September 21, 2021 

Phoenix Mercury ready for their annual single-elimination game gauntlet

Phoenix starts playoffs in the first round at a different gym in the Valley of the Sun, as they've done a few times before

PHOENIX — Skylar Diggins-Smith remembers when she was on the Dallas Wings in 2018, coming in to Phoenix for a first-round game against the Mercury that had to be moved away from their usual downtown home. And she remembers what she and her teammates were thinking, too.

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“We thought we had them, too, because of that,” Diggins-Smith said when thinking back to that game. “But then it was like, Phoenix fans still travel very well.

“I thought it was going to be. I thought, ‘Yo, it’s a new—’ [but] that shit didn’t matter.”

Now a member of the Mercury, Diggins-Smith and her teammates will have to hope that it doesn’t matter again, as the Mercury find themselves in the same spot they’ve seemingly been stuck at for the last half-decade: the fifth-seed in the WNBA, playing a win-or-go-home first-round game in their home area … but having to leave their home arena to do so. And if they win Thursday night’s 7 p.m. first-round game at GCU Arena against the New York Liberty. It’s a road trip to play one more win-or-go-home game just to reach the WNBA semifinals.

Perhaps no team in the WNBA would welcome a change to the current single-elimination game format more than the Phoenix Mercury. But funny enough, no team has had more success in the knockout-style early rounds than the Mercury, either.

From 2000-2015, the WNBA’s playoff format remained the same: a two-conference playoff bracket that had four teams face off against their fellow conference mates in the West and the East in three-game series, with the winners of each conference playing in the best-of-five WNBA Finals (which didn’t start until 2005).

In 2016, the league implemented its new system: still eight teams, but the best eight rather than the best four from each conference. But the tweak: the first two rounds would be single-elimination games, starting with the fifth seed hosting the eighth seed and the seventh hosting the sixth. The higher-seeded winner of the first-round games would then play at the fourth seed and the lower-seeded first-round winner would play at the third seeds, with the top two teams from the regular season getting a bye to the best-of-five semifinals.

The result skews the likelihood of reaching the WNBA Finals heavily toward the top two seeds. And through the first five seasons in this format, the top two teams have made the Finals every time but once (2018, when 3-seed Washington beat 2-seed Atlanta in five games — and that had a significant injury involved for the Dream).

Since 2016, the Mercury have made the playoff every year, but have played in the first round in each of those six seasons, too. And yet, they’ve found immense success in the format, winning seven games in the first two rounds in the five years that it’s been in place. Only one other team, Washington, even has three wins in those two rounds, with the rest having two or fewer.

Phoenix has also reached the semifinals from the first round three times (2016, 2017 and 2018), one more than the rest of the league combined (Washington in 2017, Connecticut in 2020). But in terms of reaching the end goal of winning the WNBA championship, the only time Phoenix has even won a game past the single-elimination games was in 2018, when they took Seattle to a fifth game, in perhaps the best series in WNBA history. And even took a lead into the fourth quarter, but lost 94-84 after Sue Bird caught fire in the fourth.

The Mercury have truly been the league’s best in these single-game knockout rounds. But like others around the league, many in Phoenix would welcome a change to the format to turn the single-game rounds into series.

“I agree with them,” Brondello said. “I think we need to go back to a 3-5-5 format, so hopefully that will eventuate next year.”

Diggins-Smith added, “You work this hard to get at least one home game. Some people don’t get a chance to get a home game when they make the playoffs, which is insane — everything needs to be a series from here going forward. Because this single-game elimination is just, you work too damn hard to not have a home game for some teams.”

Asked specifically about the difference between the mentality of a series versus a single-game, Diggins-Smith pointed out she has never advanced far enough in the playoffs during her WNBA career to have played in a series. But the benefits seem quite apparent, even from the outside looking in.

“Obviously, it’s a series, it’s not an end-all, be-all. You can make a mistake, you can have a bad quarter, you can maybe have a bad half,” Diggins-Smith said. “But when it’s single-elimination, it leaves less margin for those things. And obviously, the pendulum can swing so quickly in those games. You’ve just got to be locked in. Our goal is to make it to the series, and that’s why we’re in the playoffs, for that opportunity to make it to the big series.”

One big help with that would be the return of the greatest elimination game player the WNBA has ever seen, and it looks like that’ll happen. Sandy Brondello said postgame that she fully expects Diana Taurasi to play on Thursday, which would be her first game since injuring her left ankle in the last minute of Sept. 6’s game in Indiana. While she finished that night’s game, she’s missed the final four games of the regular season and was still wearing a protective boot on the Mercury bench on Sunday.

The Mercury won the first game without her and without Griner in Atlanta on Sept. 8, but in the three games since against three of the top teams in the league, they lost all of three: 76-67 at home against Connecticut on Sept. 11, 94-85 at Seattle on Sept. 17 and 84-83 hosting Las Vegas on Sept. 19. Phoenix won’t linger on this thought, but they surely wonder what those games would’ve been like had Taurasi been able to play.

“It’s Diana Taurasi, too. This is the GOAT,” Brondello said on Sept. 11, after the Connecticut loss. “And Dee doesn’t need to be scoring, just her being out there will open it up for everyone else. We obviously miss her calmness under pressure, her passing ability.”

