June 28, 2021 

What Diana Taurasi’s record-breaking return means for Phoenix

Taurasi crossed the 9,000-point mark in Sunday's Mercury win

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PHOENIX — She may have already said it twice in her answer, but before she left her postgame interview, Brittney Griner wanted to send one more reminder about Diana Taurasi.

“I just want to reiterate: she’s old,” Griner said with a smile and a laugh.

Taurasi is the second-oldest player in the WNBA, but she’s been frequently saying, “Old people can dream, too.” And they can even keep raising the standard for what it will take for the next player to take over the all-time WNBA scoring title.

Taurasi returned to the Mercury after missing a month with a fracture in her sternum and stole the show, leading all players with 25 points in the Mercury’s 88-79 win over the Sparks Sunday afternoon in Phoenix.

And, in doing so, Taurasi created a new club in the WNBA record book with a residency of one: the 9,000-point club. She did so, fittingly, by making a basket through contact and drawing a foul, making the free throw to complete the and-one play and push her across the 9,000-point mark.

“We have to give her her flowers for 9,000 points,” said Skylar Diggins-Smith. “She continues to be the bar, as far as our league is concerned, from a scoring standpoint. Just one of the most prolific we’ve ever had.”

Head coach Sandy Brondello agreed, adding, “She’s the GOAT, there’s no discussion in regards to that.” But perhaps what was most impressive to the Mercury players and coaches was how smooth Taurasi’s return to play was, even with such a long time between games.

“To go out and perform after not really playing for five and a half weeks? That’s pretty good,” Brondello said. “She didn’t miss a beat.”

Griner added, “It looks like she hasn’t skipped a beat, she was coming off of the pick-and-rolls, knocking that 3 down. She was doing it all tonight.”

Taurasi’s dealt with injuries before, and even admitted earlier this week that, “in 2019, I probably shouldn’t have been on the court” while dealing with back and hamstring injuries. But even she felt this was a rather seamless re-entry into the rotation for her.

“Obviously, excited to get back out there and get back in the rhythm,” Taurasi said. “When you come back from a big layoff, it can either go one way — where you’re rusty and out-of-sorts — but in the last two weeks, I’ve been ramping up and practicing, I’ve been doing the 5-on-0, I’ve been watching. I kinda felt like I was dropped right in and the things that were working for us earlier in the year just fell back into place.”

Taurasi played nearly 32 minutes on Sunday, which was slightly above the 30-minute mark the Mercury felt would be ideal ahead of the game but didn’t seem to bother her after the game (though perhaps seeing how she feels the next day will make for a better assessment). As the head coach, Brondello emphasized just how important minute management will be, even admitting she has room to improve in that area as a coach when it comes to the guard.

“It’s not like it’s an ankle or a knee coming back [from], it’s all about her conditioning,” Brondello said. “I have to try and be smart about not overplaying her. Not putting too many long minutes together, she hasn’t played for quite a long time, and hopefully we can build that up in the next six games before the Olympic break. But she’s put a lot of hard work in, so I’ll go by what she’s playing as well.

“If we can keep her around the 30-minute mark, I think that’s a really realistic mark. Hopefully, I can stay true to that, because … I don’t always do, unfortunately, but I need to be better at that.”

But it is also completely understandable why a coach would want to ride the superstar that the Mercury have seemed to so desperately miss here recently. With the nine games she missed, the Mercury started 3-1 without Taurasi but lost four games in a row — including three in a row at home to teams that missed the playoffs last year (twice to Dallas, once to New York).

They ended the time without Taurasi by splitting two road games with the Sparks, ending their losing streak by winning the second battle in Los Angeles to end the Taurasi-less time 4-5. What’s been most stinging during this time: four of the five losses were by one or two possessions, the types of down-to-the-wire games that Taurasi typically thrives in.

“We don’t want games to be close, but they all have been lately, so we really need her to really have that strength to finish up those games, too,” Brondello said.

Perhaps the most beneficial part of their schedule was the eight-day gap between the last game in Los Angeles on June 18 and Sunday’s game. Phoenix used the time to get some sorely-needed rest and recuperation, but also get a good amount of practice in.

“In this past week, we really got after it. Got to give credit to the coaching staff, they took us back to training camp this week before this game,” Griner said. “I hope there are no more weeks before our next game. But we were getting after it, and defense was a big part of it, working on the defensive end. I think tonight, we were able to bring practice to the game.”

