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Semifinal slump hinders Phoenix again; swept 3rd straight year

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The Phoenix Mercury gave it everything they had, but couldn’t muster the strength to pull force a game 4 in the WNBA semifinals, suffering their third straight sweep in the prelude to the Finals.

Los Angeles Sparks v Phoenix Mercury - Game Three Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

PHOENIX, AZ — 2.9 seconds.

For the Los Angeles Sparks, it was the difference between having to play another game in Phoenix and potentially setting up a must-win scenario. For the Phoenix Mercury, it was the difference between fighting another day or riding into the sunset.

And with one Candace Parker layup, the fate of the Mercury was decided for them.

For the third straight postseason, Phoenix was swept in the second-to-last round of the WNBA Playoffs. And for the third straight postseason, they were eliminated at home. One can’t help but think that of all of those losses, this one hurt the most.

For the first time in the entire series, Phoenix looked like the dominant team that everyone expected coming into this series. Leilani Mitchell was all over the floor, providing the speed and energy that the lineup needed. Camille Little, who had only scored 12 points in the entire playoffs, scored the same amount IN THE FIRST QUARTER.

And when it mattered the most, their fearless leader Diana Taurasi made the shots that she is supposed to make...in the moments that matter the most.

Yet every time the Mercury looked like they put it all together, something went wrong. In the case of game three, there was the lack of shutdown defense (notice how each time Phoenix crept up, the Sparks pulled away); the two technical fouls less than two minutes apart in the third quarter by Taurasi and head coach Sandy Brondello; and last but certainly not least, the lack of bench production.

The defense has been a sore spot the entire series. In the three-game sweep, the Mercury allowed 79, 86 and 89 points, not too far from their season average of 81.9 points a game during the regular season.

However, the entire goal is to score more points than your opponent, and the Mercury simply failed to do that. In all but game three, the Mercury failed to score more than 75 points; their season average was also 81.9 a game.

Their frustration was also apparent, and at times where it was the most inopportune. The fourth quarter of game three was a perfect example. Mercury center Brittney Griner had been the victim of suspect foul calling, but wasn’t receiving any calls when she was fouled.

Sandy Brondello, Phoenix’s head coach, took exception to it, and finally spoke on it, receiving a tech, Taurasi didn’t like the call, and responded in kind. She, too, got a tech.

In the post-game conference, when asked about the lack of foul calling on Los Angeles’ behalf, Taurasi spoke with tongue in cheek, but the anger was clear.

“I don’t want to get fined,” Taurasi said. “I don’t make enough money in the WNBA.”

The more apparent sore spot is one that has plagued them most of the season: the lack of production from the bench. Even before the season began, the Mercury’s bench was hit with a major loss: the announcement that three-time Sixth Woman of the Year DeWanna Bonner would miss the season due to pregnancy.

To top that off, all but two players from their 2016 squad would return, meaning there was no sense of cohesion early on in the season.

The lack of cohesion spilled into the postseason. Despite winning the first two single-elimination rounds of the playoffs, none of the games were truly convincing victories. The first-round win against Seattle was more a matter of experience against youth. You can argue that the second game against Connecticut could have gone either way, and that they won by only five points speaks to that.

In the series against Los Angeles, their bench combined to score a whopping 28 points. When going up against a team such as Los Angeles, with a starting lineup full of threats, the bench needed to step it up a notch. And when it mattered the most, the bench failed.

For almost any other team (the Minnesota Lynx excluded), making three straight trips to the semifinal round of the playoffs would be a cause for possible celebration. But when you have a core of players like Griner and Taurasi, anything short of championship is considered failing.

And now, for the third straight year in a row, the Phoenix Mercury are left to wonder what could have been, and what they need to fix.