PHOENIX -- Candice Dupree seems to reside in a perpetual state of cool, but the nerves struck before Sunday's Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
In a long and distinguished WNBA career, Phoenix's power forward had never played in a championship series. She arrived in Phoenix the season after the Mercury won their most recent championship, in 2009.
"I tried not to put too much pressure on myself, to play the way I know how, take shots I know I can make," Dupree said. "You want to do well, but once jump ball was over, the nervousness was gone and it was time to play ball."
That she did. Dupree, commonly referred to as one of the most underrated players in the WNBA, made it increasingly difficult to underrate her. She hit 13 of 17 shots from the floor for 26 points -- including a WNBA-record 10 consecutive field goals to open the game -- and added six rebounds for good measure in Phoenix's 83-62 tone-setting win over Chicago to open the WNBA Finals.
Dupree's play, coupled with a record-setting day by Brittney Griner, established Phoenix's dominance in the interior, no easy task considering Sylvia Fowles was roaming the paint for Chicago. Griner finished the game with 12 points, seven rebounds and a WNBA Finals-record eight blocks. She swatted six shots in the first quarter and the dye had been cast.
Dupree was unstoppable on the offensive end, the Mercury's length inside caused major disruptions to Chicago's offense, and Griner's presence made the Sky reluctant to go inside. Add in Sky star Elena Delle Donne playing just 10 minutes, 24 seconds as she continues to battle an ailing lower back, and Chicago was left grasping for answers heading into Tuesday's Game 2 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).
Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello called Dupree's performance "amazing." Dupree was on the receiving end of many of Diana Taurasi's game-high 11 assists (tying a Finals single-game record), and the duo made their pick-and-roll duets a WNBA must-see.
"I'm very happy for Candice," Brondello said. "I think she's one of the most intelligent players at both ends of the floor and a key reason why we are in the position we are today. It was great to see her -- she makes those shots all the time, she makes them in her sleep, basically -- have the impact in the game she did."
With Delle Donne limited, Fowles became the focal point of the Sky offense. She finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds in her much-touted matchup with Griner. But Fowles didn't have much help in the paint. Delle Donne finished with two points. Delle Donne's replacement, Jessica Breland, was 0-for-5 from the field and failed to score.
Phoenix outscored Chicago 42-26 in the paint despite being outrebounded 32-29 (including 13-5 on the offensive boards). The Mercury held Chicago to 20 points over the first two quarters -- a WNBA Finals record for fewest points in a half -- led by 30 at one point in the third quarter, and held off the team that has made a habit of dramatic comebacks in this postseason so far.
Brondello left her starters in until the final minutes, even with a 20-point lead.
"I think she's one of the most intelligent players at both ends of the floor and a key reason why we are in the position we are today." Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello on Candice Dupree
"They are Chicago. They have won their last two series on someone else's home court," Brondello said. "Maybe any other team I would have taken them out a little earlier. But I wanted us to finish the game feeling good."
Dupree expects the nerves to kick in again when the Mercury land in Chicago for Game 3, the place where she spent the first four years of her WNBA career.
"It's not easy," Dupree acknowledged. "It affects me more when I go to Chicago, playing in front of fans I used to play in front of, it will be interesting. You still have to put the pedal to the metal."
Chicago coach Pokey Chatman, who coached Dupree in Russia, thinks the veteran forward is overlooked around the WNBA.
"People outside of the normal fan base can't appreciate it because of the other superstars, but she's glue," Chatman said. "She connects dots. She plays at a pace, has the IQ of a guard. She's just damn good, period."
Griner, meanwhile, made good use of her first WNBA Finals minutes. She altered shots, made Fowles work hard and stayed out of foul trouble until she picked up her fourth in the final quarter.
"That was a huge matchup ... the two best post players in the world," Taurasi said. "At times they both had their moments of playing well. For us, BG has always been huge on the defensive end, how much pressure we put on her to be everywhere. She stepped up to the plate today."
As far as Chatman and the Sky players were concerned, Griner was everywhere.
"She had six blocks in the first quarter, and it felt like it was 16," Chatman said. "I thought when we got in the paint, we tried to go over her instead of under her and around her. I'm OK with Sylvia being that aggressive, but 5-8 and 5-9 [players], you can't make that length disappear."
For her part, Griner sounded satisfied. Enough.
"I think it went well," Griner said. "Everybody was talking about the matchup with me and Syl, and I tried not to get too caught up. We had to play team defense. But it's always a good matchup when we play."
Now Chicago will have to figure out whether they can make the right adjustments in time for Tuesday to make this series a good matchup.