Finals offer must-see opportunity of Mercury’s Taurasi
PHOENIX — At 30 minutes past noon on Sunday, a lot of sports fans will be missing out on a legitimately screaming entertainment value.
You probably don’t believe it now and might not buy into the premise later. But while you enjoy the season’s first Sunday of post-exhibition professional football and ignore the WNBA, you will miss watching Diana Taurasi in Game 1 of the championship series.
The Mercury guard always puts on a show worth watching. But the playoff edition is off the chain.
Some validation from an expert:
"There’s no player I’d rather have on my team," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello, recently bestowed the title of WNBA coach of the Year, said of the 32-year-old Taurasi. "To me, she’s the best player in the world."
(LeBron was not in Sandy’s pool of options.)
The assertion was chaperoned with considerable bias — any best-in-the-world testimony takes on an impressive territory that includes Minnesota Lynx superstar Maya Moore. But Brondello, who also coaches Taurasi in a Russian pro league, thinks Taurasi’s versatility is what separates her from her peers.
Taurasi’s innate basketball intelligence — hammered through raw intensity into a disparately smooth and savvy floor leadership — seems pretty familiar. It tracks disturbingly close to a former Phoenix point guard with an MVP pedigree, maniacal desire to compete, elite passing chops and deadeye shooting touch — otherwise known as Steve Nash.
An example was delivered in Tuesday night’s Game 3 conquest of the Lynx.
With Mercury super sub Erin Phillips working the point, Taurasi had in-bound duty on a sideline out-of-bounds play in the Mercury forecourt. Brittney Griner screened down from the elbow to free Phillips on the block. Phillips was to pop to the elbow, receive a pass and initiate the rest of the set.
But realizing a double-team would immediately attend the game-changing Griner, Taurasi inbounded the ball to her 6-foot-8 teammate on the block instead and sprinted directly to the weak-side wing.
Phillips, making the second pass out of the unavoidable Griner double-team, swung the ball to Taurasi, who launched a 3 before defensive rotation could reach her. It was money, of course, and Phoenix had a 63-54 lead at 5:31 of the third.
By the way, we get it. You may admire the women’s game for its typical reliance on ball movement, smarts and skill. But the level of velocity that now defines the NBA is, well, more your speed.
While we’re recommending you take advantage of this Taurasi-appreciation resource while it’s here, the best-of-five WNBA Finals that begin Sunday at US Airways Center will be more than fine with or without you.
The Mercury’s fan base is its fan base. The appreciation is real, and it’s unconditional. The frenzy of support witnessed at previous levels of this season’s rise will be ratcheted up accordingly.
And even though the Lynx checked in as the defending champs and co-stars in a dream playoff matchup, dealing with the Chicago Sky will be no hayride for Phoenix.
"The Finals," Taurasi said, "are always tough. I’ve been to two Finals, and they always go to five games."
Phoenix (2007, 2009) won both Finals in which Taurasi participated. The home team is 7-0 in closeout games since she arrived. This will be her ninth season as a first-team, All-WNBA player (she was injured for most of the 2012 campaign).
There are too many accolades to list here.
That aforementioned versatility — an inclusive skill set that enabled her to lead the league in assists this season and average 20-plus points per game in 6 of her 11 WNBA seasons — will come in handy.
With the weight of a league-record 29 wins on their shoulders, the Mercury didn’t exactly flow into Game 1 of a playoff-opening series with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Doing what’s necessary to win, Taurasi dialed up 34 points, making 10 of 15 shots from the field.
Four games later, Taurasi bagged a 50-footer to end the third quarter — and any reasonable notion of Minnesota mustering a recovery sufficient to defend their championship.
For teammate testimony, let’s bring in Brittney Griner, who — while riding shotgun with Taurasi — represents the WNBA’s ultimate matchup dilemma.
"I’m surprised every day with Dee," said Griner. "Half-court shots … how she takes over. It’s like she flips a switch and goes into her little beast mode."
With her first Finals appearance just ahead, Griner — sharing the interview desk with her veteran teammate — said she’ll lean on Taurasi for additional championship-caliber wisdom.
"Nah," Taurasi deadpanned, "don’t ask me anything."
The beast in Taurasi pretty much rides through games on her shoulder. Whether it’s assisting WNBA referees in their decisions or grappling for angles with opposing players of all sizes, she never seems to take one basketball moment for granted.
Russ Pennell, a basketball lifer whose career as a college men’s coach was interrupted last season by a stint as the Mercury’s interim sideline director, said Taurasi is one of a kind.
"Male or female," Pennell said, "I have never been around a competitor like her."
And now, the league’s ultimate competitor is back on an appropriate stage. But in predictable Taurasi fashion, she isn’t approaching this series with the 15-19 Sky as a coronation for a team that established records and knocked out the Lynx. She’s well aware that Chicago’s season was compromised by illness and injury that sabotaged stars Elena Della Donne and Sylvia Fowles.
"It doesn’t matter what your record is," Taurasi said. "It just doesn’t. Once you get to the Finals, it’s a different level of intensity of every inch counts.
"It just gets harder from here on out."
A different level of intensity is what we’ll see from the Phoenix, UConn, Team USA and whatever European team great. Missing the next performance should be harder to justify from here on out.
But there’s something else to consider: Game 2 in the best-of-five series is scheduled in the NFL-free zone on Tuesday night.