2021 WNBA Finals: Why the Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi might be closer to retiring than you think

PHOENIX -- Diana Taurasi's to-do list isn't complete yet.

Almost, perhaps. Close, maybe. But not quite yet.

The Phoenix Mercury's 39-year-old star guard crossed one very important goal off that list this summer when she won her record fifth gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. That pursuit had consumed her for the past few years.

Now that it's no longer her central focus, what's driving Taurasi? Another WNBA championship.

Taurasi's wife and former teammate, Penny Taylor, told ESPN that Taurasi has spent her 17 years in the WNBA with one, singular motivation: championships. The titles they won together in 2007, 2009 and 2014 aren't enough for Taurasi, Taylor said.

"She doesn't care about anything other than [championships]," Taylor said. "World championships, the Olympics, WNBA, wherever she played in Europe. I mean, that's all there is to her. Not MVP, not scoring titles, or records or anything.

"It's only ever been about championships."

Taurasi will continue that trek for a fourth title Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App) against the Chicago Sky in Game 1 of the 2021 WNBA Finals, the Mercury's first appearance in the championship series since 2014. If the Mercury can get Taurasi her fourth ring, what might be next?

Perhaps the end. At least one person close to Taurasi suggested she might be ready to walk away from the game.

Over the past couple of years, Taurasi had a short list of goals, her sister, Jess Skillern, told ESPN. First was that fifth Olympic gold medal.

Second was, well, everything else.

Atop that next tier of goals sat a WNBA championship, but few saw the fifth-seeded Mercury's run to the Finals coming. In the meantime, other factors came into play. Skillern pointed to Taurasi's age and growing family. Taylor gave birth to their second child, a girl (older brother Leo is 3), on Saturday morning -- just hours after Taurasi scored 14 fourth-quarter points to help Phoenix clinch its fifth trip to the WNBA Finals.

Taurasi has said she doesn't believe in the notion that age should be a deterrent. Privately, however, Taurasi had begun facing her basketball mortality in recent years, starting when she had back surgery in 2019, Skillern said.

"She doesn't want to be 50 and not be able to walk right straight up," Skillern said in July. "She's not going to leave a broken body on the court and she's also not gonna leave the game not playing at her very, very best. Those two things are not going to happen. So she's very aware of there's only a few more summers left, and 'I'm kind of taking it day-by-day' as far as her career."

Taurasi has one year remaining on her WNBA contract. Skillern said Taurasi's health will more than likely be the deciding factor in whether she plays the final year of her contract -- or beyond.

"She knows that retiring is in the near future, but as long as she's still healthy and her body can handle it, and she's still giving good performances, she's still playing at her potential, she'll still be there," Skillern said. "But once her body is telling her it's time, she'll make the smart decision."

Taurasi was limited to 16 regular-season games as she dealt with a hip injury and a fractured sternum earlier in the season, and is now dealing with a sprained ankle and foot injury she suffered two weeks before the playoffs started.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who coached Taurasi in college and on Team USA, said he wouldn't have been surprised if Taurasi's injuries had led her to retire a couple of years ago. After coaching Taurasi and Sue Bird, who turns 41 this month, on the national team for eight years, Auriemma heard plenty about how exhausting the rehab can be before and during the season.

"It's a full-time job," he said before the Olympics. "It wears on you and there's too many days, I think, where they wake up and say, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I still want to play but I don't want to do this anymore.'"

Taurasi has been a walking dichotomy this postseason.

She has been battered and bruised, sometimes to the point of limping and grimacing throughout games, but she scored a playoff-career-high 37 points in Game 2 of the semifinals -- becoming the oldest player to record a 30-point game (regular-season or postseason) in league history -- and hit clutch shot after clutch shot to drag the Mercury to the brink of another championship.

Taurasi is still trying to prove she can do it, at a high level, at this age, with all of her injuries. And that's how she has always been.

"She constantly wants to prove herself," Bird told ESPN.

This year has been a -- perhaps the -- measuring stick for Taurasi, Skillern said, especially since the Olympics.

"I don't know what she's thinking [about retirement]. I think she's still got a little bit more, another year or two in her," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello told ESPN on Saturday. "But if she can do that, win the Olympic gold medal and WNBA championships, it doesn't matter how old you are. That will be a huge achievement."

And it could help decide Taurasi's future.