<
>

Taurasi -- who else? -- leads Mercury

CHICAGO -- Diana Taurasi shrugged and suggested that big shots and big moments just seem to find her. Safe to say absolutely nobody else agrees with that.

Remember when a frustrated Linus tells his depressed pal, "Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie Browniest"? Applied to the Phoenix Mercury star, that phrase becomes a supreme compliment.

Of all the Diana Taurasis in the world, she's the Diana Taurasi-est. Then again, there sure can't be very many of them, in any sport. That's how clutch, how fearless, how reliable Taurasi is. And she does it with a panache that is all her own.

The Phoenix Mercury won the franchise's third WNBA title, clinching it with an 87-82 victory in Game 3 on Friday that at last provided some longed-for drama in the 2014 WNBA Finals. Of course, it took one of Phoenix's major weapons, center Brittney Griner, sitting out after a procedure on her eye to help this be more of a fair fight.

Let's be frank: This is a truly great Phoenix team, and the Mercury were led by a player who, at age 32, is on the very short list of greatest ever in women's basketball. Taurasi scored 24 points -- as did teammate Candice Dupree -- and Phoenix completed what has been a remarkable season.

Big moments do not find Taurasi. It's most definitely the other way around. She hunts them down relentlessly and seizes them.

"That's exactly what everyone saw: The world's best, doing what she does best," Chicago's Elena Delle Donne said. "Just putting her team on her shoulders."

The Sky, vanquished but valiant, had pushed the Mercury as hard as they could. Chicago led 63-61 after three quarters, and the Sky fans at UIC Pavilion were filling the building with joyful noise. Hey, maybe this was going to turn into a real series after all.

Ah ... but so many past foes could have told the Sky, "Beware. Taurasi, always dangerous, is going to be even more so as the clock winds down."

How many times have we seen this? You can go back to her UConn days and the pile of victims she left on the way to winning three NCAA titles. You can sort through all the USA Basketball victories she has contributed to on a golden path that's expected to continue at the upcoming FIBA World Championship.

There are Taurasi's five EuroLeague titles. While that's mostly out of sight for American audiences, you can surely imagine all the big shots Taurasi has made in winning that hardware.

Luckily, her brilliance in the WNBA is not left to our imagination. We've watched it for the past decade. Funny thing is, all the big plays she has been a part of are kind of left to her imagination -- or so she says. Taurasi has always insisted she doesn't go back and savor her best games by watching the videos. She prefers to have an image in her head of what happened and keep it that way.

If she did go back and review her own personal Game 3, fourth-quarter highlight reel, this is what she'd see herself doing: Going 5-of-6 from the field and scoring 14 points. Never mind that she'd been 4-of-14 over the first three quarters. When it counted most, Taurasi was going to make it count.

"There really is nobody else," Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said when asked who she'd most want shooting near the end of a game. "There's no hesitation. It's just, 'How do we want to set it up so she gets that last shot?' Dee just needs a little bit of space. She made a big play. That's what she does."

With the score tied at 82 with 29.6 seconds left, Taurasi indeed got the ball. She made the shot -- of course -- and was fouled by Courtney Vandersloot. After she swished the free throw, the Sky still had 14.3 seconds left. But Delle Donne, who played all but 26 seconds of the game and led the Sky with 23 points, missed the 3-point attempt to tie from long range.

Penny Taylor grabbed the rebound, was fouled and made both her free throws. And then it was time for the Mercury to celebrate, while we observers tried to calibrate: How strong was this Phoenix team? How impressive was the Mercury's ability to play without a starter who was first-team All-WNBA? Where do we rank that fourth quarter in the annals of Taurasi lore?

"I should just ride off into the sunset right now," Taurasi joked in the Phoenix locker room after winning WNBA Finals MVP for the second time in her career. "This is such a good feeling. At the beginning of the year, I sensed that we wanted it. But wanting it is not enough. Every team wants it. But there was something extra -- a mental fortitude that we had when we were all on the court together that's hard to get."

It was so intense, in fact, that it carried the Mercury to victory even when Griner wasn't able to play. In her place, Ewelina Kobryn started at center. Now there's a story, actually. She's a 32-year-old hoops veteran from Poland who didn't play in the WNBA until the 2011-12 season, when Seattle signed her.

The past two years, Kobryn has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia, coached by Olaf Lange, Brondello's husband. Brondello is UMMC's assistant, and when she took over at Phoenix, she thought Kobryn would be a good fit as a backup center for Griner. So Kobryn came to Arizona this season.

Kobryn couldn't have expected to see much court time in the WNBA Finals with the way Griner was playing. But Griner was poked in the eye in Game 2 on Tuesday. And even though she returned to play then, she wasn't cleared for Game 3 after a retinal procedure.

Kobryn got the start -- and produced eight points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. It was a performance her close friend and former WNBA player, the late Margo Dydek, would have been thrilled to see. Dydek passed away in 2011 after suffering a heart attack.

"I knew that I would be the player who was on the bench, but if I have to be ready, I will be ready," Kobryn said of her role with the Mercury. "Today, the team needed me. I hoped that I could help.

"Oh, my god, this is wonderful. Everybody who plays basketball dreams about this, because this is the best league with the best players. In Poland right now, I think everybody is proud of me. I am still close with Margo's family, and before the game, I was thinking of her. I can dedicate this title to her."

Kobryn, like everybody on the Phoenix roster, was made to feel important and included by Taurasi. That's how she is: A superstar player who wants the credit to go to her entire team.

And this was, indeed, a team victory. Dupree had a marvelous season, and so did DeWanna Bonner. Taylor showed she's still a very valuable starter. Griner was the league's best center. The bench stepped forward when needed. Brondello managed everything very well.

But it the end, it's still Taurasi's fingerprints that are most on the championship trophy.

"Dee is Dee, there is no one like her," Chicago's Sylvia Fowles said. "A phenomenal player and leader. I'm happy I had the opportunity to play in her era and that I'll be able to look back and reflect on that."

Taurasi would appreciate that compliment from a fellow competitor most of all.

"The WNBA is the best competition in the world, and I'm lucky to be on the same team with all these people," Taurasi said. "We are the champions. I just love being on the court with them."

You can be sure the feeling is mutual.

"She fights so hard, and she wants to teach you every day," Griner said of being teammates with Taurasi. "She brings the best out of you."