October 16, 2021 

Wrong kind of record-breaking night has Phoenix Mercury near elimination again

Biggest blowout in WNBA Finals history puts the Phoenix Mercury's backs against the wall—but they've been here before

CHICAGO — With Game 3 of the WNBA Finals already well in hand against the Phoenix Mercury, the Chicago Sky fans packing the sold-out Wintrust Arena took a page out of a different Phoenix basketball team’s playbook.

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Much like the MNBA’s Phoenix Suns had popularized a “Suns in Four” chant during the 2021 playoffs, the raucous Chicago faithful drowned out the noise on the court in Friday night’s record-breaking blowout with a message to the Mercury. “Sky in Four,” the fans chanted.

Diana Taurasi had been subbed out for a while from the 86-50 loss to the Sky that put the Mercury on the brink of elimination. But as the chant commenced, she nodded her head in rhythm.

Make no mistake: Friday night was an evisceration of the Mercury, and everyone around the organization understood that. Skylar Diggins-Smith said the Sky “kicked our ass,” and while Sandy Brondello used the word “butt” instead of “ass,” she said the same thing.

The 36-point loss is the biggest blowout in the history of the WNBA Finals, beating out the 92-59 championship-clinching victory Seattle delivered to Las Vegas last year in the bubble. The 22-point halftime deficit was tied for the largest in WNBA Finals history—which, hilariously and perhaps karmically, was previously done by Phoenix to Chicago in Game 1 in 2014.

Phoenix’s offensive ineptitude on the night also was record-setting, but not in a good way. The Mercury shot 16-for-62 from the field for 25.8 percent, the worst shooting percentage in WNBA Finals history. The 50 points scored is the second-fewest in a WNBA Finals game and the second-fewest in any game Taurasi has played for Phoenix in her long career, trailing only a 45-point effort in the fifth game of her career back in 2004.

But Taurasi didn’t want to chalk up this result just to shots not falling at Phoenix’s usual rate.

“I think we can take the easy way out and say that, or we can really look at the mirror at ourselves and make sure we come with a little bit more intent in the next game,” Taurasi said. “But, you know, it would have been nice to make a couple shots here and there as a group. It is the game of basketball. It’s just about putting the ball in the hole, and today we just didn’t do that at a very efficient clip.”

The only Phoenix player to score double-digit points was Brittney Griner, who scored 16 on the night and 12 of the Mercury’s 14 points in the third quarter.  But even she only made 7-of-17 shots from the field and generally had a lot of shots she typically makes rim out. Perhaps most damning was that Griner was the only Phoenix player to make more than two baskets from the field the entire night.

When asked about the offensive point total, Taurasi exclaimed, “50?!?” before the question about expecting better could be finished. When it was, she quipped, “Well, I hope so. We can’t be any worse than 50, buddy. We’ll be better. We’ll be better than 50. Go to Vegas with that one.”

While Phoenix is banking on shooting better from the field in Game 4 on Sunday, the way the Mercury were stifled is certainly noteworthy. The Sky’s defense didn’t allow many open looks, was in passing lanes all night and generally made the Mercury uncomfortable offensively.

“You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Chicago came out and played aggressive,” Taurasi said. “We knew they were going to. They flood the ball hard on on-ball [screen]s, and we just didn’t do a good job of handling it and getting out of it.”

Brondello added, “They were really, really aggressive, and the hedging went to another level. We still got some open looks and we missed them. I think we just lost momentum, and obviously they grew on a lot of confidence. What they were doing was working, and it rattled us a little bit, to be quite honest. But we’ve got to be better.”

There were also plenty of breakdowns on the defensive end, and the Sky finished with 50 percent shooting from the field and 36 points in the paint. Brondello felt the poor effort on the offensive end impacted the team’s spirit on defense.

“We had a hard time scoring. Unfortunately, we weren’t scoring on offense, and it affected our defense,” she said. “We’ve got to dig deeper on defense and hopefully we can get some easy ones on offense. Yeah, but tough night at the office. Got another game, though.”

The next game is the only true silver lining for Phoenix after this night. Brondello said the Mercury will just “flush that one,” but the team still plans to watch the film to try to learn anything it can—though re-watching the humiliating defeat may be intended more to spark just a little more pain.

“You just have to relive it to piss you off a little bit, to be honest,” Brondello said. “That’s all it will be. I don’t think it’s X’s and O’s now; it’s just the attitude that we’re going to come out and play in the next game. Like I said, just overall, just being a little bit better than what we were.”

But being one loss from elimination is familiar territory for the Mercury and Taurasi, both in their history in the WNBA Finals and in the current playoff format. In both 2007 and 2009, the Mercury trailed in the Finals 2-1 but came back to win (though it is worth pointing out that in both of those series, Game 3 was a close, hard-fought loss).

And in the current WNBA playoff format that’s been in place since 2016—two single-elimination games before two best-of-five series to determine a champion—the Mercury have gone 12-5 in games where a loss would have ended their season. They’ve even won three of those games this season.

In particular, the Mercury were blown out in Game 4 of the semifinals against the Aces and had to go on the road to win Game 5. The team’s collection of experience—both in this season and before—will need to serve them well on Sunday afternoon, where a win would be the team’s 16th on the road when you combine the regular season and postseason, which would tie the record for most road wins by a WNBA team in a single year (Houston in 2000 and Los Angeles in 2002).

But even as the fourth quarter was coming to an end, no one around the Mercury was contemplating what the reaction would be if they lost on Sunday. They’ve still got a job to do—and they’re already itching to get back to it.

“All year we’ve faced adversity, and we have a veteran group,” Diggins-Smith said. “We’ll go back and look at it and see what changes we can make. We don’t have a choice. We’ve got to win. We have to win from here on out. We understand that. It’s going to be a lot to digest. Tomorrow we’ll go back, look at the film, see where we can make changes and that’s it. That’s what we’re going to do.

“We’re a mature group. We’re going to come out with a different mindset next game, and we’re desperate. We’ve got to win.”

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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