The Phoenix Mercury are in the WNBA semifinals for a sixth consecutive year.

But they haven’t won a game at this stage since 2014, going a combined 0-8 against Minnesota (2015-16) and Los Angeles (2017).

This season, though, the WNBA defending champion Lynx were eliminated in the first round and the Sparks in the second. So the Mercury have no ghosts haunting them heading into a best-of-five semifinal series Sunday at Seattle.

What they do face is a well-rested, talented opponent in the No. 1-seeded Storm, who went 26-8 to win what many believe was the most competitive season in WNBA history by a comfortable three games.

And the No. 5-seeded Mercury are coming off pressure-packed, elimination-game wins Tuesday and Thursday and cross-country travel on Wednesday and Friday.

“These two games take a lot out of you,” guard Diana Taurasi said before the playoffs began. “Then you get there and you have a team that hasn’t played for 10 days, and they’re ready to go shove it down your throat. It’s not an easy task, but they deserve those top seeds because they played better throughout the regular season.”

After winning two road elimination games, Phoenix lost 113-95 at Minnesota in Game 1 of the 2016 semifinals and didn’t come within 10 points for most of the next two games.

The Mercury were somewhat more competitive in the 2017 semifinals after home and road elimination-game wins. They lost 79-66 and 86-72 in Los Angeles before taking the Sparks to the wire (89-87) in a Game 3 defeat.

Jet-lagged or not, Phoenix almost has to pull off a split in Seattle to have a realistic chance of advancing to the WNBA Finals vs. the winner between No. 2 seed Atlanta and No. 3 Washington.

To do so will require a much better performance than in their last meeting with the Storm, July 31 coming out of the WNBA All-Star Game, when Seattle built a 22-point lead in the first half then cruised to a 102-91 win at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

That was a turning point for Mercury coach Sandy Brondello, who in the next game moved DeWanna Bonner full time to power forward and Stephanie Talbot into the lineup at small forward.

Phoenix is 7-2 since and on a six-game win streak. The 6-4 Bonner is averaging 22.2 points and 11.4 rebounds (she had a career-high 18 rebounds Thursday) and the 6-2 Talbot is showing at the end of her second season why the Mercury invested a draft pick on her in 2014 when she was 19 and not yet ready for the WNBA.

Seattle coach Dan Hughes said defending against Phoenix’s big three – Taurasi, 6-9 Brittney Grine and Bonner – “keeps you up at night. It’s a nightmare because they create plays for each other.”

That’s happened even more of late with Taurasi focusing on her distributing as much if not more than scoring. In the past five games, Taurasi is averaging 23.2 points and 10.0 assists, hitting her career assist high (14) twice. She needs just eight points to become the WNBA playoff career scoring leader.

Against Connecticut in the second round Thursday, the Mercury trailed by 5-7 points several times but never let the Sun build a double-digit lead. Even a six-point run by Courtney Williams, putting the Sun ahead 84-81 with 3:53 left, couldn’t rattle Phoenix, which scored the final 10 points in a 96-86 win.

Taurasi explained how the Mercury went to 6-0 in first and second-round elimination since 2016: “We relish these moments where it’s up to you if you want to keep playing. It is up to you, it’s up to the group. Do you want to come back tomorrow, go to Seattle and play the best team in the league?

“There was a moment there we would have said, ‘We are good, we had our good moment this season, let’s go back to Phoenix and get ready for USA Basketball, get ready for the overseas trip (to Spain for the World Cup).’ You get to make that decision and I have been really lucky to have great teammates.”

Brondello chalked the win up to defense. “Our defense was solid but not great in the first half,” she said. “The intensity went up another level on the defensive end and BG (Griner) was a monster in the second half.”

Talbot fouled Williams on a made 3-pointer then missed everything on a 3-point shot but still had enough confidence to attempt another 3 coming out of a timeout that erased Connecticut’s last lead. Her play and Bonner’s at power forward are why Brondello believes the Mercury are a “totally different team” now than when they last played Seattle.

“That shows her maturity and how much she’s grown as a player this year,” Brondello said of Talbot. “An air ball can mess with your head, but she had no hesitation (to try again). That shows a lot of development in her game mentally.”

Seattle is led by 6-4 forward Breanna Stewart, named WNBA Most Valuable Player award (Taurasi was fifth in MVP voting) on Sunday. In her third WNBA season, Stewart is averaging a career-best 21.8 points on 52.9 percent shooting and 8.4 rebounds. 

“She’s gone to another level with her commitment,” Brondello said. “It’s not just getting on the court, it’s eating right, getting rest, doing what Diana did.”

Taurasi, 36, and Seattle point guard Sue Bird, 37, were teammates at University of Connecticut, where Stewart also starred. Storm forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis also played for the Huskies.

The Mercury beat Seattle, 79-69, in a first-round playoff elimination game last season. But the Storm produced an 11-game improvement this regular season thanks in part to the addition of 6-2 forward Natasha Howard, previously a backup with Minnesota, and rookie guard Jordin Canada.

Howard was named WNBA Most Improved Player Sunday. Also Bird won the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award for a third time.

“They have one of the deepest rosters in the WNBA,” Brondello said. “Look at Howard’s development. She’s always had that talent, but now she’s on the right team that plays to her strengths. They’ve got shooters coming off the bench. They’re versatile and deserve that No. 1 ranking.”


Mercury in WNBA final four

1997: WNBA semifinals, lost 1-0 to New York.

1998: WNBA semifinals, won 2-1 over Cleveland.

x-2007: Western Conference Finals, won 2-0 over San Antonio.

x-2009: Western Conference Finals, won 2-1 over Los Angeles.

2010: Western Conference Finals, lost 2-0 to Seattle.

2011: Western Conference Finals, lost 2-0 to Minnesota.

2013: Western Conference Finals, lost 2-0 to Minnesota.

x-2014: Western Conference Finals, won 2-1 over Minnesota.

2015: Western Conference Finals, lost 2-0 to Minnesota.

2016: WNBA semifinals, lost 3-0 to Minnesota.

2017: WNBA semifinals, lost 3-0 to Los Angeles.

x-WNBA champion.

Sunday’s game

Mercury at Seattle Storm 

When: 2 p.m.

Where: KeyArena, Seattle.


Outlook: The Mercury lead 5-3 all-time in playoff play vs. Seattle with previous meetings in 2007 (2-0 Phoenix), 2010 (2-0 Seattle), 2011 (2-1 Phoenix) and 2017 (1-0 Phoenix). … During this regular season, the Mercury won 87-82 at Seattle on May 20 and lost twice at home to the Storm, 87-71 May 23 and 102-91 July 31. … Sandy Brondello and Dan Hughes were opposing coaches in the WNBA All-Star Game on July 28 with Hughes’ Team Parker winning 119-112. … Game 2 is at 7 p.m. Tuesday at KeyArena and Game 3 at 7 p.m. Friday at Talking Stick Resort Arena.