There are many criticisms of the single-elimination playoff format the WNBA uses in the early rounds, but the upside is it can create games like the one we saw on Sunday. After a dramatic, back-and-forth contest, the Phoenix Mercury beat the Seattle Storm 85-80 in overtime in the second round.
Brittney Griner went off for 23 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and two blocks on 11 of 17 from the field, while Skylar Diggins-Smith put up 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Veteran guard Diana Taurasi, who was questionable due to an ankle injury, added 14 points -- five of which came in overtime.
The Mercury will now move on to the semifinals, where they'll face either the Connecticut Sun or Las Vegas Aces. Meanwhile, this is the end of the road for the defending champion Seattle Storm, who were playing without injured superstar Breanna Stewart.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
Brittney Griner didn't play poorly in the first round against the New York Liberty, but she didn't put up big numbers because the Liberty were intent on keeping the ball out of her hands. While the Storm did send double teams her way, they didn't lean all the way into the strategy of denying Griner.
As a result, the Mercury center put up one of the best playoff games of her career. She was a presence on both ends of the floor and finished with 23 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Even more important was that when the Mercury needed a bucket down the stretch, she delivered, scoring eight of their final nine points in the fourth quarter.
Griner has been playing at this level ever since she returned from the Olympics, where she starred for Team USA in their run to the gold medal. With her size and skill around the basket, she is arguably the biggest matchup problem in the league, and when she plays like this the Mercury can beat anyone.
Turner's sequence swings the game
Brianna Turner flies under the radar on a Mercury team with the likes of Griner, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi. But while she might not get the headlines, she's still a key part of their success because of her defensive prowess and efficient finishing around the basket.
Both of those traits shone through when it really mattered on Sunday. The Mercury were a little bit out of sorts at the beginning of overtime and trailed by three with just four minutes remaining. It looked like the deficit was about to be five as Ezi Magbegor went to the basket, but Turner had other ideas. She came out of nowhere for a massive rejection and the Mercury immediately capitalized with a Taurasi 3-pointer to tie the game. On the very next possession, Turner got free inside to put the Mercury in front.
That sequence swung the game in the Mercury's favor and capped a terrific all-around game for Turner, who finished with 12 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and three blocks.
Loyd's struggles doom Seattle
With Breanna Stewart out due to a foot injury, the Storm were going to need other players to step up in this game. Many did, as they got a career-high 18 points from Katie Lou Samuelson, 15 points from Sue Bird and 10 points from Mercedes Russell. Unfortunately, Jewell Loyd did not deliver.
In fact, she turned in one of her worst games of the season, struggling to 15 points on 5 of 24 from the field. That was her second-worst shooting percentage of the season, and it couldn't have come at a worse time for the Storm. Inside or outside, Loyd just couldn't get anything to go down, including a potential game-winning shot in the closing seconds of regulation.
What makes the performance even more frustrating was that the Storm did get other contributions and didn't need a Loyd masterpiece. If she had even put together a solid game instead, they probably win. But that's just how things go sometimes, and both Loyd and the Storm will be back in contention next season.
Bird's last game?
Sue Bird has been taking things year by year for a while now, but when the last few seasons came to an end, there generally wasn't much expectation that Bird would actually retire. Not when she was still playing at a high level and the Storm were title contenders.
But this time, things feel a little bit different. Perhaps it was because that the Storm were eliminated by the Mercury and her good friend Diana Taurasi, or perhaps it's the fact that she's about to turn 41 years old. Either way, the postgame activity on Sunday felt like a possible send-off. She exchanged jerseys with Taurasi and the fans chanted for "one more year."
If that was indeed the last we've seen of Bird, it's the end of a historic career that saw her win four titles, make 12 All-Star Games and eight All-WNBA appearances. She's the only player to win titles in three different decades, and one of the best point guards to ever play the game.
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