Storm advance to WNBA Finals by slaying Taurasi and Mercury

The Diana Taurasi winner-take-all stat is dead, while Sue Bird’s nose lives on.

Sue Bird couldn’t stop the bleeding from her broken nose in Game 4, watching helplessly as her team’s chance to clinch a WNBA Finals berth slipped away in the fourth quarter.

­But when back on the floor in the fourth in Game 5, Bird made sure to make her mark. In doing so, she slayed the Phoenix Mercury and her long-time best friend, Diana Taurasi, to take the Storm back to the Finals for the first time since 2010.

Bird scored 14 points in the Storm’s 35-point fourth quarter to seal a 94-84 win over the Mercury on Tuesday night in Seattle to clinch a spot against the Washington Mystics the WNBA Finals, which will start at 6 p.m. PST Friday night.

In what was a reverse of the common script of this series, it was actually Phoenix who broke out with an early lead, forcing Seattle to play from behind for most of the game. But the league’s MVP, Breanna Stewart, provided a steady hand throughout the night, leading all players with 28 points while playing every second of the game and keeping the Storm within striking range.

Seattle tied it at one point in the third quarter but didn’t take their first lead until the beginning of in the fourth quarter. After about five minutes of back-and-forth action, including a stretch of three lead changes in 30 seconds midway through the fourth, the Storm took the lead for good until four minutes left in the game.

And who hit the shot that did that? Take a wild guess.

Bird’s sensational shooting in 4th

Bird went 4-for-5 from behind the 3-point line in the fourth and added a step-back jumper to score 14 points in the fourth, all in the last six minutes of the game.

“As far as stretches go, I mean, this is up there,” Bird said at the postgame presser. “I don’t know if I’ve had a fourth quarter like this, in as big of a game, in my life, to be honest.”

Taurasi added, “It’s probably one of the best little stints of basketball I’ve seen her play, but that’s what she can do. She could probably do that more often, but she’s the consummate point guard, she always wants to get everyone else involved. That’s routine Sue to me. Incredible, really. Just an incredible performance by her.”

Bird finished the night with 22 points and five assists in 34 minutes of action. But always and forever a point guard, Bird deflected credit for the run to Stewart.

“Honestly, Stewie’s the one [who] came up to me somewhere late in the third, early fourth quarter,” Bird said in the postgame presser. “She was like, Hey, you need to use your legs.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, good point,’ because a lot of the shots I had been taking in the third quarter we coming up short.

“When I had the openings, I just tried to think about that and shoot it the same way. I think you learn over time that you can’t let missed shots affect your next one, and it’s a lot easier said than done. I’m happy Stewie reminded me of that.”

Bird did all of this just two days after breaking her nose for the fifth time and wore a protective mask for Game 5. 2018 will now be the second time Bird plays in the WNBA Finals after a collision with a teammate broke her nose, having done so back in 2004.

Bird and the Storm won the Finals that year. It’d be all too fitting for history to repeat itself in 2018.

Turner helps pace Phoenix early

While there’s truly no joy in losing, Phoenix built its big lead on the back of another sensational effort from Yvonne “Vonnie” Turner.

Inserted as a starter in Game 3 in place of Stephanie Talbot, who missed the final three games of the series with a concussion, Turner added another stellar shooting night in Game 5, scoring 19 points on 8-of-17 shooting and 2-of-7 from deep.

In almost 34 minutes of action, Turner helped Phoenix’s defense look solid throughout the first three quarters of the night, providing the team with consistent energy throughout. Game 5 was also her second 19-point game of the series.

After years journeying the lower-level professional leagues throughout the world — playing professional basketball on five different continents — Turner has found a nice home in Phoenix as a defense-first player who can provide spurts of aggressive offense, if need be. At this point, it’d be tough to imagine her not in the WNBA for the next few years.

Whitcomb becomes key contributor

SEATTLE, WA – SEPTEMBER 4: Breanna Stewart #30 and Sami Whitcomb #33 of the Seattle Storm hug after the game against the Phoenix Mercury during Game Five of the 2018 WNBA Playoffs on September 4, 2018 at Key Arena in Seattle, Washington. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s pretty incredible to look at Seattle’s starters and see that Jewell Loyd only played 20:50 in a winner-take-all game to go to the WNBA Finals. But when a player is hot, a player is hot. And lord has Sami Whitcomb been on fire for the Storm recently.

After not playing at all in the first two games of the series, Whitcomb performed well in short stints in Games 3 and 4 in Phoenix, playing 16 combined minutes and scoring eight points on 3-of-4 shooting (2-of-3 from deep). But those minutes seemed to give Dan Hughes faith to try her out in Game 5, and she responded by being one of the biggest players on the night for Seattle.

Whitcomb scored 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range, while also grabbing three rebounds and dishing four assists in 20:47. Hughes kept her on the court over Loyd down the stretch, and the University of Washington graduate rewarded him with a plus-13 on the night, the third-highest of any player in the game.

Whitcomb spent seven years internationally (mostly in Australia) before coming to the Storm last season. She’s clearly earned a place in the heart of her teammates, who have heaped praise upon her throughout the last few days. But perhaps the best compliment Whitcomb’s received came from Bird after Tuesday’s game.

“The thing about Sami, she’s the most annoying player to practice against,” Bird said at the press conference. “I’m not kidding. Top-three in my career, because she never stops.”

The performances of both Whitcomb and Turner in this series surely has served as hope for any hoopers playing internationally, showing that there are many, many ways to get to the WNBA and be a contributor.

Tauarsi’s streak finally ends in wild series

SEATTLE, WA – SEPTEMBER 4: Sue Bird #10 of the Seattle Storm and Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury hug after the game during Game Five of the 2018 WNBA Playoffs on September 4, 2018 at Key Arena in Seattle, Washington. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the 14th time in her career, Taurasi had the Phoenix Mercury playing in a winner-take-all game on Tuesday night. But for the first time, she left that game defeated.

Taurasi gave a valiant effort, scoring 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting and 3-of-9 from deep. But she was hampered by foul trouble through much of the first three quarters, including picking up a questionable fourth foul midway through the third quarter.

Bird referenced Taurasi’s incredible comeback late in Game 2 to force overtime as why the Storm weren’t ready to start celebrating until the clock truly was all zeroes. It’s the ultimate respect to the veteran Phoenix team, who will still go down in WNBA history as the first team to force a Game 5 after starting 0-2 in a best-of-5 series.

And if her streak were to end at any point, it took a series like this — and a performance like what her long-time friend Bird gave —to finish it off, something even the losing coach could look at and appreciate moments after a loss.

“It’s been a fantastic series. It’s great for the WNBA. We’ve faced a lot of adversity, but I’m really proud of my team,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said at her postgame press conference. “It’s unfortunate that only one team can move on, because it was a great series. But there’s things that we can learn from and build on for next year.”