The bigger the moment, the better Diana Taurasi seems to play

Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello says Diana Taurasi -- who is 13-0 in winner-take-all games for her WNBA career -- is more mentally tough than any player she has seen. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Sue Bird saw it coming.

The Storm guard was watching Phoenix and her close friend Diana Taurasi play at Connecticut in the WNBA playoffs last week. As soon as Sun guard Jasmine Thomas clapped in Taurasi's face late in the first half, Bird was like a moviegoer who has already read the book. She knew the ending.

"[ESPN analyst] Rebecca [Lobo] actually literally called it by saying she's probably going to hit a dagger 3," Bird recalled. "The minute I saw that whole exchange, I felt the exact same way. ...

"I think you just understand Diana is a fierce competitor and she wants to be pushed in that way. She wants to be challenged. She feeds off that from opponents, from opposing fans, you name it. Anything that's going to push the stakes even higher, she thrives on that. So I think there are times where you can sense it."

Indeed, Taurasi had 27 points as the Mercury rallied for the road win to advance to the WNBA semifinals and set up a matchup against Bird and the Storm, running her team's record in winner-take-all games to 13-0 over the course of her WNBA career. Just another playoff night for the player Bird's teammate Alysha Clark calls "the ultimate competitor."

"Everyone loves Diana. They'll sometimes love to hate her, but in the end they all love her because she's such an amazing player." Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello on Diana Taurasi

Let's talk about that 13-0 stat that has been making the rounds after Phoenix won back-to-back single-elimination games last week, same as last year -- and the year before.

Despite 25 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists from Taurasi, Seattle leads Phoenix 1-0 after Sunday's 91-87 victory, and Storm coach Dan Hughes is fully aware his team can avoid a winner-take-all matchup with the Mercury by winning the series in three or four games.

"The first thing was I thought, 'Well, this is a series, not one game,'" he joked. "Trust me, I thought of that."

Taurasi herself isn't quite sure what to make of the 13-0 mark.

"I don't even know what it means," she said. "It's one of those things where if it was 12 championships, then I'd be happy."

Phoenix has won three titles, with Taurasi winning WNBA Finals MVP in both 2009 and 2014. But as she alluded, the single-elimination success has been more apt to result in playoff runs that end in the semifinals than celebrating championships.

Including the Western Conference finals before the WNBA's postseason format changed in 2016, the Mercury have reached the semifinal round all 10 times they've made the playoffs during Taurasi's career, but have advanced to the WNBA Finals just the three times they've won the title.

That said, Taurasi will admit there's something different about a single game to determine the outcome of a series than the chess match over multiple games.

"I think it automatically puts you in a different headspace where you don't leave anything on the table, no matter what," she explained. "The minute you get in a five-game series, you start thinking strategy, you start thinking about adjustments. Single elimination, you've got to go all out, all-in. I think that affects the coaching, it affects the playing, it affects the psyche going into the game. I think it automatically puts you in the mode."

As pointed out by Taurasi's coach at UConn, the legendary Geno Auriemma, that success in single-elimination games goes back to her college career.

"When I heard she was 13-0," Auriemma said, "I thought back to her last three years in college, and actually her whole four years in college when we lost once in winner-take-all games [in the 2001 semifinals to eventual national champion Notre Dame]."

UConn's 2001-02 national championship team was loaded with future WNBA stars. Four, including Bird and Swin Cash, were taken in the 2002 WNBA draft's first round, and it wasn't clear the Huskies could continue at the same level. Yet UConn won again in 2002-03 and 2003-04 with Taurasi powering the way and pushing her record in NCAA tournament games to 22-1.

"She has that rare, unique ability to summon up her absolute best performance in the biggest moments." UConn coach Geno Auriemma on Diana Taurasi

It was during Taurasi's senior season that an Auriemma quip about why his team had won -- "We have Diana and you don't" -- became an enduring meme. To Bird, that stretch was testament to Taurasi's ability to lift the teammates around her with her confidence.

"You look at those rosters she had her junior and senior year -- don't get me wrong, they had some good players, but not a lot of stars -- but she found a way to make it work, found a way to make it happen," Bird said. "You've seen the same thing throughout her WNBA career. She's definitely played with some great players as well; I don't want to put down anybody else. But she'll even make great players better. I've experienced that."

Although that often means scoring outbursts and big shots from Taurasi, she can control a game even without scoring.

"She's a winner, and she's going to win at all costs," added Taurasi's Phoenix coach, Sandy Brondello. "She'll do whatever it takes for us to win. You saw she had 27 points [against Connecticut], she did it in a great way, but in the fourth quarter she actually didn't shoot it. She led us to victory with a big rebound, putting the ball in the right people's hands. That's what she does."

Of those 13 winner-take-all victories during Taurasi's career, seven have come on the road. Nobody seems to thrive more in a hostile environment.

"Winning on the road is always great," Taurasi said. "If you ask anyone, there's nothing like going into a building with your crew and trying to get a win. I'm sure [in this series], the Stormies are going to be out for blood. And that's why it's so fun to play here. We've had it before. We played a Game 3 here a couple of years ago [2011, one of those seven road winner-take-all victories]. There's always that atmosphere here and I think everyone feeds off it."

Maybe not every player. But that's certainly the case for Taurasi, who welcomes and even feeds off of the vitriol that opposing crowds are more than happy to provide.

"Everyone loves Diana," Brondello said. "They'll sometimes love to hate her, but in the end they all love her because she's such an amazing player.

"She doesn't mind people yelling at her or players talking trash, because that's going to pump her up. The bigger the game, her focus is right there and she makes sure the rest of us are focused, too. "

Occasionally, Taurasi's passion will overflow, as it did during Sunday's Game 1 loss at Seattle. After chirping at referees throughout the second quarter, frustrated by picking up two early fouls and a series of no-calls on her shots, Taurasi charged directly toward referee Kurt Walker at the halftime buzzer. Though she said after the game she was going to talk to a teammate, Taurasi got a technical -- her first of the postseason after eight during the regular season, which resulted in a one-game suspension in July. (One of Taurasi's technicals was later rescinded by the league office.)

Nonetheless, Brondello scoffs at the notion that she should ask Taurasi to rein in her emotions.

"Sometimes she's going to lose it a little bit, but she's over it quick," Brondello said. "She can get back to the moment most times. That's one of her biggest strengths and that's what makes her so special. She has the skill, but I don't think anyone's mentally tougher than her as a player."

"Diana is a fierce competitor and she wants to be pushed in that way. She wants to be challenged. She feeds off that from opponents, from opposing fans, you name it. Anything that's going to push the stakes even higher, she thrives on that." Sue Bird on Diana Taurasi

In many ways, as Bird and Lobo observed during the game in Connecticut, Taurasi is at her most dangerous when she's aggrieved over the officiating, the crowd or an opponent. The only thing the other team can do at that point is try to keep up.

"She raises your level of play," said Clark, the Storm defender tasked with the primary defensive assignment on Taurasi in this series. "Any opponent who plays against her, you have to raise your level or she's just going to kill you. So you match that, or at least try to."

The Sun tried but failed to match Taurasi's level last week, and almost anyone watching -- not just Bird and Lobo -- could have seen it coming.

"It doesn't surprise anyone anymore when you see her do what she did last week, and we've almost come to expect it," observed Auriemma. "She has that rare, unique ability to summon up her absolute best performance in the biggest moments. When they talk about who the greatest players are -- in any sport, it doesn't matter -- they've got two different gears."

Added Bird: "When the stakes are high, when there's a lot on the line, that's where she shows up even bigger than just a regular-season game. There's something about her where something just flips and she understands."