Sunday’s game gives Phoenix chance to prepare everyone for playoffs

When Sunday’s game tipped off, it was irrelevant to both teams in terms of playoff positioning: Las Vegas already knew it was the 2-seed and Phoenix knew it would be fifth and play Thursday. That led both teams to manage the minutes of their main players heavily, and Phoenix didn’t play Griner at all in the second half and sat Diggins-Smith for the entire fourth quarter.

But they still needed five on the floor, and the game ended up being a great chance for Bria Hartley to get an extended look in her first major game action since returning from a torn ACL. After not hitting the 10-minute mark in her five games since returning — which was something Brondello admitted she regretted after a few of those games, thinking she should’ve played her more — Hartley played 19 minutes on Sunday.

“It felt good. I’ve been feeling really good all week, so I’ve been itching to get in the game and get an opportunity to showcase — as a coach, you’ve got to see it,” Hartley said. “I was just happy I had the opportunity to show her my progress and my confidence that you can see out there. I really think I can help this team, and especially with Diana having been out, I just wanted to go out there, play my game and create for others.”

In that time, Hartley went 4-for-7 from the field, including two 3-pointers in the first quarter, to finish with 10 points. She also added three assists, including a dazzling no-look, one-handed feed from the top of the key to Sophie Cunningham on the right elbow for an open 3-pointer.

Even with Taurasi coming back, being able to have Hartley playing more and take some of the ball-handling burden off of Taurasi, Diggins-Smith and Shey Peddy would be a welcome development for Phoenix. And for Brondello, Sunday’s game could go a long way to trusting that Hartley is healthy and ready to help.

“She comes with an aggressive mentality, and you saw how creative she is with the ball in her hands,” Brondello said. “That’s what we’ve missed all season long. We saw what she can do with the ball in her hands last year, and you saw flashes of it [recently]. She shows no fear, and that’s the most important thing, and she’s a competitive player. It was good for her to get some extended minutes.”

Another thing that would be game-changing if Phoenix can take anything away from its final game: the team’s shooting is finally trending upward, especially from deep. After back-to-back rough 3-point shooting games against Connecticut and Seattle, the Mercury tied their season-high with 14 made 3-pointers (on 30 attempts) against the Aces, including going 7-for-9 in the first quarter.

After finishing the pre-Olympic break portion of the season making less than 30% of their 3-pointers, Phoenix will end the year at 34.6%, good for sixth in the league. Especially with getting performances like Sunday’s 4-for-7 from deep from Kia Nurse, 3-for-5 from Diggins-Smith, 2-for-3 from Hartley and even 2-for-5 from Peddy and 3-for-8 from Cunningham, the offense is finally settling into a solid rhythm.

Kia Nurse of the Phoenix Mercury is defended by Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

“The way we moved the ball [today], with six players getting into double figures, I thought that was just great basketball,” Hartley said. “Unfortunately, we made a few mistakes at the end that lost the game, but it’s definitely a solid game overall. If we just tighten up on those little things at the end of the game, we should be good.”

Another home game away from home

Of course, it’s almost become just as much a tradition to see the Mercury in the first round as it is for their first-round home games to need to be played somewhere else.

All three times the Mercury have hosted a first-round game in the Phoenix area in this format (they were technically the home team in the bubble in 2020), they have had to play it away from their home court, the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix because of concerts previously booked. In 2017 and 2018, they went to Tempe and Arizona State University’s gym for the first-round games.

This year, the Mercury will stay in Phoenix but head to Grand Canyon University Arena on the campus of GCU, about a 15-minute drive northwest of downtown Phoenix (the Footprint Center is hosting Colombian pop singer Maluma). It’s a smaller venue, seating about 7,000 people, and has a pretty well-known reputation in college basketball for being a raucous environment when GCU plays home games there. The Mercury have to hope to tap into that, but it certainly is not ideal.

“It’s weird, I don’t know,” Cunningham said. “I think it’d be awesome to play here [at the Footprint Center], but we play awesome on the road too, so this is kind of like an away game for us. But I think it’s different because we’re going to have the X-Factor, and that’s huge. They’ve been here throughout the whole year and they’ve been big for us. They’re going to show up, it’s a smaller gym so it’s going to seem like it’s crowded and louder. So I think it’ll play to our advantage when the X-Factor shows up at GCU.”

The Mercury almost played at GCU Arena once before, as Game 4 in the 2016 WNBA semifinals would have gone there because of a Sia concert. That series ended in Game 3, though, when Minnesota swept Phoenix. This year, the Mercury had two regular-season home games get shifted by a day to accommodate the Suns’ playoff games, and the second shift (moving the July 2 game against Minnesota to July 2) was done for a potential Game 7 in the NBA’s Western Conference Finals that was not needed, in the end.

If the Mercury can make it all the way to the WNBA Semifinals and force a Game 4 on Oct. 6, there is currently a Suns preseason game scheduled for that night. They have to win at least three times to force the issue, but it will be interesting to see what might happen with that night’s game.

But before that can happen, there’s two winner-take-all elimination games that Phoenix would have to win. It sure feels like a good time to have Taurasi, who has won 14 of the 16 winner-take-all elimination games she’s played in, coming back into the fold.

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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