The Phoenix Mercury extend their WNBA playoffs stay a little longer, at least.
PHOENIX — Facing their third-straight sweep in the WNBA semifinals, this time, the Phoenix Mercury forced a Game 4 with a dominant 86-66 victory over the Seattle Storm on Friday night in Phoenix.
The Mercury’s path through the playoffs had been following the same script as the two previous years leading into tonight: win back-to-back single-eliminations games, then get swept against a rested team in the WNBA semifinals.
After two-straight heart-wrenching losses in Seattle, both featuring late comebacks and finishing with a score of 91-87, Phoenix could have led its history repeat itself, but big nights from DeWanna Bonner, Brittney Griner and Yvonne Turner kept the Mercury’s season alive for at least one more game.
“If we wanted to beat Seattle, we had to play 40 minutes, and I think we played a complete game tonight,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “Yvonne Turner stepped into the starting lineup with Steph out tonight and was pretty special tonight. We did what we had to do, which was win on our home court, and it keeps us alive. We’re excited about that and hopefully we can take care of our home court on Sunday.”
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The loss forces a Game 4, which will be at 5 pm EST on Sunday. For Storm coach Dan Hughes, winning Games 1 and 2 back in Seattle allowed them to use this game as a teaching moment, even if they would have loved to make a quicker trip back to the Pacific Northwest.
“Sometimes, you can talk about [the road on the playoffs] all you want, but you’ve got to get in it and get your hands dirty to understand what it’s really like. When I talk to them tomorrow, they’ll have a little different look at the reality of it. Nothing comes easy when you’re at this level where we’re playing.”
Bonner’s brilliance keeps Phoenix alive
With the season drawing to a close, perhaps no player in the WNBA has consistently played at a level as astronomically-high as DeWanna Bonner has for the Mercury.
The forward capped off her brilliant month of August with another sensational effort, leading the Mercury with 27 points and 11 rebounds. She finished the night by shooting 11-for-18 with two 3-pointers, but added 10 defensive rebounds, a steal and three blocks.
It’s the seventh double-double in the last eight games for Bonner, as well as the ninth in 13 games in the month between the regular season and the postseason. Yet the thing that both she and her coach are most proud of is to be playing at this level a year after giving birth to twin daughters.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done is come back from twins — it’s like starting over from scratch,” Bonner said. “To be in this opportunity and this moment right now is one of the best feelings ever. Tonight was unbelievable for my teammates to come out in an elimination game and play the way that we played.”
Brondello added, “DeWanna’s always been a special player. If anyone’s had babies, [they know] it’s not that easy to come back and play as well as she has. She just continues to impress me. She’s built like Diana. She’s got that will to win. She loves challenges, she knows what she’s capable of doing, she makes big plays.”
And while Phoenix also got a double-double from Griner (21 points, 11 rebounds), it’s clear that Bonner’s effort, energy and versatility has given Phoenix the spark they’ve needed.
Bird and Taurasi scoreless through 3?!?
Among the many, many games Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird have played both with and against each other, perhaps no game will be considered as strange as with one.
Both players went scoreless through three quarters, and Bird ended the night without a point at all. Though Taurasi was able to break out of the scoring struggles in the fourth, making her first basket with 6:23 left in the fourth quarter and finishing the night with two more 3-pointers in the closing stretch to tally eight points, it truly was an odd evening for the WNBA legends.
It’s just the second scoreless game in Bird’s playoff career, with the only other one being a Sept 27, 2004 game against Minnesota that she only played three minutes in. Meanwhile, Taurasi’s scoreless first half was just the second time in her career that she’s not scored in the first half of a playoff game, per Elias Sports.
When asked what she would’ve done if told before the game Taurasi would be scoreless entering the fourth, Brondello said she, “would’ve laughed at you,” but then focused on Taurasi’s positive outlook.
“It’s funny, in the timeout, it shows a lot about Diana when I say, ‘Let’s see if we can get her some action here,’ and she says, ‘No, don’t worry about it,’” Brondello said. “All she’s worried about is winning. She’s a winner, and she’ll do whatever it takes to win. As long as we score more points than the opponent, that’s all that matters to her. She’ll be fine heading into the next game.”
And while her shot may have been off, Taurasi’s impact on the game can’t be questioned, especially when considering she led all players in plus/minus on the night with a +28.
“Everyone knows what Diana can do,” Bonner said. “It doesn’t matter if she didn’t score, she still got double-teamed, she still got the ball where she needed to get it, she still got us in our spots. Without her scoring, it just says a lot about her that she was still great out there. That’s our leader.”
Seattle’s bench steps up as starters struggle
While Natasha Howard led all Storm players with 19 points and Breanna Stewart scored 15, it was actually the Seattle bench who gave the team a spark late in the first quarter and into the second quarter.
Rookie guard Jordin Canada and veteran center Crystal Langhorne each had 11 points off the bench for the Storm, while second-year guard Sami Whitcomb nailed two 3-pointers in her first playoff action of 2018 to give the Storm a boost. All three players were on the floor at the start of the second quarter, when the Storm used a 15-4 run to turn a 10-point deficit into a brief one-point lead.
Seattle’s bench has been a major factor in this series, especially when compared to the lack of impact Phoenix’s bench has had (though Turner did come into the starting lineup off the bench with Stephanie Talbot missing Friday’s game with a concussion). For Hughes, the chance to play younger, inexperienced players in these type of games — especially without having them be elimination games — will be valuable going forward.
“They’re learning. They’re just understanding how aggressive, how focused, and how balanced they have to be,” Hughes said. “We’re a learning team. We’re not a team that’s complete in all that we need to know. We’ll take this experience, even if we like the winning experience better, and we’ll glean some things from it.”