stopped ascending, though. She led the team in scoring, and was named an All-Star of the first time in her career. While Parker and ‘VanderQuigs’ got all the attention, Copper was quietly becoming a major factor on the wing.
This playoff run has been her coronation. She scored 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting against the Dallas Wings as Chicago survived a single elimination game to open the playoffs. Chicago had to win another single elimination game after that, and entered as the underdog to the Minnesota Lynx. Copper put up 16 points and 10 rebounds in the win, and the Sky moved on to the semifinals.
Few thought the Sky could defeat the Connecticut Sun to reach the Finals. Connecticut was the team with the WNBA’s best record, the team with the second best defense in league history, and the team with the newly crowned MVP in Jonquel Jones. Chicago won a double OT thriller to open the series before the Sun tied things up with a win in the next game. As the series returned to Chicago for Game 3, Copper painted a masterpiece: 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting to give the Sky a tight win. They would close out the series in the next game.
Copper opened the Finals with 21 points and 10 rebounds — five of them on the offensive end — in a Game 1 win. The Sky lost a closely contested Game 2, and Copper provided the most memorable moment of the game when she stared down Phoenix’s Sophie Cunningham after an open court foul.
The intensity that burned in Copper’s eyes in that moment has been the fuel that has led the Sky to the precipice of a championship. After her incredible performance in the Game 3 beatdown, it’s hard to believe there’s anything Phoenix can do to stop her.
Copper’s intensity has been contagious for Chicago throughout the playoffs. Her relentless energy on every possession at both ends of the floor is an ideal match with the genius IQ of veterans Parker, Vandersloot, and Quigley. To this point, there’s not a player in the WNBA who has proven they can stay in front of her when she’s in the open floor or isolated against a helpless defender on the wing.
The Sky are a win away from the title, and Copper is one more big game away from stitching her name into the fabric of the league forever as Finals MVP. At this point, it feels like the only way Copper’s star turn in the playoffs can end.