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Through injuries, adversity and players being in and out of the lineup, the Phoenix Mercury have remained focused on themselves. They were the sleeper contender lying in wait, saving their best basketball for the perfect time of year.
It’s that emphasis on doing the little things that paid off in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals Wednesday night, and it’s no surprise they had to persevere through more injury and adversity to get to that 91-86 victory.
After getting blown out by the Chicago Sky in Game 1 at home, the Mercury needed to even the series at the Footprint Center to keep their hopes of a fourth WNBA title alive in this best-of-five series. Sophie Cunningham was returning to action after dealing with an injured calf, but not having Kia Nurse due to a torn ACL was yet another blow. The quick turnaround from Game 5 against the Las Vegas Aces to Game 1 of the Finals didn’t leave Phoenix much time to breathe either.
“We weren’t where we needed to be against a really good team and tonight we were able to dig deep,” head coach Sandy Brondello said. “There was still fatigue on both teams, but it’s just how bad you wanted it. So really proud. We grinded out a win. Areas we can still get better at, but we made enough plays to get the W.”
It sounds cliche, but in a back-and-forth affair that saw the Mercury trail by 8 points late in the third quarter, claim a 4-point lead with 27 seconds left in regulation, and then have to withstand the storm from the Chicago Sky in overtime, that mindset of grinding it out paid dividends.
“Stick with it,” Brittney Griner said. “It’s a game of runs. We knew we were going to make a run, lead changes. But we never got down. That was the thing. Never get down, keep going, get a stop, get a score, get a board, try to force them into turnovers, and those little things throughout the game, we knew were going to help us get the win.”
With Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and several other Phoenix Suns in the house, Brondello confirmed the closeness and support between the two Phoenix teams by sharing another Monty Williams gem she felt applied to Game 2.
“I always steal — coach Monty always sends me some quotes, and it talked about excellence and you’ve got to do common things uncommonly well for long periods of time,” she said. “That’s what happens if you want to be excellent at something. You’ve got to just grind it out.”
In a dire, must-win situation, it was Phoenix’s Big 3 that set the tone by doing common things uncommonly well.
Brittney Griner paces the Mercury
Diana Taurasi may be the GOAT, but Brittney Griner has been pacing this team all season long. When DT missed time due to injury, BG played at an MVP-caliber level, and that’s carried over throughout the playoffs.
“That’s just what BG does though,” Diana Taurasi said. “I think we take for granted sometimes how amazing she is.”
After a more “mundane” performance in Game 1, Griner paced Phoenix all night in Game 2. Finishing with 29 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks on 12-of-19 shooting, Griner kept the door open every time Chicago threatened to slam it shut.
“We know who our bread and butter is,” Taurasi said. “BG is just playing at a different level right now and there’s really nothing anyone can do. We knew coming into this game it was going to be a big focus. Gotta get BG down low early and often. She sustained us for most of the game when offensively we didn’t really have a rhythm, and every time I looked up, she was making big basket after big basket when we weren’t playing well.”
Griner’s dunk early in the first quarter was actually the first dunk in WNBA Finals history, and her big and-1 late in the fourth quarter gave the Mercury their first lead in almost 15 minutes of game time. It was a huge, momentum-shifting play that ignited the X-Factor, and it was an example of “just making enough plays” to get the W.
“In the second half in particular, we played a little bit more with poise and had a little bit better inside-outside attack, getting her touches down low,” Brondello said. “Obviously she’s a dominant player. We don’t want to go [to her] all the time because we have to involve everyone else, but she’s a playmaker as well, not just a scorer.”
Diana Taurasi comes alive in the clutch
Through three quarters, Diana Taurasi had just 6 points on 3-of-8 shooting. She had missed all five of her 3-pointers, and with the Sky up by 6 entering the final frame, the Mercury desperately needed their longtime savior to come to life down the stretch.
DT has consistently made the uncommon look common, and once again on Wednesday night, she did it uncommonly well.
“That’s the GOAT right there,” Griner said. “We know what D can bring, doesn’t matter how she starts the game or whatever. You know when the time is going down, when it’s crunch-time, we have all the faith in the world that D is going to make those shots and make big plays for us. She does it year in, year out.”
In the fourth quarter and overtime, Taurasi put up 14 points on 4-of-8 shooting from deep. She outscored Chicago 8-7 by herself in the extra period, including a massive 4-point play to kick things off, ensuring the Sky didn’t seize an opportunity to steal momentum.
Her triple to put Phoenix up by 3 with 1:24 left in OT was just the icing on the cake.
“She’s amazing, isn’t she?” Brondello marveled. “Regardless what she’s done in the first half, in the fourth quarter — we saw her in Vegas in the fifth game, in a lot of big games, in Seattle, in overtime — she is just a player that loves those moments. There’s no fear, even when she’s so tired. Obviously making that 3 late in the game, that gave us a little bit of separation.”
When all was said and done, it was another GOAT-worthy performance from the 39-year-old: 20 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 steal.
Oddly enough though, it was a common play — her lone steal with 34 seconds left — that sealed Game 2. Well, a common play for most players.
“We joked a little bit about her, the biggest play of the day was the steal,” Brondello laughed. “Diana doesn’t steal very often, so that was a big play.”
Skylar Diggins-Smith impacts the game
Skylar Diggins-Smith struggled putting the ball in the hole Wednesday night. Though she finished with 13 points, they came on 5-of-18 shooting from the field, including 1-for-6 from 3-point range.
“I had about five or seven that I freaking should’ve made,” she said exasperatedly after the game.
But Diggins-Smith battled through those offensive struggles to make winning plays for her team. Aside from chipping in 7 rebounds despite being one of the smallest players on the court, she also notched 12 assists, a WNBA Finals franchise record previously held by Taurasi.
Brondello pointed out that it’s not often that Taurasi finishes with zero assists, but with the way Diggins-Smith complements her in the backcourt, the Mercury can alleviate some of that pressure on DT to create.
“I think that’s an area she’s gotten better and better all through the year,” Brondello said of Diggins-Smith. “We tell her, look, you impact this team not just by scoring. I think you saw it tonight, like defense. She’s the hardest on herself, a lot of them are. But defensively, creating for others, facilitating, having 12 assists, that’s great. She had some shots, shots she knows she can make. She’ll be reliving that all night tonight, but I thought she had a really good game.”
And if that still wasn’t enough, when the Mercury really needed her, up by 3 points with under a minute to go in overtime, Diggins-Smith delivered a dagger on the very type of play she had struggled to finish most of the night:
That wicked crossover and big-time layup put the Mercury up by 5 with 12.8 seconds left, effectively ending Game 5.
“I was just trying to make something happen,” Diggins-Smith said. “I felt really good about how I was able to get a head of steam, get downhill, get in a lane, create opportunities for my team. Yeah, it didn’t [always] fall for me, but I was just trying to do other things — making plays on defense, trying to get a steal, just trying to do other things and find that edge, that rhythm within the game.”
From Taurasi’s point of view, persevering through a rough shooting night said more about Diggins-Smith’s game than anything else on the stat sheet did.
“I’ve been around this game a long time and there’s not too many people that compete the way Skylar competes every single day,” she said. “We’ve gotten to work out for two offseasons. Every day is the same. Every day is Game 5 for her. I’ve said this before, that’s kind of ignited my passion for the game a little bit to see someone do that every single day.
“What she did today was Skylar taking it to a different level. It’s always nice when you’re playing well and everything is going your way, know what I mean? Those nights are great, but the days where you’re really struggling and you’re trying to find yourself in the game, and the way she just impacted the game every single possession, probably one of the best games I’ve ever seen her play.”