Call it one of the WNBA’s more intimate charms: Coaches mic’d up during games seem to have fewer pretensions to composure or secrecy than their counterparts in the men’s league. Where you might otherwise hear a stilted Terry Stotts reminding his team to play offense and defense (what insight!), Tuesday night’s first-round single-elimination WNBA playoff game between the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury and eighth-seeded Washington Mystics featured the Aussie-twanged exasperations of Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello. “Come oooooooon!” she cried. “We’re better than that!”
The Mercury, indeed, were a better team than their 13-point deficit after the first half. Though they’d struggled for much of the regular season to field a full roster—a season-ending knee injury to Bria Hartley and the departure of Brittney Griner from the Florida bubble for personal reasons in late August among those struggles—Phoenix won seven of its last nine games, thanks to an elite backcourt in offseason addition Skylar Diggins-Smith and the ever-dependable Diana Taurasi, still playing some of her best basketball at 38 years old. The two were slow to warm up last night, though, and the Mystics mounted an impressive defense to force Mercury turnovers and keep the duo’s scoring low.
Reigning champions the Mystics may be, but these were the Mystics of Theseus, altered to the point of reinvention by the opt-outs of 2019 starters LaToya Sanders, Natasha Cloud, and MVP Elena Delle Donne. This season’s team was fronted by a different cast in guard Ariel Atkins, ball-handling post player Myisha Hines-Allen, and the once-sixth woman Emma Meesseman. That Washington had eked into the playoffs at all after a stretch of 12 losses in 13 games early on was one of the season’s sweeter stories, and it seemed poised to manage the upset. Meesseman’s vision and high scoring from Atkins and guard Leilani Mitchell put the Mercury at what seemed like an insurmountable disadvantage for most of the game. When the fourth quarter began, the Mercury still trailed by 11.
But a succession of huge threes from Diggins-Smith and Taurasi brought Phoenix alive in the fourth quarter, propelling a five-minute 17-0 Mercury run to give them a 78-73 lead with 4:23 left in the game. (Taurasi would finish with 23 points and six assists; Diggins-Smith with 24 points, five assists, and six rebounds.) The Mystics scored in the final two minutes off a late Diggins-Smith turnover and a three-pointer and free throw from Mitchell, who gave the Mystics a two-point lead with 5.8 seconds remaining.
“We gotta get you that shot, Sky,” the mic’d up Brondello said, furiously scribbling up something for Diggins-Smith back in the huddle. “We got six seconds; it’s a long time.”
The play didn’t quite go as planned. Taurasi inbounded to Diggins-Smith, but she was quickly double-teamed and without any passing lane back to Taurasi, the second option. Instead, Diggins-Smith lobbed it over her defenders and across the court to her wide-open teammate in the corner, Shey Peddy, who made her WNBA debut last year at the age of 30 following a career overseas. Peddy chose to sign with the Mercury last month after being waived by, funny enough, the Mystics, who had hoped to bring her back after she cleared waivers.
Six seconds is a long time, but they’d dwindled to less than two by the time Peddy caught the pass. As Mitchell closed in on her, Peddy managed a slow pump fake that sent Mitchell through the air, and had about .8 seconds left to get a shot off, which she did, to deliver the Mercury an 85-84 win.
The Mercury play the fourth-seeded Minnesota Lynx in a second-round single-elimination game Thursday night for a spot in the semifinals.