The Mercury Have Caught Fire Because Diana Taurasi Is As Dangerous As Ever

There have been few scorers quite like Diana Taurasi. The three-time WNBA champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist takes over games to the beat of thrilling revelations — “Oh yeah,” she seems to say, “I can do that, too.” Before the best NBA players blurred the line between three-point specialist and No. 1 scoring option, Taurasi had already done it, first at UConn and then in the pros, winning an MVP in 2009 while taking nearly half her shots from deep. At age 38, Taurasi continues to find new ways to exploit defenses, and even in the strange confines of the WNBA’s Florida Bubble and after a lost 2019 season, the GOAT is putting on a show.

In leading her depleted Phoenix Mercury to a fourth straight win on Tuesday night over the dominant Las Vegas Aces, Taurasi put together her best game in nearly two years. While her career has been a loud proclamation against expectation on many fronts, playing elite basketball as you near 40 defies more than just normal, it defies nature. Taurasi should be getting worse, not better. Of course her athleticism is waning and she’s hardly much of a defender these days, but the shooting performance she’s put on in the back-nine of her career should not be possible.

Every basketball fan knows what it looks like when Taurasi is on a roll, but it was an open question after back and hamstring injuries in 2019 whether we’d ever see it again. The scoring explosion was both a reminder of what Taurasi is capable of and an upending of where we thought she was in her career.

Across basketball, great shooters are increasingly commonplace at every position. From Jonquel Jones and Sabrina Ionescu to Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic, shooting almost has to come from every spot on the court in 2020. And while Taurasi, a pretty long wing player by WNBA standards, was ahead of the curve, she’s also adjusted as time has passed to keep up with the transforming game.

The victory over Las Vegas on Tuesday night was a symbol of an evolving Taurasi, a player who changed the game, caught up to it, and is cutting through space and time to blaze another trail of outrageous offensive efficiency on her last legs. Not only is Taurasi’s release quick as ever, but she can create space even more effectively.

The other trademark part of Taurasi’s game is her driving and finishing ability. So long as she hasn’t pissed the referees off too much, Taurasi can create contact to get to the free-throw line just about any time she wants. Her length and balance allow her to instigate bumps inside and still finish or get a shot up. That same preternatural physical awareness transfers to the outside, too.

In the clip above, Taurasi is able to shove off smaller Aces defenders like Jackie Young and Kayla McBride with her shoulders and midsection to get just a few more inches of space to get her shot off with a quick flick. The process of working on the deep pull-up has been a focus for Taurasi since as far back as 2018.

“It’s just something that gives you more space on the court, and when you’re playing offense, you’re seeking space,” Taurasi said after the Aces game. “It gives me a little bit more time to get set and put pressure on the defense, and at the same time, it gives Skylar (Diggins-Smith) some more room, (the defense) is not helping as much (off of Taurasi).”

The addition of Diggins-Smith, a multi-time All-Star in her own right, has allowed Taurasi to also play off the ball more. Back in 2018, when Taurasi put up 21 points per game on an outrageous 63.8 true shooting percentage, most of her deep threes came off the bounce, typically coming off a screen from the great Brittney Griner.

Now, Diggins-Smith’s ability to initiate offense means Phoenix’s offense doesn’t run through the veteran as much, and Taurasi can help warp the defense from the wing without the ball in her hands while still scoring about as much as always. Take a look here at where the defense is when backup guard Shey Peddy dishes the ball to Taurasi for an open catch-and-shoot triple:

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It’s one thing to be guarded out there and force the defense into a closeout because she’s the GOAT, but the ability to knock down those shots also signifies a healthier Taurasi. The hip rotation needed to launch from 25-plus feet wouldn’t be possible unless Taurasi was close to fully recovered from her April 2019 spinal disc surgery, and she’s clearly become stronger in her wrists too, exemplified by her instantaneous shot motion.

There may be some logic in how Taurasi’s game has evolved as she’s aged, but when the logical endpoint is still something that is basically unparalleled in basketball, it should not be taken for granted. After four straight wins, Phoenix is suddenly within shouting distance of a first-round bye in the WNBA playoffs. All four wins have come without Griner, yet Phoenix is third in the WNBA in offensive efficiency. That’s almost entirely because of a 38-year-old Taurasi, reimagining what is possible for herself and what is possible on a WNBA court.

It’s hard to say what will be possible for the depleted Mercury in 2020 or what Taurasi will do the rest of the way. But she’s opened up her game and isn’t the type to rein it back any time soon.

“Shooting threes has always been something that I’ve done, so we’ll just let it fly from here on out,” she said.