Taurasi, Mercury edge Sparks in Game 1
AUG 23, 2014 1:53a ET
PHOENIX -- They completed the greatest regular season in WNBA history five days earlier
Friday night, they almost landed on the slippery slope of checking in just one measly loss away from playoff elimination.
But the Mercury avoided the potentially-cruel slap of best-of-three-series reality because Diana Taurasi seems to live for these moments. With so many teammates clicking this season, however, the rescue missions have been less frequent.
"That was a little flashback," Taurasi said after the Mercury held off the Los Angeles Sparks 75-72 in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at US Airways Center.
Had she been anything less than spectacular in her scoring efficiency, a team that had posted a record of 29-5 would have been fighting for its postseason life Sunday during Game 2 in Los Angeles.
"Today was just my day and, thankfully, they went in," Taurasi said after requiring only 15 official field-goal attempts to give the Sparks 34 points.
With the rest of the Mercury combining to miss 30 of 44 shots from the field and the entire team struggling on the boards, the slogan for this enterprise almost became "Glory Retreats."
Postseason basketball can get messy ... even for the best of teams.
"These games are ebb and flow," Taurasi said, "they kind of take care of themselves."
A few hours after being named WNBA Coach of the Year, Sandy Brondello provided a distilled explanation as to why the Mercury avoided losing to a team they'd handed five of its 18 losses this season.
"We have Diana Taurasi," Brondello said, "and she was big for us. She does what she needs to do for this team to win. Some nights, it's scoring. Other nights, it's creating, distributing, just getting other people involved."
And some nights, regardless of how much preparation has been made, in spite of how well a team has performed over the course of an entire summer, a masterpiece doesn't happen.
"It wasn't one of our better games," Brondello said. "We thought we were a little tight tonight, but give L.A. credit.
"L.A. are a hell of a team. They have a lot of good players on this team. Their record may not show it this year."
Put that together with the weight of expectation, and regular-season dominance can seem like a distant memory.
"Everyone's got that big cross on your back," Brondello said, "they want to come get ya."
With playoff intensity overwhelming the offensive sets of both teams, Phoenix didn't manage a field goal until Taurasi took a skip pass against the Sparks' zone, penetrated against the close out and scored on a layup with 4:10 left in the opening quarter.
But L.A. wasn't exactly thriving against the WNBA's most-efficient defense, having scored only 10 points by that time.
The Sparks went to the zone on baseline and sideline out-of-bounds plays throughout the game, and the Mercury frequently exploited this tactic to free Taurasi on flare screens or the aforementioned skips. She made all 5 of her 3-point attempts in the opening half, taking 19 points â and a 35-34 Mercury lead -- to the locker room at halftime.
Phoenix went up 54-44 when Taurasi made two free throws with 2:33 left in the third, but lost the lead when Sparks superstar Candace Parker hit from mid-range to give L.A. a 59-58 advantage at 7:08 of the fourth.
Parker made 10 of her 19 field-goal attempts overall, but solid defensive work from DeWanna Bonner kept her off of the free-throw line and limited the damage to 22 points.
"She's a great player," Bonner said of Parker. "She does everything: she posts up, she can hit shots. I knew I wasn't gonna stop her from scoring all the points, but I think I did a pretty good job just putting pressure on her, especially that last shot at the end."
That particular attempt occurred with 20.9 seconds remaining and the Mercury clinging to a 69-68 lead. Isolated on the left block, Parker executed a hard dribble to the middle, spun back toward the baseline and fired a lefty jump hook that missed. Bonner snagged the rebound and found Taurasi, who was fouled and made a pair of free throws.
Bonner did the same a few seconds later, and the slippery slope was sidestepped.
"We have a lot of confidence going into games down the stretch," Taurasi said. We've actually played in a lot of them this year, where they've come down to two or three possessions, especially against L.A. Today, we just grinded it out. Today was a big grind."