Seven things from the Phoenix Mercury’s 101-83 win over the Dallas Wings in the first round of the WNBA playoffs on Tuesday night:
I. With three and a half minutes left in the third quarter of the single-elimination playoff game between the Mercury and the Wings, the Mercury, who were in the process of opening up the game, found themselves in a bit of a pickle. DeWanna Bonner, who had played well all night and whose defense was very responsible for having helped turn a four-point Phoenix lead at halftime into a 12-point lead in that moment, had the ball 34 feet from the basket with only five or so seconds left on the shot clock and (it appeared) no real plan.
Brittney Griner, the Mercury’s All-Star center, was Bonner’s nearest teammate, and so Griner ran a quick pick-and-roll with Bonner to try to free up some space between her and her defender. Griner did so because she either wanted to (a) help Bonner get a shot off, or (b) help Bonner help someone else get a shot off. And it worked, but only partially. Because Liz Cambage, who was originally guarding Griner and who is like if the Death Star came alive and started playing basketball, stepped up into the empty space created by the pick-and-roll and made it way less empty. She stretched her arms up as high as she could get them to go, and she made the lower half of her body as wide as wide gets, and it seemed like that was that; Bonner looked trapped; a victim of circumstance and circumference.
Bonner didn’t panic, though. She glanced up at the rim just enough so that Cambage had to come up out of her defensive position, then took one dribble to her left as Cambage misjudged the play, then pulled up from 9 feet behind the 3-point line as Cambage tried desperately to insta-grow her body enough to bother the shot. Bonner flipped the ball up toward the rim, then immediately began to backpedal in the other direction.
The ball was shot with far too much force (that much was obvious as soon as it left Bonner’s hands), but it didn’t matter. The universe had already decided it was going to reward her bravery. And so the ball bounced off the backboard, then somehow splashed through the net. The crowd went bonkers, several Wings players shook their heads at the luck, and the camera cut back to Bonner, who was laughing and bouncing and twisting her body back and forth as she celebrated what was by then, even with 13 minutes still left in regulation, what mostly everyone watching knew was a certainty: that the Mercury were going to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
II. There’s a chance that Liz Cambage, a breakout star this season and a legitimate MVP candidate, simply won’t return to the WNBA next season because it doesn’t pay enough. That is extremely sucky. It would be great if that didn’t happen. (After the game was over, she hinted that she might be leaning toward playing in the WNBA again next year.) (That would be extremely not sucky.) (It would be great if that happened.)
III. An elimination game in basketball is fun, yes. But basketball elimination games—at least on the professional level—are fun because of the buildup to them. If it’s, say, a five-game series, then when you get Game 5 that means you’ve had four games of two teams firing missiles and swinging elbows at each other, growing angry with and resentful of each other, and taking jabs at each other on social media and in postgame press conferences and whatnot. That’s a big part of what makes higher-stakes basketball so much fun. Because at the end of a tight, very contested series it’s always extra clear how much someone fucking definitely does not want to lose to a specific someone else. I wish the WNBA didn’t do the single-elimination games for the first two rounds of the tournament. (The league started doing it in 2016.) (Part of the restructuring included ditching the conference-based playoff seeding, which is fun and innovative and smart and good.) (But the single-elimination thing means we lost out on a proper series between the Wings and the Mercury and also the L.A. Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx.) (The Sparks beat the Lynx 75-68.) (I can’t think of a ton of things more interesting than seeing what would’ve happened if you dropped Diana Taurasi and Liz Cambage into basketball’s version of a prison cell for a week and a half.) (And that’s to say nothing of the history that’s already baked into the Lynx-Sparks rivalry.) (Here’s a good thing on the rivalry from Ramona Shelburne that I read a couple of months ago when I was trying to learn everything about it.)
IV. There was a play in the fourth quarter when Liz Cambage came roaring down the lane for a layup. DeWanna Bonner was there and in position to take a charge. Bonner skinnied her way out of it at the last possible instant. (This, FYI, was absolutely the right thing to do. You’d do better stepping in front of the asteroid from Armageddon than stepping in front of the asteroid from Australia.) But so she skinnied her way out of it at the last possible instant. And when they showed the replay of the drive from under the rim, you could see Bonner, after having dodged destruction, smile and look over at her bench and say something. You couldn’t quite tell what she said, but Chasity Melvin tweeted that Bonner “looked over at her coach and said, ‘I got babies at home,’” referring to the twins that she gave birth to last year, which is so much better and funnier than anything I was expecting.
V. This will be a thing that’s interesting only to a very specific group of people, but to that very specific group of people it will be wildly important: A little after the game was over, an e-buddy of mine on Twitter sent me a DM. It was a picture of Brittney Griner (or, at the very least, someone who looked a lot like Brittney Griner from afar) sitting in a booth at a P.F. Chang’s in Tempe, Arizona, a very short drive away from the arena where the game had been played. She had the best plus/minus of anyone in a win-or-go-home playoff game, and then she went and (probably) celebrated with a plate full of Asian fusion foodstuffs.
VI. Diana Taurasi put up 26 points and 12 assists despite sitting out for nearly all of the fourth quarter. This is, I would guess, the least she’s ever been mentioned in a write-up of a game in which she was one of the two best players on the winning team, and certainly the first time it took all the way up until after a P.F. Chang’s mention before her name appeared. (She didn’t come back in until there were about four minutes left in the fourth quarter, shortly after which she buried a 28-foot jumper just to make sure everyone knew what the fuck time it was, which was an extremely Diana Taurasi thing for her to do.)
VII. The Phoenix Mercury visit the Connecticut Sun in the second round Thursday night.