Taurasi, Parker have Mercury, Sky ready for 2014 WNBA Finals rematch

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Diana Taurasi has the Phoenix Mercury back in the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2014.

Up next is a familiar foe — Candace Parker and the Chicago Sky.

These two teams met seven years ago for the championship — the last appearance for either team on the game’s biggest stage. Taurasi and the Mercury swept the three-game series. They’ll begin the best-of-five series in Phoenix on Sunday.

Taurasi scored 14 of her 24 points in the fourth quarter to help the Mercury beat second-seeded Las Vegas 87-84 on Friday night in Game 5 of their semifinals series. Chicago took out top-seeded Connecticut in the other semi in four games.

It’s the first time since the WNBA changed its playoff format in 2016 that neither of the top two teams made it to the finals. Phoenix was the fifth seed and Chicago the six.

“It’s hard,” Taurasi said. “It’s been now, what, seven, eight seasons? And when you get there, you think you’re just always going to get there. And that’s not the case. I know the magnitude of this, and these guys have been great all year. This team has just been resilient all year. We’ve had injuries, this and that, and we’ve always been able to just stay together and like each other. Which is a big deal.”

Chicago faced adversity itself this season, overcoming a 2-7 start while Parker was recovering from an ankle injury. Parker decided to come home to Chicago after spending the first 13 years of her career in Los Angeles.

Now she has the Sky three victories away from winning their first championship.

’It’s kind of like a full circle moment,” Parker said. “To look up in the stands and see people I started playing basketball in front of. It’s super special. This is a special group. The way you face adversity has built our character and revealed it. All of us going into playoffs believed we would be sitting here.”

Chicago advanced to the finals by beating Dallas in the opening round before knocking off Minnesota. The Sky have one of the top offensives in the league led by point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who had the second-ever triple-double in playoff history in Game 1 of the team’s series against Connecticut.

“Chicago is playing really good ball, they are peaking at the right time,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said. “They are playing their best ball at the right time of the season. It’s a big challenge for us, they will be more rested but hopefully, we can make this a good series and have some success and win the championship.”

Here are other tidbits from the WNBA Finals:

SIDELINED

Phoenix won Game 5 without starting guard Kia Nurse, who tore an ACL in the opening minute of the fourth game of the playoffs. The Mercury also were missing backup Sophie Cunningham with a strained calf. Brondello said she is hoping Cunningham will be back for some of the Finals.

“We are facing a lot of adversity at the moment but it shows how tough-minded this team is,” Brondello said.

Without Nurse, Shey Peddy stepped in and had another solid game, making the go-ahead free throws with 4.8 seconds left. She finished with 15 points and six rebounds.

TIP-INS

If Phoenix does win, the Mercury will have four titles, tying the Houston Comets, Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm for the most in league history. The Mercury won in 2007, 2009 and 2014. … The Mercury swept the three games in the regular season, but Parker missed the first two games while recovering from her ankle injury. … Brondello is married to Chicago assistant coach Olaf Lange. The two lived apart in the WNBA bubble last season to avoid any potential conflicts.

BIGTIME FAN

Former President Barack Obama tweeted his congratulations to the Chicago Sky for making the finals.

“It’s always good to be from Chicago, but this year is especially sweet. Congratulations to the (at) ChicagoSky for making it to the WNBA finals, and to the legend, (at) Candace_Parker for making all of us proud. We’ll be rooting for you.”

There’s no word yet if Obama will try and attend Game 3 on Friday night in Chicago.

Lakers’ LeBron James says he could need offseason foot surgery

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LeBron James wanted back on the court. He saw the glimpses of what this current roster can do when healthy and focused — the same glimpses that have Laker exceptionalism running strong in Los Angeles — and he sees a West without a dominant team. Together those things mean opportunity.

LeBron could have shut it down when he felt something pop in his foot last month, admitting that two doctors told him to get surgery. However, the “LeBron James of foot doctors” told him he could be back this season — and he made that return Sunday. Still, LeBron admitted he could need off-season surgery.

“I don’t know. Right now, I don’t need it, so we’ll see what happens. I’ll probably get another MRI at the end of the season and go from there. But if I end up having to get surgery after the season, you guys won’t know. I don’t talk to you guys in the offseason, and by the time next season starts, I’ll be fine. I’ll be ready to go.”

As for what motivated him to get back on the court this season and not shut it down.

“Now we sitting at a chance to be able to… to hell with the play-in, we actually can be a top-[six] seed. That definitely changed my mindset on me coming back and trying to be a part of this, obviously, so — well, I don’t really want to say changed my mindset, it just enhanced what I was trying to do as far as my workouts, as far as my treatment and everything”

The Lakers sit tied for 9/10 in the West, one game below .500. While LeBron can say, “to hell with the play-in,” his Lakers would need help from the Clippers or Warriors to climb into the top six even though they are only 1.5 games back (time is short for L.A., if the Warriors or Clippers go 4-3 the rest of the way, the Lakers need to go 6-2 over their last eight). Los Angeles also is just a game up on Dallas for the 11 seed, and if the losses pile up they could fall out of the play-in completely.

