Diana Taurasi drew online praise from LeBron James for her first-half play in Tuesday night’s WNBA first-round playoff elimination game.
But it was the Phoenix Mercury’s third quarter that perhaps left even James speechless.
Taurasi and company hit almost every imaginable shot in the third on their adopted home court at Arizona State’s Wells Fargo Arena, opening as much as a 20-point lead over Dallas.
The Wings weren’t completely done, getting as close as 13 in the fourth quarter, but could not prevent the No. 5-seeded Mercury from winning 101-83 and advancing to a second-round elimination game at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at No. 4 seed Connecticut.
Phoenix is now 5-0 in first- and second-round playoff games since 2016 and one win away from reaching the WNBA semifinals for a sixth consecutive year. In 2017, the Mercury won in the second round at Connecticut, 88-83.
The Mercury’s first-round game was played at ASU for a second straight year due to a concert conflict at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
The Mercury led by four at halftime but like Sunday in the regular-season finale against New York dominated in the third quarter to alleviate any fourth-quarter stress.
“I have a team full of veterans and a team full of winners,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “It was more about just getting a little bit more aggressive. We had to bring a little bit more congestion (with forward DeWanna Bonner) then our scramble defense. We made some shots. We’re a hard team to guard particularly with DeWanna at the 4 (power forward).”
Taurasi hit a 3-pointer to start the third, which included 3-pointers by Briann January, two 30-foot, buzzer-beaters by Bonner, a 3 by hustling Stephanie Talbot, another Taurasi deep 3-pointer and two Talbot free throws for a 79-59 lead at the 1:54 mark.
The Mercury had one stretch in the third when they maintained possession to get off three shots, capped by one of Bonner’s buzzer-beaters. Also in the third, Taurasi threw a no-look assist to Bonner that gave Phoenix its first double-digit lead.
“This is eight, nine years in the making,” Bonner said of being ready for Taurasi’s passes. “I know her pretty well so I’m always ready when Dee has the ball, but sometimes she surprises me too.”
Taurasi said of the third-quarter surge: “At halftime when you can make in-game adjustments and really focus on the things we need to clean up to get the lead and get some separation, that shows the maturity of this team and the experience.
“These games sometimes can get a little bit overwhelming, things can go a little bit fast and you don’t know really the things you need to get done. At halftime, we knew the things on the defensive end we really needed to clean up, and we came out and did then the offense takes care of itself.”
Bonner finished with a team-high 29 points and 11 rebounds on her 31st birthday. Taurasi scored 26 and had 12 assists, two off the WNBA playoff record, and improved to 12-0 in WNBA deciding games (series or single elimination).
Phoenix 6-9 center Brittney Griner scored 17 and played solid defense against 6-8 Liz Cambage, the WNBA regular-season scoring leader who finished with 22 and 12 rebounds.
Talbot had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds. January, playing at Wells Fargo Arena for the first time since she was a college senior in February 2009, chipped in six points and four assists.
Dallas suffered its 11th loss in the past 12 games, a stretch that included a coaching change. Skylar Diggins-Smith led the Wings with 23 points.
“Phoenix played out of their minds,” Dallas interim coach Taj McWilliams said. “They had some great shooting from their big three, and they really carried them throughout the game. When you have confidence, the basket is humongous. So DB (Bonner) hitting two bank shots, Diana Taurasi hitting a three with one second (left). You can’t say hey, there’s defense you can run for that. That’s just good old-fashioned luck. But we lost by more than those nine points so the rest of it is on us and our defense.”
The Mercury shot 54.2 percent and 44.8 (13-of-29) from 3-point range, preventing Dallas from getting into the transition game that led to a Wings’ 101-72 win over Phoenix on July 10.
“They score a lot of points and get to the free throw line a lot,” Brondello said. “I thought it we could make them take the ball out of the basket, that will help us be in plays. We came out of the gates a little slow and they were getting in some transition, but from the first five minutes I don’t think they got too many transition baskets. That’s a credit to our players.”
Neither team could open much of a gap in the first half although the Mercury led several times by six points and by seven (48-41) with 1:37 left in the second quarter.
The Wings closed within 50-49 before Taurasi hit a 3-pointer off a scramble with 8.9 seconds left for a 53-49 Phoenix edge at half, prompting a complimentary tweet from long-time WNBA fan James.
Taurasi had 16 first-half points and eight assists, one off the WNBA playoff record. Diggins-Smith led Dallas was 19 at halftime.
The Mercury led 29-24 at the end of the first quarter. Talbot chose to play without a mask. She broke her nose in the first minute Sunday and still finished with a career-high 18 points.
Bonner named AP Comeback Player of the Year
The Associated Press WNBA postseason awards were announced Tuesday with Bonner winning Comeback Player of the Year. Bonner missed the 2017 season due to pregnancy.
Taurasi made the AP All-WNBA first team and Griner is on the second team.
Others on the first team are Seattle’s Breanna Stewart (Player of the Year), Cambage, Washington’s Elena Delle Donne and Atlanta’s Tiffany Hayes.
The second team includes Los Angeles’ Candace Parker, Minnesota’s Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles and Diggins-Smith.
Other award winners are Atlanta’s Nicki Collen, Coach of the Year; Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson, Rookie of the Year; Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, Sixth Person of the Year; Fowles, Defensive Player of the Year; and Seattle’s Natasha Howard, Most Improved.
Award winners determined in league voting will be announced through the playoffs.