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The Unsung Heroes of the WNBA Finals

The series between the Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky is led by Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker. Here are the other players making their presence felt.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For all the coverage that’s surrounded this WNBA Finals, you’d think Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi were about to lace up and play one-on-one for the championship trophy. And while the GOAT conversations, talk of Ace’s homecoming, and discussions about legacy are fun, there are plenty of other players making their mark on these Finals. With the Mercury tying the series at 1-1 by securing a dramatic overtime win Wednesday in Phoenix, we’re going to get at least two more games of Finals action as the teams head to Chicago in the best-of-five series, so it’s time to highlight some of the underappreciated stars.

Before we begin, let’s lay down some ground rules so I can avoid the Twitterati who will jump in my mentions when they don’t see their favorite player, whom they consider underrated. I’m looking at players who have received fairly limited national attention from general fans and the national media as well as players who are being asked to step into big roles during this series. So for you Vanderquigs stans out there, don’t come for me.

Also, let me give an honorable mention to Shey Peddy, the real Playoff P, who narrowly misses out on this list with the return of Sophie Cunningham to the Mercury lineup. Peddy has stepped up every time she has been called upon during her time with the Mercury, oftentimes in spectacular fashion. This is the first year Peddy hasn’t been cut, and her journey from being drafted by the team she’s currently playing against to becoming a Mystics video intern to right now is worthy of a documentary.

With that, let’s get into it.

Kahleah Copper, Chicago Sky

Where else could a conversation about underappreciated players have started? I can already hear the cries of “Is Copper really underrated?” and my answer to you would be: How many casual W fans know how awesome she’s been over the past calendar year? Whatever that number is, it should be higher.

Copper emerged as a star in the Wubble last year and has followed up with an awesome encore. She led a team featuring Candace Parker, Allie Quigley, and Courtney Vandersloot in points, has proved herself to be an impressive rebounder and cutter, and has ratcheted up her game in the playoffs.

She’s averaging 18.1 points per game in the playoffs, fourth-best among players who’ve played five games or more. The players in front of her? Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi, and Kelsey Plum—not bad company to keep.

Despite sharing the court with some of the best players in the W, Copper has regularly looked like the best player, using her superior athleticism and ability to get to the rim to rake in the points for the Sky. It helps when you have a passing maestro like Vandersloot who will find players with even a sliver of airspace, but the timing of Copper’s movement is a joy to watch. She’s relentless whenever she’s in the game, and frankly I’m exhausted watching her, so defending her must be a nightmare. And her first step is so quick that she’s often beyond her defender when she chooses to drive from the high post or from behind the perimeter.

Add that she’s shooting a solid 36 percent from 3 and there’s just not a lot you can do but hope Taurasi or Skylar Diggins-Smith can slow her down enough for one of the Mercury’s frontcourt members to rotate over to try to force her into a tough shot at the rim. Copper is a serious competitor and is in the middle of a capital S “Superstar” moment. If Chicago wins its first championship in franchise history, she will deserve serious consideration as Finals MVP.

Sophie Cunningham, Phoenix Mercury

Look, I’m not saying that there’s next to no chance the Mercury wouldn’t have won Game 2 without Cunningham, but I’m not NOT saying that. The sharpshooter from Missouri has missed a few games in these playoffs due to a calf strain, but when she shot this out to the Twittersphere, it put everyone interested in these Finals on high alert.

Turns out Cunningham was more than back, she was ready to bring the noise. It seems like there have been two Sophies these playoffs, the one who pulls with confidence, boasting while she’s streaking down the court, and the one who has been hesitant, perhaps because of limited minutes, lack of opportunities, or shying away from the moment. With Kia Nurse’s torn ACL and a lack of depth at the guard/wing position thrusting Cunningham into the Game 2 starting lineup, we got the former on Wednesday.

Cunningham finished with nine points on three 3-pointers. Sometimes, though, it’s not the quantity of points, but the loudness of them, and Sophie’s 3s are loud as hell. I think people are still trying to find where Diamond DeShields ended up after getting broken off by Cunningham here.

