August 1, 2020
A superstar backcourt comes into focus for the Phoenix Mercury
Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith turned promise into reality on Friday in a needed win over Las Vegas.
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Diana Taurasi drives to the basket during a 102-95 win over the Las Vegas Aces on July 31, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
All the work in empty gyms in early March paid off on Friday night, as Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi found a groove together on the court for the first time all season on their way to a 102-95 victory over Las Vegas.
Diggins-Smith scored 22 and Taurasi poured in 22 of her own, and incredibly, the pair of teammates with just a few weeks of training camp and two regular-season games to their partnership put up a combined 15 assists and just two turnovers. The two players took control of the offense and demanded a Phoenix win.
The confident Diggins-Smith admitted they needed a win after dropping the first two, but never lost faith in the backcourt pairing.
“Did anyone think it wouldn’t work?” she asked when The Next asked for her thoughts on geling with Taurasi on Friday night.
On the surface, a galling idea, doubting these All-Stars. But even these two, in this season, with this set of circumstances, amid all this uncertainty — even they needed to prove it. And despite Diggins-Smith’s optimism, it probably felt pretty good to prove it to themselves, too.
Back in March, Taurasi said, before the two new the season would be delayed by the pandemic (Diggins-Smith triumphant introductory press conference was on March 8, to show how clueless we all were back then), the Mercury legend invited Diggins-Smith to work out with her in Phoenix. Those workouts were in theory where two rehabbing All-Stars made strides toward their 2020 return, but they were also where Taurasi tried to build up the confidence of her new teammate.
Those moments came back to Taurasi after beating the Aces.
“That’s the best I’ve seen her play in a long time,” Taurasi said. “I would always tell her, this is going to be an opportunity for you to be who you want to be, and that’s one of the greatest players in the world. … Today was just I think a little insight on what Skylar brings to the table, and it’s nice to be on the same team.”
The 22-game season will be relentless, as Diggins-Smith reiterated on Friday, and though both put on incredible offensive displays, the team has been hapless on defense far too often over the past two seasons. The Mercury need to replicate this game another couple dozen times to achieve their goal of a championship in 2020.
Skylar Diggins-Smith drives to the basket during a 102-95 win over the Las Vegas Aces on July 31, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Still, Diggins-Smith noted after the team’s first game against Los Angeles that it was the first time all 10 players had been on the court together at once. So Friday’s win over the Aces may be what we all remember as the true debut of this new Mercury backcourt, one that was supposed to mean a new era of Phoenix basketball. For one night at least, both players were firing on all cylinders, and the defense looked better.
“We couldn’t have played any worse defensively than we did in the first two games,” Taurasi said. “I think there was a collective (thought of) ‘Don’t be a punk.'”
The great thing about a veteran team like the Mercury is they can flip the switch mentally and it goes a long way. Simply committing to more attentive defense and better care for the ball (Phoenix had 27 turnovers in the first contest) can take them a long way. But there remains concern over how Taurasi, who missed most of 2019 with back and hamstring injuries, and Diggins-Smith, who sat out the season to care for her newborn son, will hold up physically over a seven-week sprint of a regular season.
Both players have said all week that they feel good, that their physical condition is nothing to worry about. Time will tell if the prolonged waiting period helped or hurt them while the season hung in the balance this summer. But for one night, it all came together.
“Diana looked like she was back playing in 2018,” says Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello.
“It felt fun,” she said.
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