October 4, 2021 

Brianna Turner’s ‘pretty perfect game’ has Mercury one win from Finals

Turner's 23-point, 17-rebound night leads Mercury to dominant win over Aces in Game 3 of WNBA Semifinals

TEMPE, Ariz. — There’s three superstars and Olympic gold medalists on the Phoenix Mercury, and Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi are obviously vital.

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But the player stealing the spotlight right now — and the one who led the charge to put the Mercury on the precipice of their first trip to the WNBA Finals since 2014 — isn’t any of those three.

It’s Brianna Turner, who dropped 23 points — her career-high in any WNBA game — and grabbed 17 rebounds in the Mercury’s dominant 87-60 win over the Las Vegas Aces in Game 3 of the WNBA Semifinals at Arizona State’s Desert Financial Arena in Tempe.

“It’s a pretty perfect game for her today,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said of Turner.

Griner added on Turner, “Amazing, amazing. I can’t wait to see how she’s going to evolve and what she’s going to do next. She’s been doing this for a while. Breezy is definitely like a whole secret weapon on our team, honestly.”

Turner’s 17 rebounds were a big chunk of the WNBA playoff record 58 that Phoenix grabbed on Sunday. And the third-most in any WNBA regular season or playoff game in league history. She’s already well-regarded around the league for her defensive capabilities, with 2021 marking her second-consecutive year on the WNBA All-Defensive First Team. And she was absolutely electrifying on that end of the floor on Sunday, the key cog in holding A’ja Wilson to just eight points on 2-for-14 shooting from the field.

But it’s been her growing game on the offensive end that is sending this already super-charged Phoenix offense into the stratosphere.

In recent games, the Mercury have been moving Turner around on offense. But she’s occupying a lot of time at or near the dunker spot, the part of the court that’s between the rim and the corner along the baseline. When teams send double-teams out — usually at Griner — they will typically do so with the player guarding Turner, which can leave her wide open at times. It’s the dunker spot where Turner started the play in the final seconds of the first-round game against the Liberty, which eventually led to a foul and Turner making the game-winning free throw.


Turner’s developed a soft touch around the rim, with the ability to catch passes in mid-jump and finish them at the rim while in the air. And while that’s what is leading to so many of her points, Brondello is seeing so many other good things as signs of Turner’s growth on offense.

“When teams are trapping BG, which you have to because she’s so dominant, it’s just trying to get the rest of them in the right position so that we can be effective,” Brondello said. “They’ve seen [Turner in] the dunker spot’s great for us, but it’s also that flashing to the high[-post] and then being able to penetrate and make the next action play. We try and put her in some screening action as well, just because they want to trap our guards, [and] just her movement out of it, her separation out of it, it makes it even harder for them to guard.”

Obviously, Turner does not create her own offense, which makes the assist breakdown on her nine baskets all the more fascinating: three from Taurasi, two from Diggins-Smith, two from Griner and two that didn’t have any because Turner got an offensive rebound and put it in herself.

While Taurasi still can change a game with her scoring via her shooting, she’s moved into a full-time facilitator role. And mostly plays as the point guard for Phoenix and shoots from deep. It’s not entirely surprising to see her stat line for the day: nine points on 3-for-9 from the field and 2-for-7 from behind the 3-point line, six assists to two turnovers and four rebounds.

But it’s even more noteworthy to see just how impactful Diggins-Smith can be on a game where her shot isn’t falling. She scored five points on the game, going 2-for-12 from the field and missing all five 3-pointers she attempted. But Diggins-Smith was stellar with the ball in her hands helping the Phoenix offense, tallying nine assists without committing a single turnover en route to ending the game with the highest plus-minus of anyone (+28). It was something that really stood out to Brondello.

“I spoke to her after the game and said, ‘I’m proud of you, because in previous years, you’d think you need to score. You don’t need to score, you created easy baskets,’” Brondello said. “Just with her penetration, getting around the traps, going downhill, they have to help and they have to respect her. I said this to her, ‘Don’t look at how many points you scored, look at how much of an effect you had on the game.’ I think that’s an area where she continues to develop in our system.”

The Phoenix system is very top-heavy in its makeup, relying on their starters to play a massive chunk of minutes and not going too deep into their bench. Even after Sophie Cunningham, who had eight points in seven minutes in the first half, was ruled out for the second half with a left calf strain, the Mercury only went deeper than their initial seven for a two-minute Megan Walker stint at the end of the third.

But it’s in games like Game 2 on Thursday and Sunday’s Game 3 where the championship-level potential of this Phoenix roster is fully realized. They can play very solid defense, anchored by two excellent bigs in Turner and Griner and some active guards like Diggins-Smith and Shey Peddy. And while a few of their players are, to put it charitably, a bit of a liability defensively, they’ve become a team that communicates well and can cover up those players with switching and good help defense.

On the offensive side, they have some world-class facilitators and distributors between Taurasi and Diggins-Smith — and Griner, who has become a patient and poised passer when she gets double-or even triple-teams. Turner can either be a screen-and-slasher or occupy the dunker spot, and players like Nurse and Cunningham can sit around the perimeter, ready to drill open 3-pointers if you leave them open. And when Kia Vaughn comes in, she can drill the midrange jumper consistently if you help off her to stop Griner in the post.

It’s a way of roster-building that is very high risk, as it doesn’t take much to derail the way the roster works together. It only takes an injury or two — like with Taurasi’s various ailments this year — for it to look discombobulated. And there’s an argument that Phoenix still isn’t totally whole, as Bria Hartley is still a step or two slower than the player who was on fire in the bubble before tearing her ACL and likely won’t be able to get there in this playoff run.

But when the Mercury are playing like they are right now — unselfish on offense, communicative on defense and bringing aggression on both ends — you see a championship is not in the future but in the present. And even though they expect the Aces to fight to avoid elimination on Wednesday night, the Mercury’s approach to that night is very simple.

“I’m not packing my bags,” Griner said. “That’s no disrespect to Vegas, we know what their capable of. None of us want to pack our bags. This is going to be a huge game. And going back there … no. That’s the mindset, we’re not packing our bags.”

And given that Mercury are the first team in WNBA playoff history to win back-to-back games by at least 26 points, it seems pretty clear that this team has picked a good time to play their best all-around basketball. And though it isn’t a big surprise to her to see the team play this well, it’s still a performance that Brondello said was “as well as we’ve ever executed” the game plan.

“It’s been coming. If you’re in our practices, you see it,” Brondello said. “We know what we can and can’t do. As long as we’re doing it together and we’ve got the players in the right roles, that’s what it comes down to.

“It’s an understatement if you say I’m pretty happy with how that went tonight.”

Peddy added, “I think these last two games are by far the best games we’ve had, especially consecutively. We’re moving the ball, we’re pushing the ball up the court, locking in to our defensive assignments, and rebounding and go. I think once we play together and just keep the ball moving, taking great shots, we’re hard to beat.”

It shouldn’t seem surprising, then, that the Mercury are playing at their best at the same time that Turner is playing at her best. And while the focus is on the championship right now, you can’t help but wonder how many things Turner may accomplish in her future after a game like Sunday.

“The potential … the sky’s the limit,” Brondello said.

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.


  1. Jaime Gale on October 5, 2021 at 12:29 pm

    Great article, thank you!

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