The defending champions had lost one of the all-time greats and the face of the franchise for the season. The 6-foot-8 Defensive Player of the Year and potentially dominant figure for years to come was suspended for the first seven games, and the 2015 season seemed apocalyptic for the Phoenix Mercury. However, Coach Sandy Brondello’s team responded to the critics and finished one point away from forcing a deciding game to return to the WNBA Finals, falling to the Minnesota Lynx, 72-71, in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals Sunday in Phoenix.
“Going into the season without Diana (Taurasi) and Penny (Taylor), people were writing us off from the start,” Brondello said. “The ones (free agents) we wanted, they wanted to sign here. We had a little adversity, we didn’t play great during the season, but it’s going to give us a great experience next season. We still need to integrate the chemistry with two others coming in. They are very character people, they care.”
Coach Brondello added that Taurasi and Taylor were in and out during the season, supporting the team and instructing the younger players on a regular basis. UMMC Ekaterinburg paid the 33-year-old Taurasi more than her WNBA salary to sit out the season, and the 34-year-old Taylor sat out for personal reasons.
Brittney Griner went on to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year, and she started the All-Star Game with Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner on a Mercury team that went 20-14. Marta Xargay arrived from Spain after a month and blossomed into a threat from long range. Veterans, such as Leilani Mitchell and Noelle Quinn, proved to be instrumental as new players, and Monique Currie played her best when it counted, late in the season, advancing to the second round for the first time in her 10-year career.
“We’re all very disappointed,” Currie said. “Our goal at the beginning at the year was to win the championship, a lot of people didn’t expect us to play as well this season. Sometimes that’s just the way things go.”
In the end, the Lynx, which picked up 6-foot-6 Sylvia Fowles from Chicago after the All-Star break to combat Griner in the paint, happened to own ball possession last in one of the greatest women’s basketball games you’ll ever see. The controversial final play consisted of Maya Moore deflecting Quinn’s inbounds pass with the game tied and 1.5 seconds left, and the 2014 MVP being sent to the line to ice it at the free throw line.
“The adjustments on both sides payed off,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Brittney really got her wheels rolling, and that (stopping her) was vital to our success, we had to get settled in to what are principles are in defending these players. There’s no substitute for experience.”
Minnesota will be in search of its third title in five years when it plays either New York or Indiana in next week’s Finals. Next season, with the return of Taurasi and Taylor, and possibly half the team that represents the United States in the Rio Olympics on the rosters of the Mercury and Lynx, the rivalry will be back in full effect. It was a great season for the Mercury, and the next one’s only eight months away.