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The Mercury Might Not Get This Close Again

Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner & Co. had an abrupt ending to their second-half WNBA run.

Just over an hour after the Mercury lost Game 4, 80–74, to the Sky, ending the 2021 WNBA Finals, the team’s bus pulled away from Wintrust Arena. One by one, Phoenix players had trickled out of their locker room. None addressed the media. Some exchanged fist pounds with fans waiting by the stadium exit. Others walked onto the bus without stopping. The team’s departure was as abrupt and quiet as the series’ on-court ending.

Leading by seven with just under five minutes to play, Phoenix seemed poised to level the Finals for the second time in five days and silence a raucous Chicago crowd. Yet the Mercury, who had prided themselves all season on resilience, this time allowed their opponents to recover. A 15–2 Sky run finished the season.

Few expected either the Sky or Mercury to still be playing at this juncture. Both teams had to win two single-elimination games just to reach the semifinals. Since the current playoff format was instituted in 2016, the previous lowest seed to reach the Finals were the Mystics, in 2018, as No. 3. Phoenix was this year’s fifth seed. Chicago was the sixth. “But I always thought we had the pieces that we could contend for a championship,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello says. “I just knew that if we could stay healthy that it could happen.”

For the past two months, Phoenix’s players performed as well as anyone’s. Coming out of the Olympic break, the group flourished, winning 10 straight games to set the stage for its deep playoff run. The Mercury, led by Diana Taurasi as well as two All-WNBA first-teamers in center Brittney Griner and guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, saw their stars and role players start clicking together. “I think you see the joy,” Brondello said between Games 1 and 2.

Now, though, having gone seven years between Finals appearances and despite all they accomplished this postseason, they are left to wonder whether they have squandered what could be Taurasi’s last chance at a title.

Skylar Diggins-Smith looking dejected laying on her stomach on the court

Diggins-Smith says she was intrigued by the “pedigree of winning" in Phoenix.

Three months before the Finals, Taurasi and her teammates sat in their home locker room trying to process a 30-point defeat. On July 3, Minnesota boat-raced Phoenix, jumping out to an 18-point halftime cushion, which soon became a 31-point beatdown. Taurasi says her team was forced to undergo some “soul-searching” that night. She, Griner and Diggins-Smith spoke up. So did a number of veteran reserves, like guard Shey Peddy and center Kia Vaughn. The Lynx had spawned fear within the Mercury, who, Taurasi says, “lost control of everything” that game. The 39-year-old star, recently named the WNBA’s GOAT, challenged her teammates to be better going forward. But she also made clear that she was not doing enough herself. “We’ve always been a very honest team, and I think it starts with being honest with yourself when you’re not bringing the appropriate level of play,” Taurasi says.

The loss on July 3 dropped the Mercury to 7–9 and marked their sixth defeat in eight games. Much of their early-season struggles can be attributed to injury of their biggest star. Taurasi missed nine games between May 21 and June 27 with a sternum fracture. After she returned to play three games, including the aforementioned loss to the Lynx, a hip injury meant she headed into the Olympic break sidelined.

Still, Brondello did all she could to help her team jell. The day after the Minnesota loss, she invited everyone over to her Phoenix-area home for a July 4 party. Players drank and munched on catered Mexican food. They swam in her pool. She wanted to help them laugh again, and to flush away any first-half issues. “For me, I’m Australian. You wanna work hard, but I want to have fun as well,” she says.

A few weeks later, Taurasi, Griner and Diggins-Smith jetted off to Tokyo with the U.S national team. Though Brondello coached Team Australia in the Games and had Mercury reserve Alanna Smith on her roster, Phoenix’s coach would only briefly check in on her Big Three. Instead, she says, “I kinda left them by themselves. I think we needed some time apart.”

Phoenix’s stars, surrounded by different teammates, hung out in their Olympic players’ lounge, playing spades and dominos and watching other events together. They talked little about what had transpired in the preceding two months, though by the time they flew home to resume WNBA action, they had realized the importance of being more consistent. “If we slack off, it’s gonna trickle down,” Griner told Taurasi and Diggins-Smith. “We gotta keep the energy high and just go.”

