September 17, 2020 

Skylar Diggins-Smith answered the call in her first WNBA playoff win

After a rocky first half and two late turnovers, Diggins-Smith made a brilliant read to find Shey Peddy for the game-winner against Washington.

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PALMETTO, FL- SEPTEMBER 15: Skylar Diggins-Smith #4 of the Phoenix Mercury shoots the ball against the Washington Mystics on September 15, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Skylar Diggins-Smith didn’t come to Phoenix to be part of the next WNBA “big three” or soak in the prestige that comes with leading one of the league’s premiere franchises. She came to win.

After seven seasons in the league, four All-Star selections, three All-WNBA team bids, and after having risen to become one of the most popular basketball players in the country, Diggins-Smith yearned for success. Then, 2020 happened. Diggins-Smith’s individual workouts with the legendary Diana Taurasi were cut short. It was impossible to get properly settled in Phoenix. Nobody knew for certain whether there would be a season at all.

That pressure was beating down on Diggins-Smith when she stepped in front of the ESPN camera between the third and fourth quarters of Tuesday’s first-round single-elimination contest against the reigning champion Washington Mystics. “They’re kicking our asses,” she told sideline reporter Holly Rowe. At that point, Diggins-Smith was 3-12 from the field with just two assists. Washington was up 11. From nearly any angle, the Mystics were indeed taking it to Phoenix.

But Diggins-Smith reached down and found the thing she’d been out of touch with since her star-making performances in South Bend. Down double digits at the half, the point guard brought her team back from a double-digit deficit to walk away with the first playoff victory of her WNBA career. 

“It shows what kinds of players they are when they can change the way they play from the first half to the second half,” head coach Sandy Brondello said.

Despite limited playoff experience, especially compared to the reigning champion Mystics, Diggins-Smith recouped her poise and made the defining plays of a classic game.

“We weren’t tripping,” Diggins-Smith said. “We were finally able to see the ball go down. We were able to get into some of our offense, execute, and get some buckets to go our way.”

Though she was the pilot of Phoenix’s comeback, Diggins-Smith almost crashed late. The Mercury re-took the lead with about five minutes to go when Diggins-Smith hit a three and kept it until there was under a minute to go. That’s when Diggins-Smith turned the ball over on two straight possessions, first on a bad pass that was intercepted by Emma Meesseman, then on an iffy charge call on a fast break. But in a close game, instincts took over for Diggins-Smith.

A sideline out-of-bounds play with six seconds left called for Diggins-Smith to find Taurasi at the top of the key for three, but the point guard saw the corner open up and found Shey Peddy for a storybook game-winner against Peddy’s former team.

“That’s a big-time player in a big-time moment,” Peddy said postgame. “For (Diggins-Smith) to trust me like that, that means a lot. It shows how much faith we have in one another and believe in one another.”

The revelation of the night was not that shot or the comeback, but that for Diggins-Smith, winning in the playoffs looked just like winning at every other level throughout her career. She overcame a poor start, then fixed her mistakes late, all to notch that first postseason win. 

Throughout the week, Diggins-Smith said she would take Taurasi’s lead, and credited the focus of Taurasi and Brondello for getting her in the right frame of mind for Tuesday’s game. But even with great leadership, stars have to make plays to win in the playoffs. Diggins-Smith is undoubtedly a star, but Tuesday’s comeback victory was the first instance of definitive proof that her specific stardom can translate to the WNBA postseason.

She may have been taking Taurasi’s lead, but it was Diggins-Smith who closed the game. A Mercury run this postseason rests in her hands as much as anyone’s. The grueling WNBA playoff structure makes it hard to rest on one’s laurels, so as much as this was a big moment for Diggins-Smith in her first playoff win, it was also just the first of eight wins to be crowned champion. 

“I knew coming to Phoenix, what that entailed, I knew we were going to have an opportunity and we fought all year to put ourselves in a place to make the postseason,” Diggins-Smith said. “I just tried not to get too high or too low today.

“This is why I came here. To compete. To compete when everyone is still fighting for a championship.”

Written by Brendon Kleen

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