The Mercury and Storm head to WNBA semifinals Game 5 for a winner-take-all matchup.
PHOENIX — The Seattle Storm are flying back home after Sunday’s Game 4 of the WNBA semifinals. But, much to their chagrin, the Phoenix Mercury are heading up to Seattle, too.
The Mercury became the first team in WNBA history to force a winner-take-all Game 5 after losing the first two games in a best-of-five series by topping the Storm 86-84 on Sunday afternoon in Phoenix.
For the Mercury, it was Brittney Griner who stepped up when the team needed it most, hitting the go-ahead basket with 14.1 seconds left to give her 29 points and her team a two-point lead. Griner then was the primary defender on the final possession when Breanna Stewart didn’t get a shot off.
Of course, the Storm were missing their ball-handler and most experienced player, Sue Bird, who broke her nose midway through the second quarter and did not return. Bird is expected back in Game 5, though.
And after the WNBA playoffs had already seen its first-ever instance of seeing both of its semifinal series needing four games, there will be two Game 5s coming on Tuesday night.
Oh, and the Queen of Winner-Take-All games will get to see if she can make it 14-for-14.
That final possession
After Griner’s go-ahead basket with 14.1 second left, Seattle called timeout to advance the ball to the front court. It was there that ESPN’s cameras caught Bird leading the huddle and drawing up the play for the Storm to run.
Seattle coach Dan Hughes said both on camera in the moment and in the press conference after the game that the play was the same one they ran at the beginning of the game, but with Bird on the floor. With Bonner initially on her, Stewart started at the opposite block and came up through a double-screen, which Phoenix switched so Griner moved from guarding Howard to Stewart.
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From there, Stewart dribbled past Noelle Quinn and then set a screen for her, but Phoenix covered the screen well and Quinn passed it to Jewell Loyd on the right side. Loyd caught the ball with about seven seconds left and, with Briann January playing tight defense, took one dribble left and fed the ball inside to Stewart, who was posting up Griner.
Stewart caught the ball with around 3.5 seconds left about a step out and up from the right-side block, took one hard dribble toward the baseline, then one hard dribble inside before picking up the ball with around two seconds left. She looked to go up from under the basket, but Griner had stayed with her the whole time and didn’t give her a good angle. Stewart passed the ball out as the buzzer sounded.
“The initial play we wanted to run broke down early, and we were playing on the fly,” Stewart said after the game. “Being under the basket with BG on you is a tough shot. Still, I should have gotten a shot off because it’s the last play of the game.”
Griner referenced an earlier mistake she made when she said, “I had just fouled Stewie on the three, so I knew I had to make it up.”
In the end, it was a possession where Seattle really missed Bird.
Bonner’s big minutes at … the 3?
On Phoenix’s end, coach Sandy Brondello freely admitted to what she felt was the key to Phoenix’s big comeback. It was moving DeWanna Bonner back to the 3-position for a significant portion of the second half.
“She’s been great for us at the four, but I moved her back to the three and put the ball in her hands and she got aggressive,” Brondello said. “Not every play was run for her, but she’s so dynamic on reversals when she’s on the attack and when gets to the basket, she can finish.”
Bonner ended the night only making 9-of-23 shots, but she added a perfect 9-for-9 from the free-throw line to finish with 27 points. 21 of those 27 came in the second half, which she credits to the position change and the different driving looks that came off of that.
“Attacking baseline or posting the smaller defender up gave me a different angle and I was finally finishing,” Bonner said. “At the beginning of the game, I wasn’t finishing — I was rushing it and worried about the defense.”
After the season-ending injury for Sancho Lyttle, Phoenix found a ton of success with Bonner at the four, which our own Ben Dull broke down excellently two weeks ago. But after three and a half games (plus an overtime) against the same team, Brondello found a way to switch something up that worked well for Phoenix, and now they get a Game 5 because of it.
Another massive stretch for Phoenix’s Little
A huge reason why Bonner was able to help lead the charge offensively from the three was because of Camille Little’s big minutes at the four. Called into action for the second big stint in four games, Little was a defensive force for the Mercury, helping slow down Stewart and the powerful Storm offense.
“She’s an experienced player and she’s been in these situations before,” Brondello said. “With Sue out, we knew that Loyd and Stewie were going to get a lot of the action. We had Briann January — who I think is defensive player of the year along with Elena Bears — so you just need another defensive presence.”
Little was on the floor for most of the last six minutes of the fourth quarter in Game 2, when the Mercury went on a 23-6 run to force overtime. She played all of that, too, in the four-point loss, but finished at a game-high plus-13.
In Game 4, she finished the night with 19:29 played, two points, two assists, a steal, and four rebounds, including an offensive rebound and an assist on Griner’s game-winning basket late in the fourth. She tied with Bird for a game-high plus-17 on the night.
After being relegated to the bench earlier this season, and not playing at all in both the second-round game in Connecticut and in Game 1 in Seattle, Little has been an unsung hero for the Mercury this series.
Seattle’s sizzling start
The Storm nearly took the game and ran away with it early on, which included a new nugget in the team’s record books.
Seattle made 13-of-18 shots in the first quarter, including all four 3-pointers, to score 31 points in the opening frame, a franchise playoff record for most points in a quarter. The Storm added another basket to start the second quarter to give them their largest lead of the night at 17 points, a start that has Hughes encouraged.
“I thought we came out a lot better today,” Hughes said. “We established a lead, then had to deal with them coming back.”
All five starters (including Bird, who only played 10:13 before her injury) had scored at least seven points in the half on 50-percent shooting or better. Stewart was the only player in double figures, with 12, but she was also the only starter to not make a shot from deep on the night, with both Bird and center Natasha Howard making the pair of 3-pointers they took.
If all five players on the court are liable to score at anytime from anywhere, it’s almost impossible to play great defense. In a game with many “What if?” questions for Seattle around Bird’s injury, perhaps the biggest one focuses on how well the starting unit was playing together in the first half and just what could have happened without the nasal injury.
Taurasi returns to her Queendom: Winner-Take-All
But now we get an elimination game. And when Diana Taurasi plays in those, she gets her own section previewing it.
Taurasi’s offensive game has not been shot-oriented in the two games in Phoenix, even with scoring 16 points in Game 4. She only had one shot attempt in the fourth quarter — and that one was a fastbreak layup she made — and seemed happy to let the offense flow through Bonner.
But this is a winner-take-all game coming Tuesday. 13 times in her WNBA career, she’s entered those matchups, and 13 times, she’s left the victor.
When the Arizona Republic’s Jeff Metcalfe started his question about the subject with, “Now Game 5, the kind of game you live for,” Taurasi wiggled her eyebrows at the press contingent and couldn’t stop the smile from forming.
“I mean, they’re great games to play in. They really are,” Taurasi said. “They’re just unbelievable games to play in. Try to bring your best game as a team, as an individual. You try to play your best basketball and hopefully it’s good enough.”
Taurasi is now 19-5 in elimination games in her WNBA career, 13-0 in winner-take-all games. You can bet she’ll make sure you know she’s in it.