Sometimes, a single moment in a game tells the entire story. Sometimes, the moment tells two stories—and they’re entirely different. With 34 seconds left in overtime of WNBA Finals Game 2 on Wednesday night and the Mercury up three points, Diana Taurasi pawed the ball away from Courtney Vandersloot. On the fast break attempt, the Chicago defenders bearing down on Taurasi drove her toward the sideline, where she stumbled but contorted her torso just so to keep the ball in bounds long enough for head coach Sandy Brondello to take a timeout. That’s one story of the game: A team with no margin for error ran right up against the margins but, by turns gutsy and unusual, kept within them. Phoenix won 91-86 to tie the series up before it moves to Chicago for Games 3 and 4.
How does that story begin? If early bad shooting from Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith spelled a treacherous path forward for the Mercury, Brittney Griner made it much smoother and Phoenix’s role players relished the challenge of closing the remaining gap. Enthusiastic heel Sophie Cunningham got hot from three in the first quarter. Shey Peddy, lovable nomad and unlikely hero, kept Phoenix close in the third quarter when Chicago looked ready to pull away. On the defensive end, Brianna Turner proved a superb anchor, capable of switching onto just about anyone and good for two blocks and three steals. This late in her career, Taurasi is a player whose gifts sometimes have to be summoned. As if by some kind of witchcraft, the rest of the team cultivated the precise conditions for her to awaken in overtime. When she did, it was in a way she is not really known to. “We joked a little bit about her, the biggest play of the day was the steal. Diana doesn’t steal very often,” Brondello said afterward.
Ah, but let’s Rashomon this: With 34 seconds left, yada yada, the Chicago defenders drove Taurasi toward the sideline, and in fact, across it. A furious James Wade, head coach of the Sky, couldn’t believe something so obvious had been overlooked. Here’s another story: A team with no margin for error, the worse team for long stretches of this game, had the margin widened considerably by a generous home (and star) whistle. “I just think they played more physical, and I think they were allowed to,” said Wade after the game. “We shot four free throws. Four free throws. Call it what you will. I’ve never seen that ratio in a league game before.” Per the website Across the Timeline, valuable guardian of WNBA stats and records, the Sky’s four free throw attempts are tied for the second-fewest in a WNBA playoff game. (The team with the fewest? The Mercury, from a 2014 Finals game against the Sky.)
Earning the tolerance of refs is a skill itself, of course, one that becomes extra valuable when the games are as close as they’ve been for Phoenix in the playoffs, and one Taurasi has had 17 seasons to sharpen. I couldn’t help but marvel at that skill rewatching this big ol’ mess of a play: an ugly missed layup, the scrap for an offensive rebound, the staredown from Kahleah Copper, and finally (what appears to be from this angle) Taurasi more or less shoving a referee out of the way, to the referee’s—I don’t know—mild annoyance? Not anything more than that.
Howard Megdal, editor of very good women’s basketball site The Next (subscribe!), mentioned to me a few weeks ago that he thought the WNBA had missed its opportunity to market Taurasi as the league’s villain. On nights like last night, I wonder whether she really needs all that much help. No one puts a viewer on edge quite like she does. On Wednesday, she scored two points in the first half and 18 in the second, which makes her amazing and also kind of an asshole. This applies to the whole team, really. The Sky with their responsible, balanced offense evoke the phrase “pick your poison.” With the Mercury, there’s no telling how potent any given poison will be at any time. Griner can look out of it in Game 1; she can put up 29 points and dunk in Game 2. Diggins-Smith can miss a million layups only to make the one that ices the game. Sophie damn Cunningham can just start being amazing in the playoffs! Inconsistency might make a team easier to defeat, but it can also frustrate. The worst enemy is the unknowable one.
The Mercury refuse to die. Their most villainous quality is the one I never thought they had in them, the strength to withstand Chicago’s momentum, to make something out of nothing, even down nine or 10 points late. Nothing about the Mercury of the last few years or even the Mercury of the regular season suggested they could so consistently dig themselves out of trouble. But in close games, they have not a whiff of “loser mentality” to them. They dig, they claw, they disgust, but they survive, and that’s all they need to do.