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Aces stumble as Diana Taurasi shines in WNBA semifinals

Updated September 30, 2021 - 11:02 pm

Even before Thursday’s 117-91 loss to the Phoenix Mercury, Aces guard Chelsea Gray knew not to underestimate Diana Taurasi. Even at age 39 and with the sore left ankle she tweaked again during Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals.

“I never take her for granted,” Gray said Tuesday, moments after a 96-90 victory. “She can come down and hit 30 in a minute.”

Try 37 instead.

The Aces were at Taurasi’s mercy Thursday night during Game 2 of the best-of-five series at Michelob Ultra Arena. The living legend made 10 of 13 field goals — including 8 of 11 from 3-point range — and basked in the glory of her greatness before an announced crowd of 6,432 at Michelob Ultra Arena that included fellow basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal.

The 17-year veteran had played in 63 playoff games, but had never scored that many points before in the postseason. The Mercury also established a record for most points in a regulation playoff game, eclipsing the previous mark of 113.

Game 3 is Sunday at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, with series tied 1-1.

“We weren’t locked in,” said Aces forward A’ja Wilson. “We just can’t come out with that mentality that we had. That was terrible to be in. I’m pretty sure that was terrible to watch. We really can’t do that anymore.”

The Aces finished the regular season with the league’s No. 2 defensive rating, but played without the cohesion and intensity necessary to slow a team like Phoenix. In addition to Taurasi, the player lauded by many as greatest ever, the Mercury boast Olympians and All-Stars in Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith, who scored 25 and 17, respectively.

Las Vegas slowed the Mercury for stretches of Game 1 in part by sending a second defender at Griner when she caught the ball in the low post. But she was ready for the double teams Thursday and dropped a dime on the game’s first possession to a cutting Brianna Turner — foreshadowing what turned into a forgettable game for the Aces.

Save for a pair of three-minute stretches, Las Vegas was far too slow with its defensive rotations. Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said the club lacked the energy necessary to win a playoff game. Wilson said the Aces approached Game 2 like it was a regular-season game.

As a result, the Mercury stepped into one open jumper after another — shooting better than 75 percent from the field in the first half. Taurasi dominated the second by sinking one triple after another, many of which were contested and off the dribble.

“You just want to compete. You want a chance to compete at the highest level,” said Taurasi, who hasn’t been practicing as she battles the injury. “When you get long in the tooth like I am, you really have to take advantage of these situations.”

Kelsey Plum continued her torrid stretch of play with a team-high 25 points and teammate Riquna Williams added 17.

“I told anybody that would listen that Taurasi would try to take over the game and be the star of the show and will them to the win. And she did,” Laimbeer said. “It’s a series. We have lots of time to make adjustments, find our game and come back and win. We’re a very confident team. We think we can win anywhere we play, and that’s our task.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.