Sophie Cunningham wanted her money’s worth. Late in the third quarter of a win-or-go-home playoff game against the New York Liberty, she’d made her third straight three-pointer of the night. She’d celebrated (loudly, explicitly, right in the face of New York’s Sami Whitcomb). She’d been called for a tech. At that point, the Phoenix Mercury’s improbable bench hero figured, why not keep the celebration going a little longer? “Fuck it!” she yelled triumphantly after the foul call, jogging back to the other side of the court. The Liberty’s technical free throw shaved a point off the Mercury’s narrow lead, but Cunningham would make up for it. Some 30 seconds later, she made her fourth straight three-pointer.
Phoenix’s 83-82 win was the sort of basketball game that reduces its viewers to pathetic stammering. Lots of Who, you? What, that? as players random and established alike wrested control only to cede it to someone else a few seconds later; the thrilling fourth quarter saw 16 total ties and lead changes. The Mercury got hot in the second half of the regular season and entered the game favored over the Liberty, the worst playoff team in WNBA history with their .375 regular season record, but the range of possible outcomes widened a tiny bit when Phoenix announced Diana Taurasi would miss the game with an ankle injury. And when, early on, the team bereft at center seemed somewhat capable of defending Brittney Griner in the post, the game became anyone’s for the taking.
The Liberty—all credit to them—tried taking it. The double teams they sent Griner limited the typically surefire center to a criminal eight shot attempts. (She did manage to pass outside to lead her team in assists, with six.) Betnijah Laney, New York’s no-doubt star this season, made an already-interesting game more interesting when she answered a Skylar Diggins-Smith layup with a clutch three to tie things up with less than three seconds left to play.
But by some miracle, Phoenix avoided overtime. Forward Brianna Turner drew a foul with 0.4 seconds left. She missed the first free throw—commence stammering!!!—but made the second—whew!—and Sabrina Ionescu could only jack up a short three-point attempt over Griner.
You wouldn’t be mistaken to see shades of Phoenix’s last first-round game here: teetering on elimination by a less-talented lower seed and rescued from the upset by someone unlikely. A year ago, it was Shey Peddy, heaving up one dramatic three with less than a second left on the clock. (Funny enough, Peddy was completely cold from three Thursday night. “I know I sucked today lol,” she even tweeted.) This time, Cunningham gave the Mercury six threes of heightening drama on seven attempts to finish the game with 21 points, a career-high. Since being drafted to Phoenix from Mizzou in 2019, Cunningham has played a role no larger than “floor spacer,” someone who could shoot, hypothetically, if not necessarily someone who does very often. She averaged just six points a game this season, which could be her last in Phoenix; the Mercury chose to decline her option and let her hit unrestricted free agency when the year is up. A highlight video the team made of her 2020 season is not quite two minutes long.
But when the season’s on the line, you take what you get and you don’t ask questions. “We don’t care who scores,” said Cunningham herself after the game. The thought is an admirable one, though I’d imagine Phoenix would prefer its stars be healthy and engaged enough to avoid close calls and bizarre hero origin stories like these in the future.
As for the Liberty, there’s some justice in the outcome. If the league’s playoff format cannot do the job of slamming the door on a team that went 12-and-damn-20 in the regular season, then let a fiery 25-year-old Missourian do it. But you could also look at the night and reasonably think the team is just some injury luck and frontcourt additions away from being good.
The Mercury advance to face the Seattle Storm in the second round single-elimination game on Sunday afternoon—one more Bird vs. Taurasi showdown for old times’ sake.