NEW YORK — Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello hasn’t always loved the WNBA’s new knockout playoff format. But it’s safe to say she has come around on it.
The Mercury, inconsistent for much of the regular season, beat New York 101-94 in an elimination game Saturday to advance to the WNBA semifinals against Minnesota. That isn’t bad for a team that finished the regular season two games below .500.
Liberty players, coaches lock arms during anthem
New York Liberty coaches and players locked arms as a show of solidarity, and two Phoenix Mercury players knelt during the national anthem ahead of Saturday’s playoff game.
2016 WNBA playoff schedule and results
The first round is in the books. Which teams will survive two single-elimination games in the second round? The WNBA playoffs continue Saturday in New York.
No surprise: Catchings competes right to the end
It was classic Tamika Catchings. With her coach trying to give her a curtain call, Catchings waived off the sub and played her final 13.1 seconds with the same effort that defined her career.
“I was a little critical of the knockout games, but I kind of like it right now,” Brondello said.
Veteran Diana Taurasi led the way for Phoenix, just as she did Wednesday in the Mercury’s first-round, elimination-game win over Indiana.
Taurasi had a game-high 30 points on 9-for-17 shooting to lift Phoenix. But it wasn’t just the point total; it was when Taurasi scored that mattered most Saturday.
With Phoenix up two and 6:40 to play, Taurasi scored five straight points to spur an 8-2 run. Five minutes later, the Mercury led by just four. But Taurasi put the game away by hitting a contested 3-pointer.
That prompted this statement from Brondello: “Diana Taurasi, she’s the GOAT [greatest of all time]. It’s always great to have her on your team.”
Is it ever. Saturday was just the latest example of Taurasi lifting her team in an elimination game.
She scored 14 of her game-high 20 points in the second half of the Mercury’s win over the Indiana Fever on Wednesday. That gave her a 12-3 career record in WNBA elimination games. Saturday was win No. 13.
“I just think it’s the mindset that the teams I’ve been on have had,” Taurasi said. “These moments, we’ve never shied away from.”
Taurasi, understandably, doesn’t want to talk about her own exploits. But her performance in win-or-go-home scenarios has been remarkable. According to WNBA.com, Taurasi averages 23 points on better than 48 percent shooting in such situations. If you include her Olympic and NCAA career, Taurasi has a 43-3 record in elimination games.
“That’s why I say she’s the best player in the world,” Brondelo said. “She’s such an unselfish player, but her determination to win in those big moments exceeds anyone else I’ve ever seen.”
Taurasi didn’t do it all by herself on Saturday, of course. Brittney Griner was fantastic, scoring 22 points with 10 rebounds and five assists, and Penny Taylor added 22 points. It was the kind of game that many expected from Phoenix over the course of the season.
But the Mercury struggled with consistency and clinched the eighth and final WNBA playoff seed with a disappointing 16-18 regular-season record.
“She’s the best player in the world. She’s such an unselfish player, but her determination to win in those big moments exceeds anyone else I’ve ever seen.”
Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello on Diana Taurasi
“We had some good individual performances,” Brondello said, “but we were just inconsistent in putting it together for one night.”
The Mercury have now put it together for two nights when it mattered most. But for the Liberty, it was a sudden end to another successful regular season.
New York finished with the third-best record in the WNBA, but thanks to the league’s new playoff format, which awards the top two seeds byes into the best-of-five semifinals, the Liberty played in an elimination game rather than a full series.
“They worked all year long to give themselves an opportunity, and tonight it just didn’t get done,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said.
Tina Charles finished with 19 points and nine rebounds on Saturday, looking every bit the MVP candidate who carried New York for most of the season. But the Liberty failed to execute late in the fourth quarter, and Taurasi seemed to thrive.
“Diana was Diana,” Charles said.
On Saturday, that meant Taurasi was at her best when her team needed her most. Those who have watched her long enough shouldn’t be surprised.