When Diana Taurasi started a slew of “One more year!” chants for Sue Bird after the Phoenix Mercury defeated the Seattle Storm in the second round of the WNBA playoffs, many wondered whether or not Taurasi may call it quits after the season too.
She had already said that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games would be her last, becoming a five-time Olympic champion alongside Bird, and as injuries continued to plague the veteran over the last couple of seasons, the future was never clear.
One thing did crystallize for for Taurasi and company though: they weren’t leaving this year without a fight — and they were going to do whatever it takes to get to the WNBA Finals.
If that meant taking the second-seeded Las Vegas Aces to a Game 5, and taking that game to the dying seconds, tied and hoping that foul shots could get the job done, that’s exactly what they would do.
Phoenix edged the Aces 87-84 in the final game of the series, sending the Mercury to a chance at clinching their fourth franchise title. Here are three takeaways from their semi-final series.
.@DianaTaurasi Elimnation Games
Taurasi came ALIVE down the stretch, scoring 14 of her 24 points in the 4Q
DT’s all-time record in #WNBA winner-takes-all games is NOW 16-2 #CountIt pic.twitter.com/5ziytIPryB
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 9, 2021
Griner’s MVP vote was valid
When Jonquel Jones won the 2021 WNBA MVP award, the decision was not unanimous. One single voter had believed that Brittney Griner should have been the first-place recipient of the award.
The way that the centre played throughout the playoffs, that voter might have been onto something.
Griner put together five consecutive games of at least 13 points and seven rebounds in the series against Las Vegas, including a 28-point performance in the winner-take-all Game 5.
One of the best rim protectors in the league, Griner has been crucial for Phoenix defensively on the glass, but also is able to use her length to see the court and assist in the Mercury’s fast-paced ball movement to get the ball to other shooters.
Her versatility is what made her a standout player in the series, whether it be passing, shooting or defending no team has been able to figure out a way to stop Griner, which will make her a continual threat as Phoenix moves onto the next round.
Phoenix Mercury centre Brittney Griner drives on Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson (22) during the first half of Game 4 of a WNBA basketball playoff series Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Phoenix. (Rick Scuteri/AP)
Guards got game
Phoenix’s frontcourt impressed. With a centre as talented as Griner, and forwards like Brianna Turner, who was named to the WNBA All-Defensive team this year, their impact bordered on inevitable. But it was a guard, Shey Peddy, who put the Mercury ahead 86-84 and sealed their path to the finals with her clutch free-throw shooting at the end of Game 5.
This was key for Phoenix, finding ways to use both Griner’s size as well as transitioning to relying on some small ball — an adjustment made possible by Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, who have proven to be invaluable.
Even at age 39, Taurasi had multiple 20-plus point games in the series including a 37-point performance in Phoenix’s 117-91 win in Game 2, going 8-11 from the three-point line.
Diggins-Smith, a small but quick defender, was also consistent from the floor, finding her rhythm in Game 4 and Game 5 with back-to-back 14-point performances.
Bria Hartley and Sophie Cunningham also have been vital to Phoenix off the bench, being able to produce in crucial minutes offensively.
Las Vegas will get back
The Aces obviously did not leave this post-season with the result they wanted – after getting swept in last year’s finals, the return of Kelsey Plum and Liz Cambage as well as a healthy Dearica Hamby and acquiring Chelsea Gray all seemed like improvements on an already good team headlined by 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson.
Losing veteran Angel McCoughtry didn’t help their cause, but having one of the strongest rotations in the league that includes Jackie Young and Riquna Williams meant that the Aces were a finalist pick from the start of the season.
Even when Phoenix was able to shut down Wilson, the rest of the team stepped up. Gray and Plum combined for 40-plus points in each of the Aces’ final two games of the series, and Plum, the Sixth Woman of the Year, scored less than 20 points only once in the semi-finals.
Inconsistency plagued the Aces, as their losses seemed to have come when the load was not evenly shared, and three players scoring 20 or more points was met by the rest of the team unable to find the rim.
With their starting lineup and bench healthy and finding the cohesion necessary to find the win column, the Aces are sure to be in the title conversation for the foreseeable future.
Phoenix and Chicago will meet for a rematch of the 2014 WNBA Finals, where Phoenix swept Chicago 3-0 for their third franchise title. Back then, a clutch and-one shot from Taurasi over Courtney Vandersloot sealed the win.
Taurasi and Vandersloot both still play for each respective team, and Chicago will look to get their first franchise title in a revenge series against Phoenix.