UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Technically, the Phoenix Mercury played at a disadvantage. It was the Mercury who traveled 13 hours to Uncasville, one day after beating the Dallas Wings at home. But it's hard to say that Phoenix was the underdog when, as the saying goes, Phoenix has Diana Taurasi and the Connecticut Sun do not.
Taurasi scored 27 points in the Mercury's 96-86 win over the Sun, improving her record to 13-0 in winner-take-all games. Brittney Griner also scored 27 points, and DeWanna Bonner added 23. Their combined 77 points are the most by any trio in a WNBA playoff game.
Phoenix once again proved how dangerous it could be come playoff time, especially in single-game scenarios when Taurasi shoots 5-of-10 from behind the arc. This outcome is the exact reason that prior to shootaround, Sun head coach Curt Miller was nervous. Facing any team in an elimination game would make him anxious, but facing Phoenix is a particular challenge that has now gotten the best of the Sun in back-to-back seasons.
It was UConn head coach Geno Auriemma who coined the phrase, "We have Diana and you don't." Connecticut is the state where Taurasi forged her legacy, and in some ways, it is the place where that legacy has been recast. With the spotlight shining brighter on the WNBA than it has in years, the White Mamba delivered, elevating her playoff ethos to near mythical proportions.
The connection to Connecticut is still nestled in Taurasi's heart. She felt it on the bus ride from Boston, the trees whizzing by the windows. This is a place that she misses, a place she once called home. So it wasn't a surprise that, with playoff advancement on the line, Taurasi felt the most at home on the court at Mohegan Sun Arena as the crowd's cheers turned to boos.
"Every time I get a foul, they're throwing a parade," Taurasi said.
But that's what she likes most about them; it's what makes Connecticut fans great. They love you. And then they hate you. (Deep down, they still kind of love you, especially if you're Diana Taurasi.)
Each time she was asked about the 13-0 record, she brushed it off. These are the kinds of games Taurasi finds simple. The stakes are laid bare.
"You either win or you literally stop playing," she said. "When we get to that point, I'd like to keep playing."
It's the kind of statement that seems obvious. Of course she wants to keep playing, who doesn't? But it's the little things that embody that mentality for both her and the Mercury. It's Stephanie Talbot shooting an air ball in the fourth quarter, and then having the courage to take another shot the next time the ball found its way into her hands. It's Griner having only three field goal attempts in the first half, then igniting in the second half for 19 points after Bonner got on her in the locker room during halftime. It's the 6-foot Taurasi wrestling a rebound away from the 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones to secure an important possession down the stretch. Phoenix wanted to keep playing.
"In the last two minutes, I think our experience showed," Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said. "And I thought we did a much better job of executing what we wanted to do."
That experience is what kept Phoenix together at the end. With 41.7 seconds left, Taurasi stood at the free throw line. Bonner walked toward the bench and let out a yell as she flexed. The crowd certainly wasn't going to pump up the Mercury bench. Fans heading toward the exits and weren't exactly on Phoenix's side to begin with. But this game could have gone a different way. Phoenix could have fallen apart after Courtney Williams converted a four-point play to give Connecticut a one-point lead with 4:19 to go.
"There was a moment where we all looked at each other and were like, 'This is over,'" Taurasi said. "And then we got back to one possession at a time. We find a way to stay together in those hard moments."
The glue that is the Mercury's big three will be tested in Seattle against the league's top team. A best-of-five series requires a different kind of consistency than an elimination game. Taurasi's 13-0 record only comes into play if Phoenix manages to push Seattle to a Game 5. That will be a tall order for a team that hasn't beaten the Storm since the second game of the season.
And yet, it's still hard to bet against Taurasi.
"She amazes me, really, every single day," Brondello said. "To do what she does at such a high level and at her age is amazing. It shows her competitiveness. She will do whatever it takes to win."
Taurasi's competitiveness was evident in her dust up with Jasmine Thomas. The two had a clapping tête-à-tête, which Taurasi alluded to in her postgame interview with Holly Rowe, saying, "You can post Instagram pictures, you can clap in people's faces. That's not going to get you a win, though."
What does get the win?
"A lot of it is luck," Taurasi said. "A lot of it is great teammates. You don't do it alone."