October 1, 2021
How Diana Taurasi stole the show again
Taurasi scored 37 points, hit 8 threes, while Brittney Griner dominated inside
LAS VEGAS — Diana Taurasi returned to the Mercury locker room after setting new career playoff highs in points, with 37, and 3-pointers, with eight.
What had her Penny Taylor, former Mercury star and Taurasi’s very pregnant wife, texted her about? Her teammate, Brittney Griner.
“’That’s best I’ve ever seen BG play,’” Taylor’s text to Taurasi read.
It was that kind of night for the Phoenix Mercury in Game 2 of the WNBA semifinals Thursday, as the fifth seed hit the two-seed Las Vegas Aces with an offensive blitzkrieg the likes of which the WNBA has never seen, breaking all sorts of records in a 117-91 win to even the series at one win apiece.
It’s a night that Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said is “without a doubt” the best type of offensive night she could envision for them to have.
“I’ve been with this team for eight years and I try and think back, ‘Man, have we ever scored that many points?’ I don’t think so,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said. “It was great. Diana, BG, all of us, I just thought we were making shots tonight and that certainly helped us.”
The 117 points in a game is the most in regulation in a playoff game in WNBA history and the second-most ever in a playoff game, only behind the Mercury’s 120-116 overtime win over the Indiana Fever in Game 1 of the 2009 WNBA Finals.
And after emphasizing that they were the team that needed to come out with “a sense of urgency,” Skylar-Diggins-Smith said the mindset Phoenix took to the beginning of the game was simple.
“F— it, let’s have a good start and let’s play with some toughness tonight,” Diggins-Smith said.
Talking about mindset, Taurasi added, “Obviously, when shots are going in, BG is playing the way she is and Skylar’s attacking, it makes the game a little bit easier for you. Today was a big test for us in a lot of ways, and I think we played the right way, we brought the right mindset and all of the other things just fell into place.”
Mission accomplished there, as the Mercury dropped 37 points in the first while making 16-of-19 shots in the first quarter and followed that up with a 10-for-14, 31-point second quarter. The 68 points in the first half is a WNBA playoff record for the most points in a half.
A key piece of that was Griner, who started the game scoring 16 points on 7-for-8 from the field and making both free throws in the first quarter. She finished the night with seven rebounds, five assists, two emphatic blocks and 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting (and 7-for-8 from the free-throw line) in an all-around sensational effort.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Griner’s game right now is both the confidence and the ease in which she’s nailing shots in the midrange, and she made more shots outside the paint than inside it on this night.
Diggins-Smith added 17 points of her own on the evening, giving the Mercury’s three Olympic gold medalists 79 points combined on the night. It’s nights like this that prove just how well the three not just co-exist and play together, but thrive with and because of each other.
“I think the wonderful thing when you get a lot of good players is, can you share the floor?” Taurasi said. “I think we just kind of naturally see our games and each have a piece of the floor that’s different to each other. Obviously, BG’s paint — well, she’s kind of everywhere right now. Skylar, what she does. I’m more perimeter-oriented. So we don’t get in each other’s way. I think that helps when we’re on the court.”
Diggins-Smith added, “Everybody eating, and we always encourage each other to be aggressive. We know, at this point, we’ve learned each other and when people are feeling it, people getting hot, and just figuring out who to get the ball to, where and at what time. It’s easy playing with great players. It’s easy for me to come in with that mindset, being aggressive. And then when you have two of the best that came through our league, you feel pretty confident.”
And, as Griner emphasized, it’s really hard to figure out what to do against them defensively.
“I don’t know who you’re going to help off of, if I was on the opposing team,” Griner said. “You sag off on Dee, she’s going to hit it. If you give Sky some space, she’s going down your throat. When we’re all locked in to the game and what’s going on, it’s a hard guard, honestly.”
The Aces never led on the night and never got back to a single-digit deficit after falling behind by double-digits seven minutes into the game. They had a possession with two 3-point looks midway through the third quarter that, had they fallen, would’ve cut the lead down to nine. But both missed and Taurasi came down on the other end to hit a 3-pointer to push the lead back to 15.
