For Phoenix, Game 5 Is All About Taurasi

By Patrick Ralph

Trailing the Seattle Storm in the WNBA semifinals 2-0 and facing elimination from the playoffs, the Phoenix Mercury had their backs against the wall. Returning home for Games 3 and 4, Phoenix fed off the friendly confines and answered the call.

Now, the two Western Conference rivals find themselves tied 2-2 and heading towards a decisive Game 5 in the Pacific Northwest on Tuesday night. The winner will advance to the WNBA Finals, while the loser’s season will come to an end.

Thus far, the home team is 4-0 in this series and has held serve. Therefore, if Phoenix is going to advance to the Finals for the first time since 2014, it will need to break serve against the top-seeded Storm.

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When the Mercury last played in and won the WNBA Finals back in 2014, their leader and best player was the same as it is today: Diana Taurasi. Yet somehow, Phoenix was able to rally against the Storm without Taurasi at her best.

Despite losing twice in Seattle, Taurasi was as impressive and incredible as ever in the first two games of the series. She scored a combined 53 points against the Storm, which was highlighted most-notably when Taurasi went on a three-point assault in the fourth quarter of Game 2 to force the contest into overtime.

But in Game 3, Taurasi scored only eight points on 2-of-11 shooting and committed a team-high four turnovers. When Taurasi does not play well, the Mercury tend to follow suit. However, that was not the case as Phoenix blew past Seattle 86-66.

DeWanna Bonner continued her outstanding season with 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting and added 11 rebounds, while Yvonne Turner stepped up with 19 points and a team-high six assists and three steals in Game 3.

But for Phoenix, the difference maker in this series has been Brittney Griner. After a pair of up-and-down performances in Games 1 and 2 in Seattle, Griner had to play better and raise her game to another level when the series shifted to Phoenix. Phoenix needed an improved and more consistent Griner if it was going to get back into the series against the Storm.

With Taurasi struggling offensively in Game 3, Griner finished with 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting and 11 rebounds. Then, in Phoenix’s 86-84 Game 4 win over Seattle, Griner finished with a team-high 29 points on 12-of-18 shooting and 12 rebounds as the Mercury tied the series up against the Storm.

Along with Griner’s strong play, Bonner again finished with 27 points and a team-high four assists. Taurasi was better in Game 4, as she finished with 16 points. But she was far from her best, as her teammates picked up the load and carried Phoenix to a fifth and final game.

With Game 5 looming on Tuesday, Taurasi will have to play better if the Mercury are going to win on the road and advance. But that’s something one should bet on.

Tuesday night’s clash will be the 14th winner-take-all playoff elimination game in Taurasi’s career. And in case you have been living under a rock or have not heard yet, Taurasi is 13-0 in these winner-take-all games.

Taurasi lives for these games. She rises to the challenge when the stakes are highest. It is in these winner-take-all games when Taurasi is at her best and has cemented her legacy in the WNBA. Location does not matter; just tell her what time and where the game is, and she will show up ready to ball and send your team packing.

The other storyline heading into Game 5 that impacts Taurasi is the status of her good friend and fellow former UConn star, Sue Bird. Bird broke her nose in Game 4, but she is expected to suit up and play for the Storm in Game 5. The Mercury took advantage of Bird’s absence and struggles in the two games in Phoenix, as she finished with only seven points on 2-of-11 shooting in the two contests.

Whether Bird plays in Game 5 pales in comparison to the impact that Taurasi’s play will have on Phoenix. The Mercury cannot expect to go into Seattle and steal Game 5 if its star does not perform at a high level.

But these are the moments that turn superstars into legends. This is when greatness happens. That’s why it all comes down to Taurasi for the Mercury in Game 5, and why Phoenix has reason to be feeling very good in the hands of Taurasi on Tuesday night.