With LeBron back, missing the play-in is unlikely. But having him back (and eventually a healthy D'Angelo Russell, who was out Sunday with a hip issue) also is no guarantee of wins — the Lakers still need peak Anthony Davis to compete. When he has a solid game of 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists (as he did Sunday), they lose. The Lakers need bubble Davis every night, or even if they make the postseason it will be short-lived.

Dončić dodges suspension, NBA rescinds 16th technical

Dallas Mavericks v Charlotte Hornets
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This was unexpected, especially after crew chief Kevin Scott said after the game last night: “Doncic was assessed a technical foul for his use of profanity directed at the officials in protest to a no-call that was correctly judged in postgame video review.”

The NBA league office reviewed the incident (as it does with all technicals) and rescinded what would have been Luka Doncic’s 16th technical.

That 16th technical would have triggered an automatic one game suspension. With it rescinded, Dončić is clear to play Monday night when the Mavericks take on the Pacers.

Sunday night in Charlotte, Dončić was given a technical when he didn’t get a call on a leaning baseline jumper and said something to the nearby official.

This incident comes days after Dončić was fined $35,000  for making a money gesture towards a referee in frustration after a  Mavericks loss.

Through all this the Mavericks have lost four straight, 7-of-9, and have slid back to 11th in the West, outside even the play-in. Their team is disintegrating and if they don’t pick up some wins fast they have less than two weeks until they are on summer vacation.

MVP showdown off: 76ers to sit Joel Embiid due to calf tightness

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
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Recently Joel Embiid said,” ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.” Today’s news plays right into that narrative.

Embiid has been playing through calf tightness for a few games now — he only played a half against the Bulls last Wednesday — but still putting up numbers (46 points against the Warriors, 28 and 10 against the Suns). However, there had been some concern in the organization about not pushing things and making sure Embiid is healthy for the playoffs. Which is why they will rest him on Monday night, short-circuiting an MVP-race showdown against Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets. Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN broke the news and John Clarke of NBC Sports Philadelphia has confirmed it.

Embiid did go through part of the 76ers’ shootaround this morning. The decision was made after that point.

Undoubtedly this will spark the load management discussion around the league again, and Embiid is going to take heat for this — but this is a situation where the team’s medical staff made the call, likely over Embiid’s objection.

From the 76ers perspective what matters is having Embiid healthy during the playoffs — they are going nowhere without him — and there is no reason to take undue risks with the team all but locked into the No. 3 seed in the East.

James Harden is still expected to make his return to action Monday from a three-game absence.

But it robs fans — including those who bought tickets in Denver — of one of the great showdowns in the league, and one of the more anticipated games of the season’s final weeks. The NBA has to find a way to balance player health with having their best players on the court for the biggest games. Keep telling fans the regular season doesn’t matter and they will start treating it like that.

Joel Embiid not stressing about MVP: ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.’

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
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Joel Embiid is the MVP betting favorite — -160 at our partner PointsBet — heading into Monday’s showdown with the reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokić (+180 at PointsBet).

Embiid campaigned for the MVP award the past couple of years but came up second to Jokić. This season, Embiid is not stressing about it. Or at least trying not to stress about it. Here is what Embiid told Shams Charania of The Athletic.

What matters — it’s just about winning, winning, winning. I’ve been focused on that. We’ve been doing that. Whatever happens, happens. If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.

Why hasn’t Embiid won the MVP? Outside of Jokić also being deserving and the complaints of Antetokounmpo and others that the criteria for the award are constantly changing (which suggests there are criteria for the award, but there are none officially), Embiid thinks it’s because he is not well-liked.

People always thought that I was crazy when I said this — I really believe that I’m not well-liked. And it’s cool with me, that’s fine. I’ll be the bad guy. I like being the a–hole anyway. I like being the underdog. So that’s fine with me. My thing is … when I leave the game, I want to make sure that they say: No one was stopping him offensively and defensively, and he was a monster.

There’s no doubt he will leave the game remembered as one of the great 76ers and a “monster” on both ends when healthy. However, resume matters with legacy and an MVP award helps with that. Just not as much as being the best player on a championship team, something more difficult to pull off because it requires a lot of help (it’s up for debate whether Embiid has the help he needs around him to win it all, and if they can stay healthy enough to make that run).

This season the MVP race is a tight three-way contest between Embiid, Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+450 at PointsBet). There are legitimate cases to be made for each member of this trio. However, with the Sixers surging (and the Nuggets stumbling a little), things may break his way this season.

Another dominant performance against Jokić with just a couple of weeks left in the season would stick in voters’ minds and help his cause.