October 14, 2021
Mercury stars step up in OT win to even WNBA Finals
'BG is just playing at a different level right now'
PHOENIX — It took an extra five minutes, an absolutely raucous crowd, all sorts of hustle plays and a late awakening of their all-time legend.
But at the end, the Phoenix Mercury emerged from the first WNBA Finals overtime game since 2009’s Game 1 with a victory, defeating the Sky 91-86 to tie this WNBA Finals at 1-1.
It took all three of Phoenix’s superstars to step up when they absolutely needed it, but Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi were able to find a way — even on an overall off-night for Taurasi and a poor shooting night from Diggins-Smith.
Throughout regulation, Griner was a force who kept Phoenix in the game, tying her playoff career-high with 29 points on 12-of-19 shooting from the field and throwing down the first dunk in WNBA Finals history at the 5:35 mark of the first quarter. Phoenix is at its best when the ball lands in Griner’s hands, and that was no different on Wendesday night.
“I probably wanted it more than what we were doing at some stage,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said after the game. “Look, we found a way. In the second half in particular we played a little bit more with poise and had a little bit better inside-outside attack, getting her touches down low. You know, obviously she’s a dominant player. We don’t want to go all the time because we have to involve everyone else, but she has to be — she’s a playmaker, as well, not just a scorer.”
Taurasi added, “We know who our bread and butter is. BG is just playing at a different level right now and there’s really nothing anyone can do. We knew coming into this game it was going to be a big focus — got to get BG down low early and often. She sustained us for most of the game when offensively we didn’t really have a rhythm, and every time I looked up, she was making big basket after big basket when we weren’t playing well. That’s just what BG does, though. I think we take for granted sometimes how amazing she is.”
Diggins-Smith only shot 5-for-18 shots on the night, but set her playoff career-high and tied her WNBA career-high with 12 assists on the night, a massive night on the offensive end even if her shot wasn’t falling.
“Skylar would probably say, ‘I’ve missed too many shots,’” Brondello said. “But I thought with her ability to facilitate and just give us some easy baskets, Breezy [Brianna Turner] obviously at the rim and BG, we needed that.”
Of course, Diggins-Smith did say that: “I had about five or seven that I freaking should have made. I felt good about the way I was able to get downhill, get a head of steam today, even if it was for opening opportunities for my teammates. Obviously got in and missed some makeable lay-ups, but I knew I would have another chance, and my team told me that, too, just keep going, keep trying to be aggressive, get downhill, had a few lobs to BG, Breezy [Brianna Turner], a few kick-outs. So, I felt good with where I was getting on the floor, not necessarily my finishes throughout the night.”
In particular, Diggins-Smith made two driving layups during overtime — but used her right hand to do so. It’s something she hasn’t always been able to do in her career, but Diggins-Smith chalked it up to “just trying to make a play.” Nonetheless, it was the capper on a night that impressed Taurasi.
“I’ve been around this game a long time and there’s not too many people that compete the way Skylar competes every single day,” Taurasi said. “We’ve gotten to work out for two offseasons. Every day is the same. Every day is Game 5 for her. I’ve said this before, that’s kind of ignited my passion for the game a little bit to see someone do that every single day.
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“What she did today was Skylar taking it to a different level. It’s always nice when you’re playing well and everything is going your way, know what I mean? Those nights are great, but the days where you’re really struggling and you’re trying to find yourself in the game and the way she just impacted the game every single possession, probably one of the best games I’ve ever seen her play.”
Diggins-Smith felt like the Mercury should’ve wrapped the game up in regulation, especially after a Shey Peddy driving layup gave Phoenix a four-point lead with 27.4 seconds left. But Kahleah Copper got an offensive rebound and put-back and was fouled by Diggins-Smith with 14.1 to go, making the free throw to cut the lead to one. After Peddy made 1-of-2 free throws, Courtney Vandersloot drove for a layup to tie the game and, after a Mercury turnover, send the game to overtime.
