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Skylar Diggins-Smith, ‘locked in’ for WNBA Finals, helps Mercury even series

(Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Skylar Diggins-Smith was done talking.

The day before Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, Diggins-Smith sat behind the basket where she would hit the layup to seal the Phoenix Mercury’s 91-86 overtime win over the Chicago Sky, which evened the series 1-1, and fidgeted in her chair. For every question she fielded from reporters, Diggins-Smith had one thing on her mind: The Mercury gave Game 1 away, and she would do everything in her power to make sure it didn’t happen again.

“This is not the goal for me. The championship is the goal,” she said Tuesday. “I’m irritated, I’m excited, I’m nervous. I’m ready for the Game 2, that’s all I gotta say. I’m irritated I gotta be out here answering questions because I just want to focus on the game.”

Diggins-Smith kept that focus through the first 18 minutes of Game 2 on Sunday, when she went just 1-for-6 from the field and was visibly frustrated with her play.

During a Mercury timeout with 2:04 left in the first quarter, Diggins-Smith stood apart from the huddle and stared off into the distance, motionless. Kia Nurse, resigned to the bench for the series after tearing her ACL in Game 5 of the semifinals, walked over and appeared to try to console her. Diggins-Smith just kept staring straight ahead, as if she were visualizing what was to come.

First, that meant her passing. The veteran guard found Brianna Turner twice in the second quarter, the second time with a lob pass for an alley-oop that gave the Mercury their first lead of the game, 38-36.

“Skylar would probably say, ‘I’ve missed too many shots,’” said Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, “but I thought with her ability to facilitate and just give us some easy baskets … we put [Diana Taurasi] in being more of a screener and put the ball more in Sky’s hand, and she made some pretty good decisions.”

Diggins-Smith finished the game with a playoff career-high 12 assists, jumpstarting Phoenix’s offense with her patience and play-calling from the point and her distribution on the run. The mark also set a Mercury franchise record for assists in a Finals game.

And when it came to crunch time, the 31-year-old turned her fiery words into action, driving into the paint for two layups in overtime that were the difference for the Mercury.

Thanks to Diggins-Smith’s 13 points, as well as Taurasi’s 20 and Griner’s game-high 29, Phoenix now heads to Chicago with more of a cushion. Starting with Game 3 on Friday night in front of a sold-out Chicago arena, the Mercury can take the series with two wins on the road or win at least one and head back home for a decisive Game 5.

“I was just trying to make something happen,” Diggins-Smith said. “I felt really good about how I was able to get a head of steam, get downhill, get in a lane, create opportunities for my team. It didn’t fall for me, but I was just trying to do other things … and find that edge, that rhythm within the game.”

Taurasi, who also came on late to drain two critical 3-pointers in overtime, called Diggins-Smith’s performance “probably one of the best games I’ve ever seen her play.”

“I’ve been around this game a long time, and there’s not too many people that compete the way Skylar competes every single day,” Taurasi said. “We’ve gotten to work out for two offseasons. Every day is the same. Every day is Game 5 for her. I’ve said this before, that’s kind of ignited my passion for the game a little bit to see someone do that every single day.”

Brondello has been in this position before, having won a WNBA championship in 2014 in her first season as Mercury head coach. Diggins-Smith is playing in her first Finals series, having spent seven years in Tulsa and Dallas before signing with the Mercury last offseason.

Brondello and Taurasi, a three-time WNBA champion, know what a championship-level mentality looks like, and they see that to the fullest extent in Diggins-Smith.

“She had some shots, shots she knows she can make. She’ll be reliving that all night tonight, but I thought she had a really good game,” Brondello said. “Players like this are special — they have this fire in their belly, the will to win. And they’re all locked in.”

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.