September 18, 2020 

What went wrong on the Phoenix Mercury’s final play

Late mistakes by Skylar Diggins-Smith and the Mercury ended their season

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PALMETTO, FL- SEPTEMBER 17: Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury shoots three point basket against the Minnesota Lynx during the WNBA playoffs on September 17, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

The magic wasn’t there when the Phoenix Mercury needed it this time.

The Mercury got outplayed by Minnesota on Thursday, and unlike their first playoff game, there wasn’t enough to make up for their disappointing output. There was no second-half comeback, no lucky breaks or miracle buzzer-beater. The unforgiving single-elimination structure of the WNBA combined with a dynamic game from the Lynx was too much to overcome.

“We just needed one more play and just didn’t get it at the end of the game, and sometimes it just comes down to that,” said Diana Taurasi who finished with 28 points but did not take a shot in the final 1:21 of the game. “What is done and done, and we fell short.”

After a 80-79 loss, Taurasi’s tone was evidence of the letdown that transpired against the Lynx, as well as a feeling that the game slipped through Phoenix’s grasp. If anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt in elimination games, it’s Taurasi, whose mettle and scoring power is unrivaled in the WNBA. But her sterling record in these matchups is weakening, and in this case, the ball wasn’t even in her hands late. 

Head coach Sandy Brondello dialed up a play similar to what Phoenix ran Tuesday night to beat the Mystics, with Skylar Diggins-Smith headed downhill to her left from the top of the key and Taurasi peeling off a screen on the right wing. Where the Mystics overreacted to Diggins-Smith’s drive and Brianna Turner rolling to the rim, Minnesota stayed set, with Napheesa Collier switching onto Diggins-Smith and Odyssey Sims rotating to the free throw line to put another body between Diggins-Smith and Taurasi. That made it a much harder read for Diggins-Smith, who turned the ball over into Collier’s outstretched hands.

Using the collective play-making of Diggins-Smith and Taurasi together has buoyed Phoenix all year with injuries up and down the depth chart as well as the departure of star big Brittney Griner. But in the waning seconds of Thursday’s second-round loss, it meant the ball was unable to find the hands of Taurasi, a clutch-time killer and the league’s all-time leading scorer.

“Sandy’s choice,” Taurasi said postgame. 

Diggins-Smith was not made available to speak with reporters. Coming off her first playoff win (a game in which she found her energy at halftime and keyed a comeback), Diggins-Smith was ineffective most of the night. She scored just eight points on 3-for-15 shooting and the Mercury were outscored by five points in her 35 minutes of playing time.

“We support Skylar. That hasn’t changed,” Brondello said. “We’re going to live and die by our best players.”

Despite a poor performance in this single-elimination game, Diggins-Smith played one of her best seasons in years in the Bubble. It won’t be a surprise if she’s voted to an All-WNBA team. Going away from her completely would not only ignore her stellar play throughout 2020, it would take Phoenix away from what worked as it finished the season 7-2.

Diggins-Smith was bound to be involved in the final plays to some degree, but the turnover to Collier was just the first mistake in the closing minutes. The next came just a split second later, when Turner instinctively reached for the loose ball off Collier’s fingertips and stepped on the baseline, turning the ball over out of bounds.

After the set play resulted in that giveaway, the Mercury got one more chance with just over six seconds remaining. Lynx forward Damiris Dantas missed two free throws, and with no timeouts left, the Mercury pushed the ball up the floor. Minnesota double-teamed Taurasi to get the ball out of her hands, and Diggins-Smith pressed, sprinting to the arc and launching a shot that was so disrupted by Lynx wing Bridget Carleton that Diggins-Smith actually had to shuffle the ball to her off-hand to get it off. The ball barely touched the rim before landing on the ground along with Phoenix’s postseason life.

Minnesota got contributions up and down its roster, but closing time came from Crystal Dangerfield, who was named Rookie of the Year shortly before tip-off. The Lynx also heralded the return of Sylvia Fowles to the lineup by sizing up in the starting unit, with Fowles at center and Dantas and Collier sliding to the forward spots. The result was a more balanced scoring burden across the Minnesota roster.

In Fowles’ first game since mid-August, she did not close the game for Minnesota. Head coach Cheryl Reeve opted with Dantas and Collier as the lone bigs and the longer Carleton getting the Taurasi assignment late. The floor-spacing of that unit allowed Dangerfield and combo guard Odyssey Sims to puncture the Mercury defense more easily and get to the rim for easy points.

“When Syl was in the game, they weren’t as spread out and Collier and Dantas weren’t able to post up as much as in previous matchups,” Turner said postgame.

In addition to Reeve taking Fowles out, the Mercury were without Shey Peddy late, who hit the game-winner against Washington and earned her first start of the season in this game. Peddy injured her head in the second period and was ruled out early in the second half. Her primary assignment, Dangerfield, scored eight of her 17 points in the fourth quarter, including a layup with about three minutes left that extended Minnesota’s lead to 5, a margin that would prove too wide for Phoenix.

Understandably down after a close loss to a rival, the Mercury still found hope from getting so far in a season that easily could have spun down the drain following Griner’s departure. Depleted to just seven healthy players by the end of the game and hampered by mental lapses, the Mercury were still just a few inches here or there from a berth in the semifinals. Magic or no, it was a fight.

By 2020 standards, that in and of itself counts as an achievement. 

“I don’t think anyone thought we would get this far with the team that we had,” Brondello said, “but we played together, we stuck together and we had fun.”

Written by Brendon Kleen

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