Diana Taurasi grimaced on the court as her Phoenix Mercury teammates carefully pulled her to her feet late in the third quarter of Game 1 of the W.N.B.A. semifinals.
On the preceding play, she’d bumped into Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby while trying to dribble, skidding awkwardly to the floor. Taurasi limped up and down the court 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. She clenched her teeth and flexed the ankle on the Phoenix bench during the first part of the fourth period. Still, Taurasi finished with 20 points and six assists in the game, a 96-90 loss to the Aces.
Afterward, when asked how her ankle felt, Taurasi’s answer was brief.
“Great,” she said.
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 series now heads to Phoenix tied 1-1. Game 3 is on Sunday.
Despite Taurasi’s lingering health concerns, the Mercury charged through 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 games. Their next assignment is a high-powered Las Vegas offense with A’ja Wilson, last season’s Most Valuable Player, and a bevy of other scoring threats.
The Aces earned a double-bye to start the playoffs after a 24-8 regular-season record, the league’s second best. They’d held off the Mercury in Game 1 with potent shooting from guards Kelsey Plum, who won this season’s Sixth Player of the Year Award, and Riquna Williams.
Before Thursday’s game, Mercury center Brittney Griner told 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 said.
The result was a 25-point performance. She had 16 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in the first quarter.
“Brittney’s a beast. We’ve asked her to do so much this year,” Taurasi said on the TV broadcast after the game, likely referring to Griner’s ability to handle double teams and take on tough 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 along with 20.5 points per game. She’s the Mercury’s defensive anchor, with a 7-foot-3.5 inch wingspan, a height and an athleticism that make her nearly impossible to shoot over.
Griner’s responsibility this series has been to guard Aces center Liz Cambage, whose dominance in the post and rim protection seems rivaled by only Griner’s.
Cambage terrorizes opponents with her ability to pivot, score and pull down rebounds in the post as defenders hack at her body. And the way she can alter shots on defense was one reason the Aces never allowed more than 99 points during a regular-season game this season. The tandem of Cambage and Wilson in the frontcourt had many people sure at the beginning of the season that Las Vegas was primed for another deep playoff run.
Having been swept by the Storm in last year’s finals, the Aces had the motivation to cruise through the regular season with seven players who averaged double figures. They were without Cambage for a stretch after she tested positive for the coronavirus, but now, at full strength, the Aces are pushing to claim the title that eluded last year’s injury-ravaged team.
But they have to get past a Mercury team that is equally determined to make a finals appearance. Phoenix is at its best when its core players of Griner, Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith knock down shots from all over the floor the way they did Thursday night. Griner made a handful of midrange jumpers. Diggins-Smith scored at all three levels, and as for Taurasi, well, the W.N.B.A.’s leading career scorer did what she typically does.
Taurasi said after the game that after an aggressive, physical outing from the Aces on Tuesday, the Mercury responded in kind in Game 2. They built a 17-point lead in the first quarter and never relinquished it, unlike in Game 1 when their early lead fizzled before the end of the first period. Taurasi said that with so many shots going 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 told reporters afterward that the team couldn’t give Griner open looks outside the post.
“In the post, she’s going to do her thing. That’s who she is,” he said. “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 sustain their high-percentage shooting, they added free throws to their arsenal. Their first miss from the free-throw line didn’t come until the third quarter, and they made 23 of 24 free throws.
Wilson said 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 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, Ros Gold-Onwude of ESPN asked Taurasi how she felt about going 8-for-11 from 3-point range.
Taurasi’s reply, again, was succinct.
“I only shot 11?” she said.