It was the eighth minute of the fourth quarter of Game 5 between the Seattle Storm and the Phoenix Mercury when things began to get all the way screwy, and then all the way deadly, and then, eventually, all the way legendary. Let me tell you what happened Tuesday night. First, though, read these six things, because all of the six things are important for context:
- The Storm, the no. 1 team in the league this year and also the odds-on-favorite to win the championship going into the playoffs, got off to a 2-0 start over the Mercury in their best-of-five conference finals matchup.
- The Mercury, the no. 1 team in the league this year by the measurement “Teams That Diana Taurasi Plays For,” won the next two games, becoming the first team ever in WNBA history to go down 0-2 and then force a winner-take-all Game 5.
- There’s (probably) a whole big and interesting discussion to get into about how the Storm and the Mercury exist as philosophical opposites of one another. The most substantial part of this (possible) theory is the easiest to understand: The Storm are, on average, a younger team taking their first real step toward new glory (the Storm won a title in 2010, but Sue Bird is the only remaining member from that run; the best player on the Storm right now is Breanna Stewart, who’s in only her third year in the league), while the Mercury are, on average, an older and more experienced team with their best days potentially behind them (the Mercury won a title in 2014; the core of that championship team —Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and DeWanna Bonner— all still play for the Mercury).
- Game 5 was played in Seattle.
- In the second quarter of Game 4, Sue Bird, the most integral player on the Storm, broke her nose when Breanna Stewart accidentally swung one of her karate-weapon elbows into Bird’s face. The Storm were up double-digits when it happened. Bird had to miss the rest of the game. The Mercury sped the game up enough that none of the other guards on Storm could keep steady control of the car and ended up running them down. The Mercury won by 2.
- Bird was cleared to play in Game 5, but she had to wear a mask, and for most of the game it looked like that mask was going to force her into a disastrous night (she went 0-for-8 during the second and third quarters). But then, just like that, and with all the certainty and calamity of a missile strike, it became the opposite of a disastrous night. It became, without exaggeration, a myth-making night.
So here’s what happened in the game from the aforementioned eighth minute forward:
Jordin Canada hit a 3 to put Seattle up 66-63, giving the team its first lead of the game. On the next possession, Bonner, a chainsaw, ripped her way through contact in the lane and scored a layup while getting fouled. She missed the free throw, but Phoenix forced a stop on defense, and then Bonner—who, again, is a chainsaw—hit a 3 to put Phoenix back on top, 68-66. Phoenix got another stop, which is when Diana Taurasi (a chainsaw that curses, as it were) decided it was her turn to help tighten the noose around the Storm’s neck. She drove into the paint and scored off a runner, and all of a sudden the Mercury not only had a four-point lead, but also they knew they’d already outscored the Storm by nearly 50 points in all of the fourth quarters combined during the series, and so it started to feel like we were headed toward another late-game avalanche from Phoenix.
But then Sue Bird checked in, and that was the fucking end of that.
Breanna Stewart hit a 3 to bring the Storm to within one. Taurasi, very purposefully and with great malice, matched her on the other end, burying one immediately after—over Stewart, for that matter—to put the Mercury back up by four. And if I’m being honest, it felt like Taurasi’s shot here was one of those “Nah, let’s go ahead and end this shit right now” shots that happen in games like this. But it wasn’t that. It definitely was not that. Instead, it was little more than the signal that the Sue Bird show was about to begin.
Bird came down after Taurasi’s 3 and hit one of her own, firing away from 4 feet behind the line. A minute later, she swished another jumper from the top of the key. Forty seconds after that, she hit another 3. By this point, Seattle was ahead 79-76 with four minutes to go and the arena, as arenas tend to be in these situations, was goddamn bananas. (Adding to the fervor was Ryan Ruocco, who was calling the game for ESPN. He, just like everyone else, could sense what was happening, so he started leaning all the way into every call. When Bird tee’d up this 3 to shoot he yelled, “BIRRRRRRRRDDDDDDDDD …” holding the word for the entire time the ball was in the air. As soon it went it he yelled, “... CONNECTS! IT’S SUE BIRD’S BUILDING!”) A minute after that, she got tangled up with Bonner and Briann January on the floor fighting for a loose ball, and it was then that it seemed like the energy in the building was getting multiplied onto itself.
Bird, who had become incensed, knocked January down to the floor as she scrambled to her feet, yelling emphatically that someone had tried to pull her mask off her face. Taurasi slid in and backed into Bird, bumping her, dropping sticks of dynamite into the fire, pretending like she didn’t see her and like all she wanted to do was help up January. Howard grabbed at Bird but Bird moved through her toward a referee to yell at her. The other refs moved in and kept everyone separated, waiting for Bird to calm down. (Somehow, Bird didn’t get a technical foul even though she was cussing the hell out of the referee who was nearest to her.) (Maybe the best part of this moment was Taurasi, very clearly frustrated, asking why Bird wasn’t getting a tech, because Taurasi knew that if she’d done what Bird was doing they’d have escorted Taurasi to wherever the nearest maximum security prison was.)
It took a bit of time for the refs to get everything in order, but when they did there were no extra fouls or penalties assessed, only that Bonner and Bird would have a jump ball at center court. Bonner won the jump, but Seattle’s Alysha Clark was able to muscle her way into securing the ball. Clark threw it Sami Whitcomb. Whitcomb, smart and no doubt aware that Sue Bird was fully plugged into the universe, dribbled it just long enough for Bird to get over half court. As soon as Bird was in position to initiate a play, Whitcomb passed it to her. Bird, though, who was stepping into the frame of the television screen, didn’t initiate a play; at least, not one that anyone was expecting, anyway. She caught the ball, immediately pulled up from 6 feet behind the 3-point line, and let it go.
Let me say right now that this was 100 percent one of those 3s in a game where, when it’s in the air, you watch its flight path so intently that literally every other part of your life dissolves into the background for a few seconds. You’re not thinking about your upcoming mortgage, or an uncomfortable conversation you’re going to have at work soon, or what tweet it is you’re going to send next, or what you’re going to eat for breakfast the next morning. All you’re thinking about is the ball. And the rim. And the ball. And the rim. Because you know if it goes in it means you’ve just watched something special happen, and watching something special happen is probably the top reason for watching any sort of sporting event.
Anyway: She caught the ball, immediately pulled up from 6 feet behind the 3-point line, and let it go. And when Bird’s 3 splashed in, there was nothing anybody could do except start walking around and picking up all of the body parts that were scattered across the court. “I’ve got a piece of leg over here,” a woman shouted as she picked up what was clearly a thigh and a knee, before loading it into an old and bloodied wheelbarrow with a skull painted on the side in white paint. “I think this might be someone’s torso,” a man hollered from 30 feet away, inspecting a substantial chunk of meat, rolling it over, trying to see if he could make out a last name on the smallish section of jersey that remained. “Don’t forget this,” Sue Bird said dismissively, picking up what I can only assume was someone’s forearm—or possibly a bicep—and punting it into the stands.
Sue Bird hit another 3 just two minutes later, but she was killing for sport at that point; the game was good and over, and the series was good and over, and the night was good and over.
Game 5 was all of the things you want a series-ending contest to be: tense, dramatic, competitive, fat with moments of mastery on both sides of the ball, and fatter still with a clear and obvious moment of transcendence on one side of the ball.
Sue Bird was the arbiter of that transcendence.
And now the Storm are going to the Finals.