Takeaways: Sparks close series in Phoenix despite Taurasi’s heroics

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 17: Odyssey Sims
PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 17: Odyssey Sims /

PHOENIX– Diana Taurasi nailed a three over two defenders in a moment as expected, given her consistently incredible performance in the WNBA Playoffs, as it was dumbfounding. The shot tied the game. But before the crowd in Phoenix could even let out their breath, another superstar had stepped up. Los Angeles’ Candace Parker made a layup with three seconds left in regulation that all but sealed the Sparks’ 89-87 victory in the deciding Game Three of the WNBA semifinals.

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Three takeaways from a wild one in Phoenix:

1. Camille Little probably had this in her all along

Little was brought in by the Mercury this spring following the announcement that DeWanna Bonner would miss the entire 2017 season for the birth of her first child. The thinking was reasonable: Little is a credible three-point shooter, someone who can take a big away from the paint and defend athletes on the other end. For much of the season, though, opponents simply ignored Little.

This meant that doubling Brittney Griner in the post was easier, and that players like Breanna Stewart could score at will. There was not enough production from the power forward position this year in Phoenix.

However, Little made the difference for much tonight’s Game Three. The Mercury learned from their first four playoff games that teams can easily force difficult decisions onto Griner when Little isn’t producing. So they made it a priority to feed Little early, the minute she popped open. Because of the Sparks’ aggressive double-teaming, that happened often. Little responded with 18 points 8 rebounds.

And then there was the last two minutes. If anything showed that Little deserved to be on this team, and play the second most minutes overall, it was her defense during the last two minutes.

The “stretch” part of “stretch four” came out of Little tonight, as she made three triples. The problem came when Brian Agler’s Sparks adjusted, bringing help on Griner from different angles and pushing the pace more aggressively. Little’s production was limited once again, and the game was as good as over, even despite the late push. The Mercury didn’t have the secondary scoring to compete once Little went quiet on offense.

2. Candace Parker affects every play

There has only been one triple-double in WNBA Playoffs history. That record belongs to Sheryl Swoopes, who put up the stat line in 2005 for the Houston Comets. Parker came so close to joining that list tonight, with 21 points, 11 assists and 7 rebounds.

But as with any near-triple-double, the impact of being all over the court in that way was more valuable than just the numbers on the page. Parker brought the Los Angeles offense back from the dead in the second quarter, and was up to seven assists by the end of the half. She started the game 1-5 before making four of her next six. She exploded with three blocks and four steals, was impactful in transition on both ends, and had Brittney Griner second-guessing herself in the post all night. Basically, she was Candace Parker.

Consider that Parker was also tasked as Griner’s primary defender, and asked to make split-second decisions about switching and doubling when help came. She anchored the Sparks defense as much as their offense.

They won the big-picture battles in this game because of her work to keep Phoenix at bay. They then won the last skirmish directly because of Parker, who made a layup with three seconds left.

3. The Mercury are making progress, showing the re-tool was successful

The story has been told throughout the season, but it’s worth repeating: only Griner and Diana Taurasi remain from last year’s Mercury team. Phoenix entered this season with 10 new players to acclimate, including four rookies.

They were able to add a veteran with experience in Phoenix when they traded for Mo Currie, but after Griner missed a month, all that contributed was further discomfort. This season is a jumping-off point for a more Griner-centric Mercury team, and a semifinal exit is a wonderful way to jump off.

Next: Sylvia Fowles named 2017 WNBA MVP

This team now has more young talent than it could have dreamed following last season. Between Stephanie Talbot, Yvonne Turner and Emma Cannon, the Mercury may have found three rotation pieces in one offseason. If they can keep vets like Currie and Leilani Mitchell, who has been Phoenix’s third-leading scorer in these playoffs, they will enter next season with clarity and continuity.