Sun coach/general manager Curt Miller told his team before the semifinals that Azurá Stevens would be the X-factor in the series.
To the surprise of no one with the Sky, Stevens has been — and not just in the semifinals.
“Azurá is growing up before our eyes,” Sky coach/general manager James Wade said after the team’s Game 3 victory Sunday. “She’s able to do a lot of things, be disruptive, and we’ve seen that throughout the series.”
When the Sky signed Candace Parker in February, everyone was talking about what it took to get the WNBA champion to join her hometown team. Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley called Parker. Diamond DeShields talked to Parker, as well. Wade and Parker discussed the team’s possibilities and championship potential over dinner.
A conversation that was less publicized but had a huge influence on Parker’s decision was one she had with Stevens. The two talked about how much fun it would be to share the court given their similar frame and style of play.
Similar to Parker, Stevens can be effective offensively in a number of ways. She has had to learn that her versatility allows her to tap into different skills from game to game. Some nights she might be more productive in the paint, and others she might have success shooting outside. Parker has been in Stevens’ ear about being aggressive with her shot.
In Game 3, Stevens had 15 points and 11 rebounds and Parker 10 points and 10 rebounds. Parker said the two envisioned such success before the season.
“She has tremendous potential,” Parker said. “It’s been a lot of fun to grow that relationship and chemistry together on the court.”
Stevens signed a one-year contract extension before the 2021 season. Wade said that gave her peace of mind and allowed her to focus on playing, not business.
She started the season on a minutes restriction as she worked her way back from surgery on her left knee that cut her 2020 season short. Stevens feels like she’s back to her full capabilities. She’s averaging 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds through five playoff games. More impressive than her stat line is how disruptive she has been guarding the Sun’s frontcourt, which includes league MVP Jonquel Jones.
Parker and Stevens have held Jones to 13.3 points per game. During the regular season, she was fourth in the league with 19.4 points per game.
“We’ve just tried to beat her to her spots and crowd her as much as possible,” Wade said.
After Game 2, Wade thought he gave Stevens too much rest. He had to remind himself that she’s not the same player from May and June.
Stevens played a season-high 36 minutes in Game 3. Late in the game, she expressed her fatigue to Wade, who responded, “Too bad for you.” That trust and belief from Wade and her teammates gave Stevens confidence to take her game to another level. Now, Wade wants to see her do it two games in a row.
Stevens expects the Sun to come out in Game 4 on Wednesday with more physicality, which she’ll have to match.
Parker, whose 10 points in Game 3 moved her into fourth on the WNBA’s all-time playoff scoring list, has been the Sky’s vocal leader all year. As the team heads into a potential clincher for a spot in the WNBA Finals, she has made sure everyone is locked in.
“There’s no room for my bad moments,” Stevens said. “[Getting a win Wednesday] is going to be a matter of those 50/50 plays, those gutsy moments. It’s not about the X’s and O’s. It’s about coming out ready to go and battling 40 minutes.”