While overseas, the non-Olympic members of the Mercury—the Others, as they call themselves—bonded. They went over to each other’s houses to play Uno and watched their teammates compete for gold. They went bowling and to Top Golf. On the court, they grew more familiar with each other as well, working out almost daily together in the leadup to the second half of the season. “When they came back I think they saw how close we got, and then we kinda just incorporated them too,” Peddy says.

Adds Taurasi: “It was a blessing in disguise. I always thought if we can come back from the Olympic break and if we got healthy, if we really got on the same page then we could make a bit of a run.” Which is exactly what they did.

Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith guarding Kahleah Copper

Taurasi was no match for Finals MVP Kahleah Copper—but then again, no one was.

In June 2017, the city of Phoenix renamed the stretch of 1st Street, in front of what is now Footprint Center, 7489 Taurasi Way. The ceremony occurred just weeks after Taurasi passed Tina Thompson as the WNBA’s all-time scoring leader, one of many records the future Hall of Famer has set throughout her decorated career. “The best athlete that we’ve ever had in the Phoenix sports scene is Diana Taurasi,” says U.S. Representative Greg Stanton, who bestowed the honor upon the Mercury star while he was the city’s mayor. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Key to the Taurasi way is her honesty, whether her team is rolling or struggling. During the 10-game win streak, Taurasi would routinely remind her teammates that “we haven’t done s--- yet. We haven’t done s---, because we don’t have a ring.” She was transparent amid their struggles, too, like after their loss to Minnesota in early July or, more recently, after the 36-point shellacking the Sky handed to them in Game 3 of the Finals.

For four games against Chicago, Taurasi tried to summon her greatness. The series opened just 40 hours after she produced a vintage, 24-point performance to close out a grueling five-game semifinal series against the Aces. Immediately after that series ended, she flew back to Scottsdale, arriving just hours before her wife, Penny Taylor, gave birth to their second child. “Sometimes, it’s just luck. And I was lucky that I got to be there and support her,” Taurasi says.

While the 10-time All-Star wouldn’t say fatigue played a factor in her team’s Game 1 defeat, it took only a quarter for the visiting Sky to settle into the series and outpace the Mercury. Taurasi, playing on an injured ankle that kept her out of the final four games of the regular season and Phoenix’s first postseason game, scored 20 points in the loss, but also recorded a game-high six turnovers. She called her performance “pathetic.”

Three nights later, she rebounded, scoring 18 of her 20 points in the second half and overtime to help Phoenix prevail 91–86 and level the series. In the extra session, she outscored the Sky 8–7, finishing the game with trademark flair and intensity. “There isn’t anybody in the game who’s as mentally tough as Diana Taurasi,” says Dawn Staley, who coached her on this summer’s Olympic team.

But as the series moved to Chicago, the aging star looked mortal yet again. She made just one of her 10 field goal attempts in Game 3 and struggled to contain Sky forward Kahleah Copper on defense. (No one could.) And in Game 4, despite leading by nine entering the fourth quarter, Taurasi and the Mercury mustered up just two free throws in the game’s final 4:22.

General manager Jim Pittman recognizes the urgency surrounding an organization that revolves around a 39-year-old star. Last offseason, the team traded two first-round picks to acquire forward Megan Walker and guard Kia Nurse, a move that Pittman says was an effort to “retool” the cast surrounding their veteran core. The 22-year-old Walker played a limited role off the team’s bench, but Nurse started all 32 games in the regular season and was heavily relied upon on both ends of the court up until she tore her ACL less than a minute into Phoenix’s Game 4 loss to the Aces. Her absence in the Finals loomed large.

Sandy Brondello raising her right arm in confusion

Brondello said after Game 4 that she will miss how her team constantly pokes fun at each other.

As yellow-and-blue confetti cascaded down onto the Wintrust floor Sunday afternoon, Diggins-Smith weaved through the jubilant Sky crowd to find her husband, Daniel, and 2-year-old son, Seven, standing in an aisle around a dozen rows up from the Phoenix bench. She briefly held her son in her arms, taking in a scene that she surely wished would have looked different.

