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Taurasi’s surprise benching halts Phoenix’s playoff bid again

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With a chance to clinch a playoff spot, the Phoenix Mercury couldn’t stop the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks from sweeping the season series.

Barry Gossage/Getty Images

PHOENIX, AZ — All the Phoenix Mercury had to do was win and they could sleep easy knowing they were in the playoffs.

The Los Angeles Sparks (23-8) had no intention of allowing Phoenix that rest. With four players in double figures, the defending champs and current #2 seed defeated the Mercury (15-16) 82-67, sweeping the season series and threatening the Mercury’s playoff hopes.

Phoenix already had a huge weight on its shoulders; they went into Thursday’s game with a 15-15 record and only held the sixth playoff spot by two games over the Seattle Storm and Dallas Wings. But then Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello gave Diana Taurasi the night off, forcing the Mercury to try and clinch without one of their key players.

Brondello explained that for the long haul, it was better to have Taurasi sit now than later.

“Four games in seven days, she can’t do that. We probably should have kept her out of Minnesota, but I was thinking with two players out we maybe have a little chance there, but she had no energy there. When you got no fuel in the tank, she just needs a few days off, because a fresh Diana with fresh legs is going to help us more than a tired Diana at the moment, and we need that going forward.”

Taurasi was caught off by the decision, but was understanding about her coach’s mindset making the choice.

“I was expecting to play tonight and Sandy told me I wasn’t…I want to play. I know I don’t have many left, so I want to play. I mean I understand.” Taurasi continued, “I mean when you play year-round basketball, you have to do things that help you in the long run as a team right now. I’d rather have been out there than sitting on the bench, I can tell you that. But what are you going to do.”

At first, it looked like Phoenix was going to be just fine. An early three-pointer by Camille Little gave the Mercury the first basket of the game, but the Sparks charged back on an 8-0 run. The two teams went back and forth, with Emma Cannon giving the advantage to Phoenix with a two-pointer to end the first quarter, giving the Mercury an 18-16 lead.

That first quarter lead would be Phoenix’s last.

Sparks guard Odyssey Sims scored the first four points of the second quarter, putting the visitors in the driver’s seat permanently. The Sparks, driven by Sims and defending MVP Nneka Ogwumike, outscored the Mercury 26-13 to take a 42-31 lead into halftime.

The halftime break gave Phoenix a small boost, as they scored the first five points of the quarter while Los Angeles went on a small cold streak. But Ogwumike woke up the Sparks’ offense, making two jumpers in 15 seconds to boost Los Angeles’ lead back to double digits. Chelsea Gray made a 14-footer with 2:09 left in the quarter to give the Sparks a 60-40 lead -- from there it was essentially easy coasting.

With a playoff spot in the balance, Phoenix couldn’t afford to rest Griner in the final quarter, and she gave it everything she had. But every time Griner made a basket or made a key defensive play, it was negated by a turnover or a Los Angeles basket.

The nail in the coffin came with 1:25 left in the game when Griner made her final layup of the contest. Sims and Ogwumike again went on a small run, scoring the final six points of the game to give the Sparks the clean sweep in the season series.

Odyssey Sims, traded from Dallas before the season began, led all scorers with 28 points, leading a pack of four Sparks (Ogwumike - 21, Chelsea Gray and Candace Parker had 12 apiece) in double-figure points. For Sims, her performance, as well as the team, was just a matter of doing what they do on a regular basis.

“I’m just going with the flow of the game, taking shots that I normally do, just being aggressive. I think in the first and second quarter we got to a point where we were not settling for jumpers but we didn’t get anything offensively. Coach told us to attack more and that was our mentality.”

Phoenix got 18 points from Brittney Griner to go along with four blocks, but didn’t get much else from the rest of the starting lineup. The other four starters combined to score 18 points (including zero from Taurasi’s replacement, Danielle Robinson). A big factor in the lack of production was the team’s 20 turnovers, something that head coach Sandy Brondello says needs to be reigned in.

“It’s been a problem actually the last two games in particular, turnovers have really been our Achilles’ Heel and a lot of them are unforced, so it’s just uncharacteristic of our team,” Brondello said. “The big thing is that’s just being locked in with what we want to do and it’s really hurting us.

“You can’t win a game when they score 29 points off of turnovers, you just can’t, and the last two games were 27 points. You just can’t do that.”

For the Sparks, they have a chance to tie for the best record in the league on Sunday, when they take on their opponent in last year’s Finals, the league-leading 24-6 Minnesota Lynx. As for Phoenix, their quest to clinch a playoff spot will take them to Seattle on Sunday, when they take on the Storm, who are also hungry for the playoffs.