The most obvious way that happened was partly a benefit of a scheduling quirk, too. While the Mercury were effectively facing the Sparks in their third-straight game, Los Angeles played two other games in the time in between. That allowed Phoenix to throw a focused and prepared game plan out defensively, including throwing quite a bit of zone at the banged-up Sparks (who only had eight players available on Sunday).

“Obviously, we had had trouble defending their speedy guards, so we spent a lot of time in the zone, and we had a few breakdowns there, but overall it was pretty effective for us,” Brondello said. “Just having that in the back pocket enabled us to not have to chase them around as much and be in a position to be better helpers and finish plays. There’s still room for improvement, but I was happy for our first game back together in such a long time.”

Before pulling off the win in Los Angeles on June 18, Phoenix was in 11th place in the standings based on tiebreakers, with only Indiana behind them. In this muddied-in-the-middle season for the WNBA, though, even a two-game winning streak can push you right back up the standings, and Phoenix now sits only a half-game back of a first-round bye.

“I mean, we had nowhere to go but up, huh?” Diggins-Smith said. “But yeah, obviously, we dug ourselves a hole these past few weeks, so we’re just trying to take it one game at a time. And that’s the thing about this league, the beauty of it, I guess, is that you live to fight another day, there’s always going to be another game coming. Anybody can beat anybody any night, so you have to be ready every night.”

That starts with two home games this week against a fellow .500 team, the Minnesota Lynx, who also have a two-game winning streak and beat the Aces on Friday. After that, the Mercury will wrap up their first half with three games in five days starting July 7: at Las Vegas, home vs. Seattle and at Seattle.

(And while it would be quite difficult to pull off, the Mercury technically still control their own destiny for the Commissioner’s Cup, too, thanks in large part to Aces’ overtime win over the Storm on Sunday. If Phoenix wins the first game against the Lynx and then sweeps their final week before the Olympic break, they would almost certainly get to play on their home floor for the $500,000 prize on Aug. 12.)

And with their win on Sunday, the Mercury had stretches where they were the team that can be a title contender in this league. In these final five games in the two weeks before the Olympics, they know time to see that team a lot more is here.

“We needed that game,” Brondello said. “We’ve got to fulfill our potential. We showed signs of that tonight, and we’ve got to keep building on that now.”

And as Diggins-Smith pointed out, “When you have everybody healthy, that’s unusual in this league nowadays. Having a healthy team with a full roster and with what people thought our starting five would look like and our rotations would be like. We’re getting into that and we’re starting from here, try not to get too high or too low.”

It helps, too, to have the league’s all-time leading scorer come back and keep breaking records. And while she likes to crack wise on her longtime teammate, Griner also can appreciate more than almost anyone just how much time, effort and energy has gone in to Taurasi’s sustained excellence.

“That’s crazy. I mean, you joke around and say, ‘Oh, you’re old, so you got it.’ She is old, but she worked hard every single year and it’s just amazing that she has 9,000 points,” Griner said. “Like, that that … I don’t think people understand how crazy that is. This is the GOAT, that’s still playing right now, still adding to that 9,000. So who knows, when she finally decides she’s done, what it’ll be then.”

Taurasi demurred when asked if 9,000 meant anything to her, saying, “It’s just another record that hopefully will be broken by somebody who loves basketball and dedicates her whole life.” But there is one part of this that makes it special for her.

“I do look back on I did it all with one team, and that means a lot to me,” Taurasi said. “There’s been so many players and coaches and management that’s come through Phoenix and that’s really helped me. I was lucky to be drafted here, I was lucky that they believed in me, that they really put everything behind me. That really means more than all the points.”

But looking ahead, there’s one number is in her sights.

“I guess I’ll be happy if I get to 10,000,” Taurasi said. “That’s when I’ll really be happy. Celebrate, I might even throw myself a party. For 9,000, I just feel like there’s a lot of work to be done.”

And by the sound of it, the 39-year-old is savoring the chance to chase after 10,000 points and keep fighting to add a fourth WNBA championship ring to her hand.

“I always say the minute I’m done competing is the day I don’t play anymore, because that’s what it’s all about,” Taurasi said. “It’s about competition, it’s how hard can you push yourself, how much can you do to help your team. I still relish that in any capacity.

“That fire’s still burning down there and I really enjoy this team. You look around the locker room, we have a lot of great pieces. We’ve gone through a rough stretch, but we don’t want to peak too early.”

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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