‘We got our GOAT back’: Diana Taurasi’s heroic return lifts Mercury to WNBA semifinals

(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Diana Taurasi looked like she might need to come off the floor multiple times on Sunday. She winced and she hobbled, favoring the injured left ankle that kept her out of the Mercury’s first-round win over the Liberty, the one that earned them the chance to meet Seattle in this second-round, single-elimination game.

But Taurasi kept on playing. Not only that: She made two big shots and one key free throw in overtime that helped the Mercury upset the defending champion Storm on their home court, 85-80, and advance to their seventh WNBA semifinals in the last nine seasons.

Brittney Griner led Phoenix with 23 points (on 11-for-17 shooting) and 16 rebounds. Taurasi finished with 14 points, five assists and four rebounds — on one good leg.

“Obviously you want to be out there with your teammates, and we’ve had such a grind of a season,” Taurasi said after the win. “Against New York, I was just not ready to play. The decision was, ‘Can I help?’ And if I could help in any capacity, I was going to try to play today.”

The Storm — playing on Sunday without Breanna Stewart, who sat on the bench with a boot on her injured left foot — executed their game plan well in the first half. Seattle’s defense held Taurasi to just three points in the half and the entire Mercury team to nine in the second quarter, riding a 15-0 run to a 35-32 lead at the break.

But, as Storm head coach Noelle Quinn and Sue Bird explained after the game, sending double teams to Griner and switching guards on Taurasi to try to account for the extra space can only work for so long.

In other words, once Taurasi got hot from the field, it was game over.

“Dee gives them automatic confidence, swag, all of the above just by being on the floor,” Quinn said. “Early on, testing out her mobility, I thought we did a decent job. But what happens when you have the greatest player in our game on the floor is that she hits timely shots.”

“What happened in overtime was we made a couple mistakes that gave her two open shots,” Bird added. “And you can’t give a player like that an open look whether they’re on half a leg or not. Of course, that’s who she is, so it’s no surprise and that’s why you can’t make those mistakes.”

Taurasi is not only a one-of-a-kind scoring threat; her mere presence also gives her team a sense of comfort. Skylar Diggins-Smith said again Sunday that she chose Phoenix in 2019 free agency so she could play with Taurasi and Griner. And Griner, when asked what’s allowed her to unlock another level in her game this season while seated next to Taurasi and Diggins-Smith during the postgame press conference, said: “When I look to my left and I see them, of course anyone would play with ease.”

The Mercury will meet the No. 2-seeded Las Vegas Aces in the semifinals, with Game 1 set for Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2). It will be Taurasi’s 10th semifinal series, all with Phoenix.

Bird, 40, was asked about her future after the game, including by ESPN’s Holly Rowe on the court as the Seattle crowd chanted, “One more year!” It’s still unclear whether she will come back to the Storm.

Taurasi, 39, is expected to return next season after signing a two-year maximum contract with Phoenix in February. She’s already won three championships with the Mercury during her 17-year career. As she goes for her fourth title — which, for what it’s worth, would tie her with Bird — Taurasi is focusing on simply being on the court for her teammates.

Because when their leader is in the lineup, the Mercury like their chances.

“For someone who hasn’t been able to run for three weeks almost … to come into overtime and make two big plays, that’s why they talk about she’s the GOAT, because she finds a way,” said coach Sandy Brondello.

“We got our GOAT back. She was a little fatigued out there. I’m not sure she’ll be able to walk tomorrow, but she grinded it out and found a way.”

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.