Diana Taurasi’s got a wicked sense of humor. The 39-year-old superstar was seen wincing, hobbling, limping, etc., not more than 48 hours before the second game of the WNBA semifinal series between the Mercury and the Las Vegas Aces. The left ankle sprain that kept her out of Phoenix’s final four regular-season games and first round of the postseason sent Taurasi into the cautious mode of permanently “questionable” on the injury report, sitting out of practice, and gingerly testing the ankle minutes before game time for the last few days. (A week ago, against the Liberty, the ankle test results came in as “didn’t respond in the way she wanted.”)
But the uncertainty might be viewed now as the setup to a very good joke. The punchline is the raw numbers from her unbelievable, instant classic Willy Wonka somersault of a game on Thursday night. Playing 27 minutes in Phoenix’s series-tying 117-91 victory, she scored a playoff career-high 37 points on just 13 shots, including eight threes on 11 increasingly audacious attempts. Every single stat is funny. My own favorite is her true shooting percentage of 109 percent.
The night probably didn’t offer the Aces many lessons for the next game beyond “pray every Mercury starter does not shoot 50 percent or better from the floor again.” Most of Taurasi’s threes were contested; if she can hit them over an outstretched arm of 6-foot-8 Liz Cambage, well, what are you going to do? For Vegas, there remains a little basketball puzzle to be solved between Taurasi and Brittney Griner, who’s finally turned eight years of flashes into the best and most consistent season of her career. The threat the 6-foot-9 center poses at the rim and in the midrange drew enough double teams to leave Taurasi the tiny bit of room she needed to get shots off outside. The Aces weren’t shabby on offense themselves. It just happened to be the rare 52-percent-from-the-floor night that disappoints in relation. The only thing more devastating than a Taurasi Game is one that’s a Griner Game, too.
I thought, watching the veterans embrace at the strange possible retirement ceremony for Sue Bird last weekend, that it was really Taurasi, and not Bird, who had less good basketball left in her. Bird stayed mostly healthy all season; Taurasi’s looked quite fragile. When she fell on her knee and stood back up slowly in Game 1 on Tuesday night, clearly in pain, it was not too difficult to imagine her season ending soon in a kind of grim and desperate way.
What happened instead was Diana damn Taurasi, true as she ever was. I accept the owning and see now I should have taken my cues from someone who knows the WNBA far more closely than I do. Earlier this week, Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer balked at the suggestion his team would gameplan differently to face a de-ankled Taurasi. “Taurasi isn’t hurt. Come on. Please,” he said, offering a little window into the uber-focused prey’s mindset you need to make it in professional sports. “She will cut your heart out in a second. So, she’s not hurt. We’re going to play her as though she’s full speed and ready to go and everything like that.”
At the media availability before the game, a reporter told Taurasi what Laimbeer had said. She responded, “Who’s Bill Laimbeer?”