The funny thing about team sports is that, even with the best player in the world playing like the best player in the world, it takes a collective effort to win at the highest level. Compare the results for the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers and the 2015-16 Cavs, for instance.
Saturday night in the world’s most famous arena, on the WNBA’s biggest stage, in a win-or-go-home game against what would’ve been the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed in any other playoff year, Diana Taurasi played like the best player in the world. Because that’s who she is—especially in the moments that demand it, especially on a stage that elevates it.
But she by herself wasn’t the reason for Phoenix’s dramatic victory.
She was spellbinding, to be sure. A tone-setting first-quarter saw her net 10 points with two assists in eight minutes, including an and-one layup tailor-made for SportsCenter’s top plays. She had 20 in the second half, including an absolute dagger three off a Brittney Griner screen with 1:29 to go. After the game, she said when she came off the screen that wide open, she heard the entire building’s dread in a collective “no…”—that’s the reason, as fans saw on NBATV, she ran back to the huddle mouthing, “no…no…no…”
Those are the moments in a playoff season that have the potential to become signature, indelible, unforgettable. Those moments, those performances, are the stuff of legacies. But, on their own, they don’t equal victories.
It took a team. It took Griner playing like the best post player on the floor against likely-WNBA MVP Tina Charles. BG’s dominant second quarter, sandwiched between Taurasi’s stellar first quarter and second half, helped the Mercury build a double-digit halftime lead. BG finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four blocks—numbers that have only been posted in an NBA Playoff game by six guys in the last decade. Decade.
It took vintage Penny Taylor, her calm, her poise, her skill. Twice in two playoff games it would either be her career ending or a legendary opponent’s, and twice she and her team summoned the effort to stave off elimination while greats like Indiana’s Tamika Catchings and New York’s Swin Cash entered retirement. She finished with 20 points.
It took the ice-water veins of Candice Dupree and her signature midrange shooting stroke, undaunted by the moment. She had four points, three rebounds and two steals in the fourth quarter alone. With 3:33 remaining, and an eight-point Mercury lead evaporating to just two points, Dupree made perhaps the biggest shot of the game. Oh, by the way, she drew the main defensive assignment on Charles.
Throw in DeWanna Bonner’s defensive activity and playmaking. Marta Xargay gave a phenomenal effort against Sugar Rogers on the defensive end, and made just one shot all night but it was a hugely important fourth-quarter three. Just as telling, the Mercury bench was engaged, standing, cheering, celebrating, and even dancing.
For a team that had an up-and-down regular season, made in-season trades, dealt with injuries and was the final WNBA team to clinch a playoff berth, suddenly the Mercury is beginning to look like a unit playing for each other—and that’s much bigger than a single performance from the game’s best player.
Last night at The Garden, the Mercury didn’t look like a collection of the game’s best players. They looked like a team.