Career Night for Diana Taurasi Gets the Mercury Back on Track

Diana Taurasi grimaced on the court docket as her Phoenix Mercury teammates rigorously pulled her to her toes late in the third quarter of Game 1 of the W.N.B.A. semifinals.

On the previous play, she’d ran into Las Vegas Aces ahead Dearica Hamby whereas making an attempt to dribble, skidding awkwardly to the ground. Taurasi limped up and down the court docket in the fourth quarter, favoring the left ankle that had stored her out of the final 4 regular-season video games and the first spherical of the playoffs. She clenched her tooth and flexed the ankle on the Phoenix bench throughout the first a part of the fourth interval. Still, Taurasi completed with 20 factors and 6 assists in the game, a 96-90 loss to the Aces.

Afterward, when requested how her ankle felt, Taurasi’s reply was temporary.

“Great,” she mentioned.

Her proof? A 37-point, eight-3-pointer onslaught 48 hours later in the fifth-seeded Mercury’s 117-91 rout of the No. 2 Aces at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday. The best-of-five sequence now heads to Phoenix tied 1-1. Game Three is on Sunday.

Despite Taurasi’s lingering health considerations, the Mercury charged by means of the first two rounds of the playoffs, knocking off the Liberty — in a game Taurasi missed — and the Seattle Storm, the defending champions, in single-elimination video games. Their subsequent project is a high-powered Las Vegas offense with A’ja Wilson, last season’s Most Valuable Player, and a bevy of different scoring threats.

The Aces earned a double-bye to begin the playoffs after a 24-Eight regular-season file, the league’s second finest. They’d held off the Mercury in Game 1 with potent taking pictures from guards Kelsey Plum, who gained this season’s Sixth Player of the Year Award, and Riquna Williams.

Before Thursday’s game, Mercury heart Brittney Griner informed reporters that she was treating it like a single-elimination game.

“You’ve got to win this game to stay alive. It is a series, but you definitely don’t want to drop two going back home. You’ve made it a lot harder for yourself,” she mentioned.

The consequence was a 25-point efficiency. She had 16 factors, 5 rebounds and a couple of assists in the first quarter.

“Brittney’s a beast. We’ve asked her to do so much this year,” Taurasi mentioned on the TV broadcast after the game, probably referring to Griner’s skill to deal with double groups and take on robust defensive assignments.

Griner finished second behind the Connecticut Sun’s Jonquel Jones in the M.V.P. voting this season, averaging a career-high 9.5 rebounds per game together with 20.5 factors per game. She’s the Mercury’s defensive anchor, with a 7-foot-3.5 inch wingspan, a peak and an athleticism that make her practically unimaginable to shoot over.

Griner’s accountability this sequence has been to protect Aces heart Liz Cambage, whose dominance in the publish and rim safety appears rivaled by solely Griner’s.

Cambage terrorizes opponents along with her skill to pivot, rating and pull down rebounds in the publish as defenders hack at her physique. And the manner she will be able to alter photographs on protection was one motive the Aces by no means allowed greater than 99 factors throughout a regular-season game this season. The tandem of Cambage and Wilson in the frontcourt had many individuals positive at the starting of the season that Las Vegas was primed for one other deep playoff run.

Having been swept by the Storm in final yr’s finals, the Aces had the motivation to cruise by means of the common season with seven gamers who averaged double figures. They have been with out Cambage for a stretch after she examined constructive for the coronavirus, however now, at full energy, the Aces are pushing to assert the title that eluded final yr’s injury-ravaged crew.

But they need to get previous a Mercury crew that’s equally decided to make a finals look. Phoenix is at its finest when its core gamers of Griner, Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith knock down photographs from throughout the ground the manner they did Thursday night time. Griner made a handful of midrange jumpers. Diggins-Smith scored in any respect three ranges, and as for Taurasi, effectively, the W.N.B.A.’s main profession scorer did what she usually does.

Taurasi mentioned after the game that after an aggressive, bodily outing from the Aces on Tuesday, the Mercury responded in type in Game 2. They constructed a 17-point lead in the first quarter and by no means relinquished it, in contrast to in Game 1 when their early lead fizzled earlier than the finish of the first interval. Taurasi mentioned that with so many photographs getting in, “it makes the game easier for you. It was a big test for us in a lot of ways, and I think we played the right way.”

Aces Coach Bill Laimbeer informed reporters afterward that the crew couldn’t give Griner open seems to be outdoors the publish.

“In the post, she’s going to do her thing. That’s who she is,” he mentioned. “But the open shots that she made tonight hurt us a lot. We’ll take that shot at times, but they went in. And we’ll take some of Taurasi’s shots some nights, too, but they went in. That’s who they are. They’re great players, and when they’re going like that, that’s what makes Phoenix’s team.”

Even when it appeared that the Mercury couldn’t maintain their high-percentage taking pictures, they added free throws to their arsenal. Their first miss from the free-throw line didn’t come till the third quarter, they usually made 23 of 24 free throws.

Wilson mentioned after the game that Las Vegas wasn’t “locked in at all to our assignments.” She added: “It seems as if we were a step behind. You can’t do that against a good Phoenix team.”

The Aces, with one in every of the finest defenses in the league, had no manner of stopping Taurasi on the perimeter. Her eight 3-pointers have been a playoff profession excessive.

After the game, Ros Gold-Onwude of ESPN requested Taurasi how she felt about going 8-for-11 from 3-point vary.

Taurasi’s reply, once more, was succinct.

“I only shot 11?” she mentioned.

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