How a No. 6 seed crashed the WNBA Finals party for the first time

It's like the Chicago Sky punk'd us all and Ashton Kutcher is preparing to pop out to explain. Nostalgia is all the rage these days.

The Sky have looked nothing like the team that slogged through the regular season, finishing 16-16 and raising questions about even making it out of the first single-elimination game. Now, they're back in the WNBA Finals, three wins from a title, after taking down the No. 1 Connecticut Sun powerhouse in four games.

Game 1 is Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC against either the No. 2 Las Vegas Aces or No. 5 Phoenix Mercury.

"This is a special group," Sky forward Candace Parker said after Game 4. "I think the way that you face adversity it's built our character and it revealed it. I think all of us believed going into playoffs that we would be sitting here, honestly."

Obviously to those paying any attention since May, there's a clear reason a sixth-seeded club crashed the five-year party of No. 1 teams making it to the Finals. This was a No. 6 club purely by happenstance.

"This is what we've expected for two years of them," Sun head coach Curt Miller said after Game 4. "That's why throw the 16-16 — whatever their record was — out the window. This player-for-player team is just dynamic offensively and there's a real confidence with them right now. But what's really impressive is how hard they're playing. You have to credit them playing well. And [Sky coach] James [Wade] is pushing all the right buttons."

Not only is it a Sky team fans have long waited for, they added two-time MVP Parker in free agency and are all healthy and available. They're also driven and clicking at just the right time.

"That's the most dangerous person, someone who knows who they are," Wade said after Game 4. "I know who our team is, and that makes us dangerous. Our team knows who we are, and that makes them dangerous."

The Candace Parker effect

The Parker signing in February was arguably one of the biggest free agency movements in WNBA history, a direct result of the new collective bargaining agreement signed last year. This upcoming week is exactly why she signed with the Sky in the first place: to win another title.

Parker, 34, is still at the top and impacting every part of the game. But it's her energy and experience of winning a championship with the Sparks in 2016 that is proving most beneficial.

"I don't know if in our locker room, if we finish the season 16-16, if Candace is not in that locker room if they believe the way they believe," Wade said. "And she took that weight off of them and she carried us onto this point. She deserves a lot of credit in this and her leadership [and] her ability to make plays at her position."

And this is her hometown, her pride and joy, the place she grew up and learned the game. Of course she wants to bring this city its first WNBA championship, and first pro basketball title since the Bulls won in 1998.

“I was coming home for a reason,” Parker said after Game 4, reiterating a stance she's said all season. “It’s a full-circle moment. To look up in the stands and see all the people I started playing basketball in front of, to me, it’s super special. But this is a special group.”

Years of turmoil and heartbreak

There is something to be said for the will of a team to win. It's an oft-used phrase to say a team "wants it more" because there's truth to it. Heartbreak certainly adds to that.

League MVP Jonquel Jones wrote about it for The Player's Tribune ahead of the semifinals series.

"I’ve had a CHIP on my shoulder for the last two years," she wrote in the first-person essay. "I’ve been on a mission ever since we lost to the Mystics in the Finals [in 2019]. It still doesn’t sit right with me."

That redemption arc didn't happen for Jones or the Sun, who have been on the brink of championships in recent seasons. But it is happening for the Sky, a team that has also been in that spot although hasn't gone beyond the single-elimination rounds.

It's hard to forget the Hamby Heave that shattered their 2019 run. Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stefanie Dolson, Kahleah Copper and Diamond DeShields all won't.

"It was a pain that we would never stop feeling," Copper said, adding it helped prepare the team for the Finals.

There's Parker's own drive. And Quigley and Vandersloot, the longest-tenured Sky player, know what it's like to lose in a Finals when they did in 2014.

The Sun's falter is part happenstance

There are no doubt certain aspects the Sun organization will need to address this offseason. But the No. 1 team is out of the playoff race largely because it drew the Sky and faced them at the wrong time.

The Sun went 26-6 in the regular season to earn their top spot and two of those losses were to the Sky. There were asterisks to those games, like the Sun missing Jonquel Jones, but it's still notable. There was a double-overtime loss and a Game 3 loss in which Connecticut had multiple late chances. They were close.

Connecticut needs to improve at guard from both a scoring and facilitating standpoint. The last two MVPs before Jones thrive with that in Breanna Stewart with Sue Bird and A'ja Wilson now with Chelsea Gray.

But Jones is an unrestricted free agent and will likely receive a pay upgrade. Briann January, their first-team all-defensive guard, is also a UFA. Connecticut will have about $505,000 in cap space and five to six roster spots to work with, per Her Hoop Stats.