The Mercury acquired Diggins-Smith via a sign-and-trade with the Wings ahead of the 2020 campaign. She had opted to sit out the 2019 season due to the birth of Seven, later revealing that she had played the year before while pregnant. Reflecting on her move to Phoenix, Diggins-Smith says she was intrigued by the “pedigree of winning and the history of winning in the organization.” In other words, Taurasi and Griner.

Diggins-Smith and her backcourt mate spent almost the entirety of last offseason training together. Starting around New Year’s, the duo worked out at least five days a week, initially at a Phoenix-area YMCA before transitioning to the team’s practice facility. “Iron sharpens iron,” Diggins-Smith says. “And I feel like we’re cut from the same cloth as far as how competitive we both are, how we want to win.” The extra work paid off as the duo recorded a +13.1 net rating in the regular season, the most of any Phoenix pair that played at least 50 minutes. Diggins-Smith flourished with Griner, as well, emerging as one of the league’s top guard-big combinations.

Griner left the WNBA’s Brandenton, Fla., bubble last year after just 12 games, citing personal reasons. Basketball, she says, had once been her therapy, but the court had become a place where she struggled to focus. Shortly after exiting IMG Academy, she started attending counseling sessions—first doing them weekly, then every other week to now whenever she feels it’s needed— as a means to try and “clear my head and get my life in order.” “Once I got to counseling it helped me get that block out,” she says. Among its impacts, Griner says it’s helped with her communication skills.

From the start of this season, those around Griner noticed a changed player and person. Brondello observed an added sense of calm and maturity during difficult moments. Peddy saw the All-WNBA first-team center being more selective about when to make her voice heard. Taurasi remarks that Griner doesn’t speak up as often as she does, but that when the seven-time All-Star does, “there’s an honesty about it.” “BG’s turned the corner,” Taurasi says. “I think she’s realized how valuable she is when she speaks.” Her play—a 20.5 points per game average in the regular season and 23.5 points per game average in the Finals—also makes a strong statement.

At 4:57 p.m. on Sunday, Griner, wearing a black “The Valley” sweatshirt with its hood up, walked to the team bus, leaving the arena with her playing sneakers in hand. Who knows when she’ll play in a Finals again? Not since 2014, in her second WNBA season, had she advanced this far in the postseason.

That year, like in this one, the Mercury found themselves playing the Sky for a title. They swept Chicago in that series, though. This time around, no matter how well Griner played, there was no stopping the Sky and their multitude of weapons.

Shey Peddy drives against Courtney Vandersloot

“[Taurasi's] the GOAT," says Peddy. "So we all work extra hard for her because we see how hard she works.”

Taurasi won titles in each of her first three Finals appearances. When asked on the eve of Game 4 about the last time she had fallen in a championship, she wasn’t exactly sure. “High school, probably?” she said.

Signed through the 2022 season, Taurasi expects to return next year. “I plan on fulfilling my contact,” she says. “I still feel like I want to play basketball, and I think I can still play. And I always say, ‘When it’s time, all my friends better be like, Dee, it’s time to pull the plug, baby.’ No one’s said that yet.” But that conversation is certainly on the horizon.

Brondello said after Game 4 that she will miss her team’s laughter at practice and how they constantly poke fun at each other. Taurasi echoed that sentiment, saying, “There’s not many times where I can say I’d like to go to dinner with anyone on this team. We can go out to dinner and I can sit by any person on this team and I’d be really happy.”

In eight months, the all-time great might still have such fond feelings for many of her teammates. Nevertheless, as she has learned all too well, there are no guarantees about the Mercury’s return to the Finals, even with a core that is likely going to return intact.

Perhaps Sunday was Taurasi’s last chance at a WNBA title. Then again, she’s proved that when on court, she can’t be counted out.

“You don’t want to let her down,” Peddy says. “She’s the GOAT. So we all work extra hard for her because we see how hard she works.”

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