That brings us to a third Cunningham, the troll and irritant. There are some people you watch play who evoke the famous trope “I’d love to have them on my team but hate to play against them,” and my goodness does the Mercury wing seem to embrace that. Exhibit A, she retweeted this photo of her yeeting DeShields nearly out of the picture in the play above. Exhibit B, she challenged Copper for a loose rebound and the two clearly shared some words while they were tangling on the ground. Is challenging anyone from Norf Philly ever a good idea? No. Does it bother Cunningham, who boasts about being #FarmStrong? Apparently not.

You need hyper-competitors to win championships, and Cunningham proved how valuable she can be for Phoenix. If she can keep playing gritty defense, disrupting Chicago’s offense, and knocking down 3s, the Mercury are more than capable of winning it all.

Azurá Stevens and Stefanie Dolson, Chicago Sky

I’m going to combine these two because they do comparable jobs and have similar skill sets, with one main difference: Stevens holds it down for the starting lineup and Dolson brings it off the bench.

Stevens is solid as a rock and more than willing to jockey for position in the paint against the league’s biggest players. Her length—I can’t find a reliable number on her wingspan, but I’m pretty sure it’s approximately 10 feet long—has allowed her to keep up with the elite bigs that the Sky have found themselves running up against this postseason.

After already having to contend with the Defensive Player of the Year and the recently named MVP in the two previous rounds, Stevens must feel like she just got to the final boss fight with her main assignment now being Brittney Griner.

And the UConn product has held her own, stonewalling Griner as she tries to establish post position and generally trying to make life hard on the 6-foot-9 Mercury center. No one in the league is capable of totally shutting Griner down, but Stevens is doing an admirable job. Stevens’s ability to operate out of the high post and even pop out to 3 opens up space for some of her speedier teammates to dive into the paint and makes her a threat that defenses must account for.

Speaking of 3s, let’s talk about Big Mama Stef (a major contender for best sports nickname ever). Even in limited minutes, you’re going to know when Dolson is in the game. Watching players run into her screens feels like being in a 4-D movie—you can feel the contact through the television as she shakes her teammates free with a backdoor screen.

If I could take this space to write 500 words strictly about Dolson’s screening ability, I would. Her screens give Chicago’s shooters that extra split second or sliver of space that turns a contested shot into a guaranteed bucket. And I don’t want to get all Utah Jazz fan on y’all, but screen assists matter. And when she has the ball in her hand, she’s more than capable of dragging your big up from the paint and dotting her eye from deep.

You don’t get a chance to rest with Chicago’s frontcourt rotation, something I’m sure makes 2019 Coach of the Year James Wade smile when he’s not stalking up and down the sideline. In a series with such small margins, the Sky having both Stevens and Dolson could be the deciding factor.

Brianna Turner, Phoenix Mercury

Turner’s defensive partnership with Griner and contributions outside the statsheet make her indispensable to the Mercury. When you’re getting shout-outs from one of the best to ever do it, you know you’re special. So let me put away the statsheet and mostly just use my eyes for this one.

Breezy’s defensive fortitude in this series, and really all year long, has been pivotal for the Mercury. She’s been tasked mainly with guarding Candace Parker but still finds the time and space to rotate over and wall off the paint for everyone from Allie Quigley to Stefanie Dolson. The former Notre Dame big has recorded at least one block in every game this postseason and does an excellent job of warding off intruders who wander into her paint.

Will she miss a few bunnies from time to time? Yes. But she also inhales rebounds like she has receiver gloves on and can hit you with an occasional WTF moment, like when she recorded 23 points and 17 boards in Game 3 against the Aces. To know that you’re already coming into a game having to contend with Griner just to have Breezy ready to cover up any holes the former leaves is a depressing thought for opposing offenses.

Take your choice of key moments from Game 2, when Turner came up huge, but her knocking the ball loose from Parker while the Sky tried to get out in transition then getting into position to tie the game at 72 with about 3:32 left in regulation is my favorite. Turner’s fingerprints are all over this series.

Plus, Breezy leads the league in minimum amount of time after the final buzzer to tweet, so you obviously can’t overlook that. With at least two games left in this series, let’s hope she gets some more fun tweets off before it’s all over.