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Diana Taurasi grimaced on the pitch as her Phoenix Mercury teammates carefully pulled her to her feet in the end of the third quarter of Game 1 of the WNBA semi-finals.
In the previous game, she ran into Las Vegas Aces striker Dearica Hamby while trying to dribble and slid awkwardly to the ground. Taurasi limped up and down in the fourth quarter, favoring the left ankle that had kept her out of the last four regular season games and the first round of the playoffs. Gritting her teeth together, she bent her ankle on the Phoenix bench in the first part of the fourth third. Still, Taurasi finished the game with 20 points and six assists, a 96-90 loss to the Aces.
When asked how her ankle felt, Taurasi’s answer was short.
“Great,” she said.
Your proof? A 37-point eight-3-pointer attack 48 hours later in fifth-seeded Mercury’s 117-91 loss to the No. 2 aces at the Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday. The best-of-five series now goes 1: 1 to Phoenix. Game 3 is on Sunday.
Despite Taurasi’s ongoing health concerns, the Mercury fought their way through the first two rounds of the playoffs, beating Liberty – in a game Taurasi missed – and defending champions Seattle Storm in singles eliminations. Her next assignment is a high profile offensive in Las Vegas with A’ja Wilson, last season’s most valuable player, and a number of other scoring opportunities.
The Aces earned a double-bye to kick off the playoffs after a 24-8 regular season record, the second best in the league. They had held back Mercury in Game 1 with strong shots from the guards Kelsey Plum, who won the sixth Player of the Year this season, and Riquna Williams.
Before Thursday’s game, Mercury center Brittney Griner told reporters she was treating it like a singles elimination game.
“You have to win this game to stay alive. It’s a series, but you definitely don’t want to drop two when you go home. You made it a lot harder for yourself, ”she said.
The result was an achievement of 25 points. She had 16 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in the first quarter.
“Brittney is a beast. We asked so much of her this year, “Taurasi said after the game on the TV show, probably referring to Griner’s ability to deal with double teams and take on difficult defensive duties.
Griner finished second behind Connecticut Sun’s Jonquel Jones in this season’s MVP vote, averaging 9.5 rebounds per game and 20.5 points per game. She is the Mercury’s defensive anchor, with a wingspan of 2.7 feet 3.5 inches, height, and an athleticism that makes it nearly impossible to shoot over her.
Griner’s responsibility on this series was to protect ace center Liz Cambage, whose dominance in post and rim protection seems only to come from Griner’s competition.
Cambage terrorizes opponents with her ability to spin, score, and pull rebounds on the post while the defenders chop on her body. And the way she can change her shots in defense was one of the reasons the Aces never allowed more than 99 points in a regular season game this season. Cambage and Wilson’s tandem in the run-up had convinced many people early in the season that Las Vegas was ready for another deep playoff run.
After being swept away by the storm in the final last year, the Aces had the motivation to cruise through the regular season with seven players averaging double digits. They’ve been without Cambage for a while after testing positive for the coronavirus, but now the Aces are pushing at full speed to claim the title that the injury-ridden team missed last year.
But they have to get past a Mercury team that is just as determined to make it to the finals. Phoenix is at its best with core players Griner, Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith dropping shots all over the floor like they did Thursday night. Griner made a handful of mid-range jumpers. Diggins-Smith scored on all three levels, and for Taurasi, well, the WNBA’s leading career scorer did what she normally does.
Taurasi said after the game that the Mercury reacted in the same way after an aggressive, physical outing of the aces in Game 2 on Tuesday, leading to fizzle out before the end of the first period. Taurasi said that with so many shots, “the game will be easier for you. It was a great test for us in many ways and I think we played right. “
Aces trainer Bill Laimbeer told reporters afterward that the Griner team couldn’t look openly outside the post.
“In the post office, she’ll do her thing. That’s it, ”he said. “But the open shots she took tonight hurt us a lot. We’ll do this recording sometimes, but they went in. And we’re going to do some of Taurasi’s recordings at night too, but they went in. That’s them. They’re great players, and when they do that, that’s what defines the Phoenix team. “
Even when the Mercury found it unable to sustain their high percentage shooting, they added free throws to their arsenal. Their first miss from the free throw line came in the third quarter, and they made 23 of 24 free throws.
Wilson said after the game that Las Vegas was “not bound by our duties at all”. She added, “It seems like we’re one step behind. You can’t do that against a good Phoenix team. “
The Aces, with one of the best defenses in the league, had no way of stopping Taurasi on the perimeter. Her eight 3-pointers were a playoff career high.
After the game, ESPN Taurasi’s Ros Gold-Onwude asked what she thought of going 8-for-11 out of 3-point range.
Taurasi’s answer was again short and sweet.
“I only shot 11?” She said.