Mercury head into playoffs as favorites vs. Liberty in win-or-go-home opener

Sep 22, 2021, 5:15 PM
(L-R) Brianna Turner #21, Diana Taurasi #3, Sophie Cunningham #9, Brittney Griner #42 and Skylar Di...
(L-R) Brianna Turner #21, Diana Taurasi #3, Sophie Cunningham #9, Brittney Griner #42 and Skylar Diggins-Smith #4 of the Phoenix Mercury huddle up during the first half of the WNBA game against the Los Angeles Sparks at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 27, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It has been an unconventional season for the 2021 Phoenix Mercury, so leave it to them to have the fate of that season on the line in a win-or-go-home best-of-one start to the playoffs against the New York Liberty at Grand Canyon University on Thursday.

Phoenix, the fifth seed in the tournament after a 19-13 regular season, is coming off a second half of the year in which it won 10 straight games before ending on a three-game losing streak.

The big question for the Mercury heading into the game is the health of the G.O.A.T. Diana Taurasi, who has missed exactly half of the team’s 32 regular season games. In those, Phoenix was 7-9. With her, the Mercury went 12-4.

Taurasi was out for the team’s last four games of the season, including that three-game skid, due to a left ankle issue. While head coach Sandy Brondello wouldn’t fully commit on Wednesday to Taurasi playing, she said Tuesday they’re building her up to do that and the expectation is that she will be ready.

On the injury report, Taurasi is listed as questionable.

The 17-year vet didn’t practice on Tuesday or Wednesday but was back on the court Monday as her ramp-up continues.

“She’s been in this situation before,” Brondello said of Taurasi on Tuesday. “She’s preparing it, she’s mentally tough and it’ll be nice to have her back out there.”

Taurasi, of course, has invaluable experience with the single-elimination format, boasting an incredible 7-1 record in them and an even more impressive 14-2 mark overall in playoff games that are winner-take-all. Her playing or not matters just a smidge, as she’s averaging 23.1 points per game in those contests and has scored 25-plus in seven of them.

As the higher seed, not only do the Mercury get homecourt for the matchup at GCU, but they also draw the 12-20 Liberty as the lowest seed (eighth) to make the postseason.

But don’t judge the Liberty by that record as a cakewalk for Phoenix. The Mercury with 2021 Olympic gold medalists Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Taurasi will be able to match or best just about any team in top-tier talent, and even though that’s the case with New York, it has capable star players.

Leading scorer and All-Star guard Betnijah Laney was the WNBA’s Most Improved Player in 2020 and made First Team All-Defense that year as well, making a name for herself the past two seasons as an aggressive scorer. Center Natasha Howard won three titles with Seattle, was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 and had a strong season this year of 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. And then there’s triple-double college phenom and 2020 No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu playing in her first-ever playoff game.

“They’re all dangerous in their own way,” Brondello said of the trio.

With that in mind, the Mercury will be the favorites. What makes the game so fascinating, however, is that with this format comes playing a team in the Liberty that chucks up three-pointers unlike any other team in league history, adding some good ol’ fashioned shooting variance to the one-off equation.

New York attempted a league-record 27.7 trey balls per game. A 36.2% conversion rate that was third in the WNBA this season allowed them to average 10.0 3s a night, making them the first team in league history to get that number to double digits.

It’s a team effort too. Six Liberty players tossed up at least 100 of ’em in the regular season, with Sami Whitcomb (42.5%) and Rebecca Allen (38.1%) being two snipers to keep an eye on.

“The team as a whole, it’s a team obviously that’s going to sprint around and shoot a lot of 3s, and if those 3s go in it could be a really long night,” Brondello said.

The matchup will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday on ESPN2.

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