Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury almost ran out of time and don’t have much left.
The 2018 All-WNBA guard did not make her 2019 debut until July 12 after undergoing back surgery prior to the start of the season.
A setback in that game kept her out for another six weeks. She’s logged 74 minutes in her first three games since returning to action, shooting an abysmal 2-for-23 from the field. At least the Mercury are locked into the No. 8 seed after back-to-back blowout losses at the hands of the Chicago Sky and Seattle Storm.
Double- and single-byes and even homecourt advantage in round one are obviously out of reach now. Taurasi and the Mercury will face the same playoff path for a fourth consecutive year: They must win two single-elimination playoff games just to make it to a best-of-five semifinal series.
Everybody is still entertaining the same thought: Regardless of their regular-season record, you don’t want a postseason date with Phoenix. They have Taurasi’s experience, relentless nature and shot-making in clutch situations. She’s also flanked by two of the league’s most talented scorers in Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner.
But the 2019 Mercury have no flow.
The initial Taurasi injury set them back in a major way from a continuity standpoint. They aren’t good enough to go on a deep run without her but can now only hope she hits her stride in time.
They’ve missed her scoring, yes. Her leadership, on-court communication, vision and play-making have also been dearly missed. But this is her age-37 season, and we don’t know what the end is going to look like. Will it be abrupt or gradual in nature? She’s expected to still be a core piece of the 2020 Olympic team.
Now can’t be the end, right?
If she can even come close to last season’s stellar level of play, the Mercury will be the biggest challenger to the Washington Mystics—even if two single-elimination rounds stand in their way.
That’s because roles can fall back into place with a full-strength Taurasi in the fold. Griner can feast even more rolling to the rim and from the low block with the team’s best passer setting her up. Bonner can spend more time creating out of advantage situations as the No. 2 perimeter option. She was overextended as a No. 1 option.
Opponents will have to gameplan for Taurasi and Leilani Mitchell as pull-up 3-point shooters. Not being able to duck under screens will force them to either crank up the pressure or spend more time scrambling in rotation to get out to 3-point shooters.
Briann January, Essence Carson, Yvonne Turner and Sophie Cunningham will become more dangerous spot-up threats. Taurasi is one of the league’s very best zipping skip passes across the court at just the right moment.
September 3: Seattle Storm 82, Phoenix Mercury 70
Taurasi is a pick-and-roll passing savant, and the gap between her and everybody else is quite large. Nobody else in the league slings one-handed cross-court passes right on target with a defender in her face. The return of her playmaking has already made a marked impact.
But hold that thought.
She’s 4-of-39 from the field this season. The jumper just isn’t falling.
August 25: Chicago Sky 94, Phoenix Mercury 86
Taurasi completely breaks defenses when those shots are falling.
Do you switch? That likely gives Griner a huge mismatch to drag into the post.
Sending help from elsewhere leaves another 3-point shooter open for a spot-up look.
A glass-half-full viewing of the shooting struggles has some merit. Rewatch that missed pull-up triple. When Griner makes contact above the arc, it creates a perfect bubble for Taurasi to step into a shot every single time.
Go under the initial screen, and Griner will accomplish the same goal hitting you with a re-screen.
If you’re on board with the optimistic approach, Taurasi getting targeted on the other end might become a bigger playoff concern.
Phoenix must use the final days of the regular season wisely, but we just don’t know what that the optimal path looks like for Taurasi, though.
Should rest still be the top priority?
Or should getting up as many shots as possible become the clear-cut priority with the idea that she’ll be in a groove once a few more looks go down?
Nobody saw this coming. Taurasi entered last season in great shape and had one of the best seasons of her career. The Mercury sprinkled in some young talent around their veteran core and added 3-and-D wing Essence Carson.
Management did its part piecing together a roster that could win in the twilight of Taurasi’s career. Though some may have expected more from a win-loss perspective, Griner and Bonner gave all they could to shoulder the scoring load meant for three.
Playing in single-elimination at all would be seen as failure had the regular season gone as planned. But it didn’t.
Now the same format they’ve worked so hard to avoid just might become their best and only friend: Rattle off two wins and the team stuck in the mud will enter the semifinals with the same confidence of the team that nearly toppled the eventual champion Storm last season.
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.