Phoenix Mercury holds onto hopes for a first-round bye

The stakes were high. The Phoenix Mercury still have a chance to grab the four seed in the playoffs for that all-important first-round bye

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PALMETTO, FL - SEPTEMBER 9: Skylar Diggins-Smith #4 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball against the Connecticut Sun on September 9, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images)

The stakes were high. The Phoenix Mercury still have a chance to grab the four seed in the playoffs for that all-important first-round bye. They weren’t so high on Wednesday night that they overshadowed old friendships, though.

As the action resumed in the second quarter of the Mercury’s rematch with the Connecticut Sun, DeWanna Bonner tripped as Diana Taurasi chased her around the key. Bonner fell to the ground. As play continued around them, Taurasi stopped and reached out to her former teammate as if by instinct. As Bonner got back on her feet, a foul was called on the Mercury’s Kia Vaughn behind them.

Perhaps it was unwise to be so generous, with Taurasi taking herself out of the play and helping Connecticut get back to full strength. At the time it didn’t look like it would matter, anyway. The Mercury were blowing out the Sun as they ran out to a 51-31 lead at the half.

Lack of depth would rear its head as the game wore on and the Mercury’s legs got heavy.

Taurasi had 18 points at the half. She went 5-of-9 from the field and hit three of her seven 3-point attempts. When the second half rolled around, she hit only one of her eight field-goal attempts. She would score five points in the second half and five more in overtime.

“I thought she got a little tired,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said. “That’s the only reason she missed.”

The Sun came back to take the lead in the third quarter as Phoenix seemed to fade, scoring just 10 points while one shot after another missed its mark. Connecticut was down to 10 players, but Phoenix had just seven who were both healthy and prepared to play.

Bonner hit a 3-pointer with 6.5 seconds left in regulation. The Sun had a one-point lead, but the Mercury had the ball in Taurasi’s hands as she hurried up the court. The problem? She hurried up the right side of the court far too close to the sideline and stepped out of bounds.

A Shey Peddy foul on Bonner with 3.4 on the clock was the only option. It meant a three-point lead for the Sun. It looked like Bonner had put the dagger into her former teammates’ hearts for the second time in three nights.

Not so fast.

Skylar Diggins-Smith—the woman who was Bonner’s replacement in the Mercury’s Big Three—sped down the court and let it fly just past halfcourt. Swish. Overtime.

“I was already feeling terrible because I was guarding DB obviously when she hit that 3,” Brianna Turner said. “So, my soul sort of left my body. And then when Sky hit that 3 to send it to overtime, my soul came back.”

When Phoenix emerged from the extra period with their thirteenth victory of the season, it was more than just revenge for the 15-point loss on Monday night. It was more than just redemption for letting the Sun get back into it after the Mercury dominated the first 20 minutes of the game.

“We weathered the storm,” Brondello said. “And that’s what I love about this team. They never give up. We’ve got some walking wounded out there, too, but they just keep competing and keep doing it together.”

Together the Mercury had salvaged a chance to get that elusive first-round bye in the playoffs. It would be a first for the franchise under the current WNBA playoff format. Since the current format was adopted for the 2016 season, the team has never earned a bye.

Most of the time, playing in the opening rounds hasn’t presented a problem for Phoenix. Until 2019, they had never lost in the single-elimination rounds. This year is different, though.

The team has struggled mightily with roster instability in the wubble, losing one player after another to injury or personal concerns. Can they maintain their intensity through all of the extra games that come with finishing outside the top four?

“It is what it is,” Brondello said. “So, there’s no use worrying about what we don’t have. I’m focusing on what we do have.”

To get by the Sun, the Mercury needed a 28-point game from Taurasi. They needed Diggins-Smith to come up with her heroic play at the end of regulation as part of a 33-point effort. Brianna Turner had to put together the WNBA’s first-ever stat line of at least 10 points, 20 rebounds, five assists, and four blocks. Her 21 boards set a franchise record.

“Everyone has to step up, not just one person,” Brondello said. “Just keep competing and keep talking. We will solve problems together.”

Will they go all-out to try to grab that first-round bye or put their faith in their ability to win back-to-back single-elimination games?

“To be quite honest, I really don’t know how we’re gonna play Seattle,” Brondello said. “We may not have many of our players play many big minutes.”

The Mercury need to beat the Storm on Friday to have any chance at earning the extra rest for their players. They also need help in the form of at least one loss by the Lynx.