Diana Taurasi returns as Phoenix Mercury prepares for playoff run

PHOENIX – In a lifetime of basketball, Diana Taurasi has dealt with plenty of injuries. But she’s never had issues persist like this year.

“This is really the first one that I’ve had in my career where it’s months and months of tedious work to try and get back on the court,” Taurasi said Saturday. “Usually, if it’s a hamstring (injury), I’ll sit out for a day and then the next day, I’m pounding it again.

“It’s a little different circumstance now, so there’s been a little bit of an adjustment period, but I still want to play.”

For just the second time in 2019 — and the first time in front of Mercury fans — Taurasi did that on Sunday, playing 22 minutes and tallying 12 points, four assists and four rebounds. She shot 2 of 13 from the field, including missing all six 3-point attempts, but was a perfect 8 of 8 from the free-throw line.

And while the Mercury lost 94-86 to the Chicago Sky, coach Sandy Brondello was in high spirits after the game, starting her press conference with, “She’s back.”

“It’s a great day. Even though the result wasn’t positive, it’s great to see Diana back on the court,” Brondello said. “She didn’t shoot the ball well, but you have to remember she hasn’t played in so long. She had some good looks, she’s just got to get her legs under her. Once she gets her legs under her, I think we’ll be in good shape.”

Taurasi had back surgery on April 24 to correct a disc protrusion, with an initial recovery time listed as 10-12 weeks. But she was back on the court shortly after her 37th birthday, reported Jeff Metcalfe of the Arizona Republic, and played her first game of the season on July 12 at Connecticut.

But Taurasi only played 16 minutes in that game because of a hamstring issue, something that she’s just now getting over. Taurasi can now admit that she may have pushed herself too hard to get back on the court before fully ready.

“That’s me being impatient and wanting to be out there,” Taurasi said. “It kind of came back and hurt me a bit, in the long run, but that’s why, right now, I got to make sure I stay patient.”

If it were just Taurasi’s injury, it still would be a big deal for the Mercury. But Phoenix has battled health issues all season, even being forced to sign two players via injury exemption, and that attrition is a big part of why the Mercury’s record is 13-15 and in the eighth and final playoff spot.

Taurasi changes the way the Mercury play when she is on the court. (Photo by Matthew Andujo/Cronkite News)

But the playoff path is nearly secured already, with the Mercury holding a 4 ½-game lead over the two teams tied for ninth with six games to go. DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner have both blossomed this season – Griner is the WNBA’s leading scorer at 20.2 points per game and Bonner is third with 18.9 – and Leilani Mitchell has had a career year, currently holding career-highs in points (13.2), rebounds (3.3) and assists (4.2). It’s why Taurasi said her role will look a little different than her typical ball-dominant ways.

“They’ve obviously played a whole season without me and figured out different things that work, different roles,” Taurasi said. “DB (Bonner) and BG (Griner) and Lei (Mitchell) have been playing great, so I’m just going to try to fit in and not disrupt that chemistry, and hopefully add just a little to help us through some games.”

But make no mistake, Brondello and the Mercury want anything Taurasi can give them, saying her presence alone can make a big impact.

“She reads things before they happen. She’s one of the best passers ever. She has great court vision, she knows when to get other people involved,” Brondello said. “She’s a leader, and that’s a lot of intangibles. She didn’t score the ball well tonight, but she’s a very capable scorer, as we know.”

Griner added, “It’s always great having her out on the court. I feel like she makes us all better and she draws a lot of attention, so it makes it easier for us, so I love it when she’s on the court.”

Just as long as her teammates – even some who have played with Taurasi for years – don’t get star-struck.

“It never gets old, playing with her, honestly,” Griner said. “And it never gets old watching her either. I find myself watching on the court sometimes, I gotta be like, ‘Oh, shoot, go play.’”

The fact that Phoenix has six games left before the playoffs is important for Taurasi to get back into the rotation, with her saying there’s “nothing like” game action.

“You can do as many individual and team practices (as you want), but when the game starts, there’s a different level of intensity,” Taurasi said. “The sooner I can get back in the game and contribute that way, not only for us but for myself, will be a good thing.”

Brondello quipped that, if there was any player that could make the transition from not playing in months to being game-ready, it would be Taurasi. But that isn’t reality, which gives the final stretch of the regular season increased meaning in the eyes of Bonner, the only Mercury player to play in every game this season.

“We need these six games. We need every single game to find a rhythm,” Bonner said. “You’re just not going to throw people who haven’t been here in and think we’re going to be right on track. It takes time, and we’re going to use the rest of these next two weeks to find it.”

At the end of these two weeks, the Mercury seem likely to have to win at least one – if not, both – of the one-game rounds of the WNBA playoffs on the road before getting to the best-of-five semifinals and finals. It’d be their fourth-straight season of having to win both single-elimination games to get to the semifinals.

So far, they’re 6-0 in those games, and Taurasi’s been a big part of all six of those wins. So don’t blame Brondello for being so happy to have Taurasi back on the court before the playoffs begin, even after a loss.

“it’s great to see Diana out there,” Brondello said. “She’s worked extremely hard to get to where she is today, and it’s been a frustrating ride for her. But just to have the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) back out there, it’s nice.”