October 19, 2021 

Despite painful end, Mercury players grateful for magical run

Mercury cherish tight-knit bond even after Finals loss that 'hurts like hell'

PHOENIX — There was a moment on Saturday, the day after a record-setting defeat in Game 3. And a day before Game 4 of the WNBA Finals, where Skylar Diggins-Smith made a big-picture admission about the 2021 Phoenix Mercury.

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“This is my favorite team that I’ve ever been on,” Diggins-Smith said on Saturday in Chicago. “It’s a lot of veterans, a lot of moms, a lot of people that I could go up and have a one-on-one with anytime. They did a good job of putting this team together, and it’s just a lot of things that I guess we didn’t really know about each other that doesn’t have shit to do with X’s and O’s, it’s just about human-to-human.

“I think that’s why you see, even [after] an embarrassing-ass game like yesterday, we come back today in the locker room and we’re together. Yeah, we’re all embarrassed as fuck, we know. We got our ass blown out. But just to come back, and you’ll see it. You’re still going to see us smile because it’s not over. We know, when our backs are against the wall, we kind of live for these moments.”

The backs of the Mercury players and coaches were pretty much against the wall all season long, in different ways —a slow start to the year, a few embarrassing efforts, multiple injuries, another trip through the single-elimination playoff rounds.

But every time they looked ripe for being counted out, there was a long winning streak, a Sophie Cunningham explosion, Brittney Griner and Diggins-Smith shining, Diana Taurasi’s show-stealer in Las Vegas, Brianna Turner’s “pretty perfect game” at ASU and Shey Peddy’s clutch free throws. They kept stepping up at the exact moment they needed to keep themselves alive.

Every moment, that is, until the final four and a half minutes of their season.

Facing their fourth elimination game of the 2021 WNBA playoffs against their fourth different opponent, the Mercury played with a sharp intensity and executed at a high level, keeping a hungry Sky team and bloodthirsty sold-out Wintrust Arena crowd at a low simmer for a little more than 35 minutes.

But after Brittney Griner’s reverse layup gave Phoenix a seven-point lead with 4:42 left, the Mercury would not make another basket from the field — including three missed layups — right as the Sky began to heat up offensively. The result was a 15-2 final run that gave Chicago the Game 4 win, 80-74, and their first WNBA championship.

“It’s hard,” Griner said. “You can’t pinpoint one shot or two shots, it’s collectively throughout the course of a game. Definitely would’ve loved for those shots to go in, but hey, you can’t just pinpoint one shot or whatever shot.”

Taurasi added, “I think, at one point, all five of us missed a layup, so the magic slipped away from our hands pretty quickly and reality hit. We were a pretty devastated team, and we had hopes of coming back here and playing tomorrow night.”

The disappointment and frustration over the loss was still hitting the team hard a day after Game 4, with many saying they still hadn’t really processed the loss and Diggins-Smith saying it “hurts like hell.” In the immediate aftermath of the Game 4 loss, the players skipped out on doing postgame media interviews entirely, which resulted in the league handing the organization a $10,000 fine for them skipping.

“I’m a part of a great unit of women and we actually enjoy each other’s company, we really really love each other, so it was really really emotional,” Vaughn said on Monday when all Mercury players talked to media after their exit interviews with the team. “I don’t think anyone should focus on the fact that [we skipped media] — a lot of us were really like emotionally drained, and obviously tears and everything were there. It was more so about celebrating Chicago and us wishing them well and being able to find players that we know on the opposite team and tell them congratulations.

“It’s just sad. We just tried to embrace each other because as we know, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for all players and we don’t know who will be here next year. So we spent that time trying to be with each other.”

While the players didn’t speak in Chicago, one, in particular, left her mark postgame, as The Next reported that Taurasi broke a door that leads to the visiting locker room at Wintrust Arena after the game. Asked for comment about the incident on Monday, Taurasi said, “There were a lot of doors in there.” It is also worth noting that, in the Twitter world of pettiness and humor that is the WNBA, the Sky fired back against some previous inflammatory Mercury social media posts by bringing the broken door to their championship celebration rally on Tuesday in Chicago.

From here, the close-knit team will head off on their own here over the next few days; as players like Peddy (Sopron in Hungary), Cunningham (Basket Landes in France), Turner (Virtus Segrafredo in Italy) and Walker (Tenerife in Spain) head to their teams in Europe within the next week. Smith will head to the Adelaide Lightning in Australia once she can get a flight and play in her home country for the first time in her professional career. And Hartley will report to Fenerbahce in Turkey in January.

Most notably, Griner won’t likely report to the defending EuroLeague Women UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia until sometime November. And hinted that it might be the last time she plays overseas.

“It is getting harder and harder,” Griner said. “I’m not really looking forward to it, honestly —having to leave my family and go overseas again. Definitely going over this offseason, and then just taking it year-by-year.”

Should Griner choose to stop doing so, she can seek advice on how to manage from her two fellow superstars in Taurasi and Diggins-Smith who have both not played outside of the WNBA for a few years now. Kia Vaughn also retired from playing overseas back in April. And Kia Nurse will have her surgery on her torn ACL sometime next week, remaining in Phoenix for most of the early stages of the rehab process.

The Mercury’s tight salary cap situation will surely lead to some changes in the offseason. And a team with a lot of veterans knows that once people head their separate ways, they likely won’t all get together again. That’s why, on Monday night, a good number of players got together to celebrate Griner’s birthday. It was one final time together, one final chance to mark how special this season — and this group — was for each other.

“We’re resilient,” Griner said. “We’ve had a lot of adversities this year, people going down, I’m not playing, Dee’s not playing games. And we went out there and won, we went out there and got it. No matter what was going on — if the starting lineup changed, or if we had the complete team or if we only had six players — we were going to go out there and battle. That’s something that I learned about my team. We are some go-getters out there.”

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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