It was in overtime, though, that Taurasi finally finished off her impact on the game. The 39-year-old really had been playing poorly for most of the night beforehand, and even with two 3-pointers in the fourth, entered the extra frame with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting (2-of-9 from deep) and no assists — and Phoenix had primarily been using her as a decoy during the fourth, too.
But on the third possession of overtime, Taurasi hit a deep 3-pointer and was fouled by Copper when she hit it. Taurasi made that free throw and added a technical free throw after a defensive three-in-the-key violation, but Chicago worked to tie the game back up at 86.
Then, with 1:24 left, Taurasi hit a pull-up 3-pointer to give her eight points in overtime and give Phoenix the lead that they finally would not relent. She’d miss another, but got a rare steal to help the Mercury ice the game — even though she was not the most graceful in doing so.
“Yeah, I finally get a steal and then I trip over my own feet at the other end,” Taurasi said. “That’s just kind of my life in a lot of ways.”
With a big smile, Brondello added, “We joked a little bit about her, the biggest play of the day was the steal. Diana doesn’t steal very often, so that was a big play.”
It was only the third steal of the postseason — and just the sixth steal of 2021, when combining the regular season — for Taurasi, but it was the last of nine for the Mercury on the night. Per usual, Phoenix was led by Brianna Turner on the defensive end, who had three steals and had her hands on several more.
“Well, she needs to grab the ball then,” Taurasi cracked. “I mean, Breezy is a problem. What she does for us will never show up on this [holds up box score], but the only reason we’re here is because of her, and we all know that on our team — coaching staff, the people around this team. We literally are what Brianna Turner is every single day, and she’s got us here with the way she’s played, her uncanny ability to affect the game without having the ball is just second to none.”
Phoenix also got a sorely-needed boost from the return of Sophie Cunningham, who Brondello threw directly into the starting lineup after missing three games with a left calf strain. In her first postseason start, Cunningham made 3-of-4 3-pointers and was the exact type of pesky wing Phoenix has been desperately missing these past few games.
“we just thought that was the right way for us to start with our rotations, and the energy that she brings,” Brondello said. “She was great for us. I was pretty mindful of like, is it three to four minutes yet? Sometimes I would be forgetting, but she looked great out there.
“Her teammates actually feed off her energy, and those plays, you love having those [players] on the floor and on the bench, because it doesn’t matter if they’re playing or not, they’re so invested in helping this team win.”
It was a victory that avoided a seemingly inescapable 0-2 deficit in the WNBA Finals, something no team has ever overcome in the league’s history. It was also the first playoff win in the Mercury’s downtown Footprint Center of the 2021 playoffs, with a raucous crowd of 13,685 partying in timeouts (including, hilariously, doing the wave during a video review that Mercury bench players even participated in) and making so much noise during the game that it was hard to hear whistles at several points throughout the night.
But the fans were treated to just the fifth overtime game in WNBA Finals history, and the first one in 12 years — and several fans were likely at the last one, since it happened in the same building. Of course, Taurasi was on the team all the way back in 2009 for the epic 120-116 Mercury win over the Indiana Fever. And when thinking back, there was one thing about the two games that stood out as similar to her.
“That was one of the games that set the tone for the series and the way basketball was going,” Taurasi told The Next about the 2009 game. “To play in another overtime game, especially here — that building was shaking today. That’s a credit to the fans and to how much love the city has for our franchise.”
As the series head to Wintrust Arena in Chicago for Game 3 on Friday night and Game 4 on Sunday afternoon, the mission for the Phoenix Mercury is pretty simple at this point: Win once and get those fans back in your building for one final winner-take-all matchup in Game 5 next Tuesday.
Or win twice and claim your WNBA record-tying fourth championship in the same city where you won your third. For the WNBA’s best road team in 2021 and one of the best in the league’s history, that seems entirely possible.