Passion for game still drives Mercury star Taurasi

PHOENIX – With the end of her 10th season in sight, the most important variable attributed to the WNBA’s brightest star hasn’t been diminished.

Through the tribulations of an uneven season, passion for the game stills governs her approach.

“I love coming to the gym,” Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said in an interview after Wednesday’s practice. “It’s the only thing I want to do when I get up in the morning.”

When this season began, the 31-year-old superstar faced each day with a rise in expectation fueled by an anticipated return to good health for a couple of teammates and the addition of prized rookie Brittney Griner.

But the joy Taurasi typically derives from playing the game can be compromised by scoreboard results. Through 21 games, the Mercury – with a lack of continuity due to injuries and other issues – had 11 defeats.

“You’re happy, but if you lose, that joy goes out the window,” she said.

Through a slight alteration in job description, a second season of injury setbacks to teammates and an eventual coaching change, Taurasi has continued to thrive. She’s second in the WNBA in scoring at 20.7 points per game and second in assists at 6.1.

The frequency of her dime-dropping (she’s averaged 4.2 per game over her WNBA career) has been a function of a full-time move back to point guard. The five victories in the last seven Mercury games have a lot to do with the attention to detail of interim coach Russ Pennell.

But the constant in Phoenix’s push for a playoff berth — which can be clinched with a win over San Antonio on Friday at US Airways Center – is Taurasi’s relentless approach.

“I think the goal is to come in here every day and try to find a way to get better,” she said. “Make sure you’re prepared to play … physically and mentally.”

For Taurasi, that means taking responsibility for whatever is required for the Mercury to succeed. When that meant initiating the offense, former coach Corey Gaines turned to his lead scoring option to make sure the ball went where it was supposed to go. After Gaines was released, Pennell — even after installing his movement-oriented “Circle” offense — kept Taurasi’s job description the same.

For a lot of players, such adjustments could be a problem. For Taurasi, whose comprehensive set of skills can shift her work orders between the WNBA and the winter season in Europe, it was no big deal.

“I pretty much played point in Europe for the last four or five years,” she said. “It’s what I did growing up and in college — it’s not foreign.

“I did it my first couple of years in the WNBA. It’s what was needed this year, so it’s what I’m doing.”

In regard to the team and season, Taurasi said the raised expectations were understandable, but observers on the periphery didn’t realize how tricky becoming a powerhouse can be.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” she said. “Everything kind of has to fall into place.”

With a troublesome knee limiting Griner’s progress and knee issues stunting the return of veteran standout Penny Taylor, the Mercury just fell.

“It’s probably been a work in progress,” Taurasi said. “It’s kind of how these seasons go with it (WNBA) being a short season. You kind of just try to do a lot of patchwork until you get to the playoffs, and hopefully, you’re playing well when you get to the playoffs.”

Although she remains close to Gaines — who, like Taurasi, was part of two Mercury championship teams — Taurasi appreciates what Pennell is providing.

“It’s apples and oranges,” she said when asked to contrast the Mercury’s approach before and after the coaching change. “Like players bring different things to the table, coaches bring different things to the table.

“His (Pennell’s) message and the things he wants done … we’re trying to get ’em done every day. Little by little, we’re adjusting to ’em.”

And the little things are adding up.

“It’s the little things that win games,” Taurasi said. “And the little things can lose games.”