“We got our butts kicked. No question about it, up, down and around,” Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer said. “We didn’t have the energy necessary to play and win a playoff game.”
But in the end, Game 2 turned into another coronation of the many in Taurasi’s long career. She’s nowhere close to 100% and looked hobbled in both the second round game in Seattle on Sunday and Tuesday’s Game 1. But Laimbeer did not, for a second, think that would matter.
“Taurasi ain’t hurt. Come on, please. This is the playoffs, nobody’s hurt,” Laimbeer said after Game 1 Tuesday. “I’ve been there, done that. All my friends have been there, done that. I don’t wanna hear anything, no. There is no sympathy factor in playoffs. And she will not give any quarter either, make sure of that one, okay?
“She will cut your heart out in a second. So she’s not hurt. We’re going to play her as if she’s full speed, ready to go and everything like that. That’s how we do business. If we think otherwise, we put ourselves at a disadvantage.”
Chelsea Gray added on Tuesday, “I never take it for granted. She can come down and get 30 in one minute. She’s hobbled and things like that, so that might limit her, but I think she has this mentality that she’s playing, so she’s dangerous all the time.”
Taurasi is most likely not going to practice or even participate in shootaround for the rest of the Mercury’s playoff run as she does everything to keep her ankle healthy. But as she told The Next exclusively on Wednesday, she’s finding ways to compete with herself to be the best at rehabbing her ankle as she possibly can be.
“I think that’s when you have that competitive battle within, right? Are you going to do everything possible to be able to play in the playoffs? Are you going to do every little thing — from the 4-5 hours rehabbing to making sure you stay off your foot for the whole day after that, pretty much be conscious of everything you do just to play in these games.
“That’s a battle that some people lose, and it’s not easy. There are days where it’s like, ‘Maybe it’s a little bit too hard.’ But I really enjoy it. I enjoy kind of competing against myself and seeing how disciplined I can be. And that’s really changed over the years for me.”
And doing that allows for a night like Thursday to happen, stunning even those who have watched her night after night.
“I’ve seen many great games from Diana, but none as big as this one in the situation where she hasn’t been able to train and she’s not 100%,” Brondello said. “So credit to her, and it’s fun to watch.”
Laimbeer added, “I told anybody that would listen that I thought Taurasi was going to come and try to take over the game and try to be the star of the show and will them to a win, and she did. I give her all the credit in the world.”
And her fellow Olympic gold medalist and Aces forward A’ja Wilson said, “It’s DT. That’s who she is and that’s why she’s one of the best of the best in our game.”
With the series tied, the Mercury have a chance to reach their first WNBA Finals since 2014 without having to come back to Las Vegas if they win both home games, but Game 3 won’t be played at their usual home. With Disney on Ice wrapping up a weekend of shows at the Footprint Center on Sunday, The Mercury and Aces will head over to Arizona State’s Desert Financial Arena in Tempe for the noon game. At this time, the Mercury also do not know where they’ll be playing Game 4 on Wednesday night either, as the Footprint Center is currently scheduled to host a Suns-Lakers preseason game.
But for a night, the Mercury could just bask in the glow of one of the greatest offensive nights the team and their star player had ever had. It was a performance from Taurasi so undeniably incredible that even the opponent’s owner, Mark Davis, came over to Taurasi after the game to show her love.
Taurasi, who is a proud and vocal Raiders fan — to the point that she was wearing silver and black Nikes after the game — said after the game that she has known both Mark Davis and his late father Al, who was a big fan of Geno Auriemma and the UConn women’s basketball team, for some time.
Surely, Taurasi will head up to a Raiders game at the new Allegiant Stadium, directly across the freeway from Michelob ULTRA Arena, once the WNBA season is over. You could wonder if Davis may not be as friendly of a host to her if she torches the Aces like she did Thursday night another two times.
But at least on this night, all Davis and everyone else in the building could do was look at the 39-year-old in awe.