Friday night at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, in a game that was supposed to be all about Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith tied a career high with 35 points to go along with six rebounds and six assists. Taurasi starred too, with 28 points, seven boards, seven helpers, three steals and two blocks in her final regular-season meeting with the retiring Bird, who is first all-time in WNBA games played. Taurasi moved into sole possession of second on Friday in what was her 500th regular-season contest.
Diggins-Smith and Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury won the game, 94-78 over Bird’s Seattle Storm, thanks to a 17-0 fourth-quarter run that took the score from 75-71 to 92-71. The key part of the run came when Sophie Cunningham (19 points) hit a quick-release, left-corner three to make it 82-71 and Diggins-Smith followed with a three that made it 85-71 with 3:50 to go. Before those back-to-back triples Seattle was still in it, but Cunningham and Diggins-Smith electrified the home crowd and turned what had been a close game throughout into an embarrassing showing for a team that expects to win the championship this year.
The Mercury (12-16) have faced their fair share of turmoil this year and Diggins-Smith was actually in trade rumors not too long ago. But the deadline has passed and Diggins-Smith is very much a part of a Phoneix team that looked very dangerous on Friday night and that, with the Dallas Wings’ loss, moved into a tie with Dallas for the eighth and final playoff spot.
“When you have a crowd like that and you’re at home and you get rolling a little bit, it feels good, especially the type of season we’ve had, you know, it felt good to give the fans a little bit something extra to look forward to,” Taurasi said.
“You play with a different level of desperation. We know where we’re at in the standings and how important every game is, especially down the stretch. So you try to find a little bit more energy and a little bit more hunger. But at the end of the day you have to go and play the game the right way. And when we’ve been able to do that for long stretches we’ve been pretty good and when we don’t, we stink. It’s a battle of teams and what you can bring to the table every day. If we can be a little bit more consistent, I think we’ll have a good chance.”
The Storm (17-10, fourth place) had just lost a showdown between two of the league’s best teams by just four points and was expecting a win the most meaningful road game of Bird’s regular-season farewell tour. As discussed here, they had their sights set on the six of their remaining 10 games that were to be against the Top 5 teams in the league. Lowly Phoenix wasn’t supposed to knock them out of third place before any of those contests occurred.
The unexpected result made Bird, not Taurasi, the one in a bad mood at their joint postgame press conference and left her saying this was a game she will probably lean toward leaving out of future reminiscing moments when she’s talking about her battles with Taurasi.
It was a special night in the history of the WNBA, but there was no denying that this one stung for Seattle.
“Really frustrating giving up that many points in the fourth quarter,” said Storm MVP candidate Breanna Stewart, who scored a team-high 22 points and hauled in a game-high 14 rebounds. “We need to be better and that’s really it.”
The stars came out to play in this one as Diggins-Smith and Taurasi obviously had their nights and Cunningham, a scrappy hard worker out of Missouri turned 36-point scorer on July 12, had hers. Stewart, meanwhile was backed up by co-stars Tina Charles (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Jewell Loyd (15 points, five assists).
Mercury got 87.2% of their scoring from 3 players. 95.7% from 4.— Zack Ward (@Zack_L_Ward) July 23, 2022
Bird was held to two points, but took just one shot and had five assists. She was honored before the game, as was Briann January, who is also retiring and played for the Mercury and the Arizona State Sun Devils.
“It wasn't that different,” Bird said of it being her final regular-season game against Taurasi. “There was no extra anything on this. I think of this as another game in the story of our WNBA ‘rivalry.’ And I think of it more as just a celebration. I don’t think of it beyond that.”
“To have Sue and D’s potentially last game, last regular-season game, it’s great to be around,” Stewart said. “It’s great to kind of be able to soak in that moment. Obviously we’re on Sue’s little, I like to call it ‘Sue’s world tour,’ where she just gets appreciated and gets her flowers. But also Briann, her last game here, potentially, as well. So I think if anything, that’s the good thing to take from today is the way they were appreciated and celebrated.”
“I’m a part of history, our team is a part of history,” Loyd said. “Not so often that you get to play against Hall-of-Famers and play with Hall-of-Famers. I’ve been lucky to be friends with both (Sue and Diana), experience some great times and memories with them. Obviously it’s been an honor to share the court with them.”
All great sentiment from Seattle’s big three, but Taurasi delivered the quote of the night, saying, “In any profession, when you get to do something with your best friend for 20 years, life’s good.”
Mercedes Russell out for year
The Storm have announced that Russell is out for the rest of the season:
INJURY UPDATE: Seattle Storm center Mercedes Russell underwent a successful procedure on Tuesday (July 19) to treat recurrent low-pressure headaches and will miss the remainder of the regular season. An update on her status will be provided when available.#TakeCover— Seattle Storm PR (@SeattleStormPR) July 21, 2022
Russell was supposed to be a key contributor for the Storm this year and was one of the reasons the team felt excited about its championship chances at the beginning of the season. She was the team’s starting center last year and was expected to start again this year and be one of the best players on the team after the big three of Stewart, Loyd and Taurasi.
During some early-season struggles, people would point out the fact that Russell wasn’t back yet. People have been pointing that out less and less, but she is still a key piece that has been missing. Third-year 22-year-old Ezi Magbegor started up until Friday night, when Charles started, in Russell’s absence and has been one of the league’s most improved players and an All-Star candidate. Charles’ addition adds depth to the frontcourt and Charles is obviously one of the best scorers in WNBA history, which Russell is not, so she is an upgrade. So the Storm have put themselves in a better position to weather Russell’s absence than where they were at the beginning of the season.