Diana Taurasi keeps on living in the present — Kelly Graves talks Oregon revival

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, May 29, 2024

NEW YORK — Happy Basketball Wednesday, presented by The BIG EAST Conference. Diana Taurasi was willing to grant the premise of my question, that while retirement isn’t something she’s willing to consider right now, she’s probably closer to the end of her career than the beginning.

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“Yes,” she said with a laugh. “Correct.”

But the Joe DiMaggio of the WNBA — powerful numbers paired with championships and an attitude that has gotten more and more like her college coach, Geno Auriemma, as she’s aged — feels no particular responsibility, as DiMaggio once said he did, toward putting on a show for the kid who never saw her play.

“No, I’ve been playing for 20 years,” Taurasi joked. “They’ve had plenty of time.”

Jokes aside — and Taurasi’s always got plenty of them — what Taurasi never does is cheat the viewer, the kid seeing her for the first time or the longtime fan watching her alike. There is an attention to the craft, a constant scheming in any and all ways possible to find a way to win the game. Seeing her take shots before the game is to watch an exercise in precision. She found her way to the short corner, took one shot that missed, then another, got annoyed at herself. It must be stranger to Taurasi than any other person alive to see her shot miss when she’s the player who has seen the most threes go in of any WNBA player, ever.

It’s been fascinating in this way to see how the Mercury’s current offensive philosophy, under new head coach Nate Tibbetts, mirrors the ways Taurasi plays offense. Tibbetts is a strong proponent of the modern game, with an emphasis at either shots at the rim or beyond the three-point arc. He allowed that there are exceptions for his best players — and Taurasi, even as she nears her 42nd birthday on June 11, is one of those players — but Taurasi, long before it became fashionable, turned her long twos into threes, and represents a platonic ideal of that player, even now.

Fifteen percent of her shots were 16 feet to the three point line in 2018, an area Tibbetts said his coaching staff refers to as “the manure zone”. That dropped precipitously in the seasons that followed, and hasn’t been north of 10% since 2021. She also boosted her shots at the rim to north of 10% in 2022, regaining strength at the rim after 40. She isn’t a one-dimensional player, even now. She played on teams like Paul Westhead’s but evolved beyond them. Tibbetts came to the WNBA to try and experiment with this roster and yet Taurasi’s age didn’t make her a relic. She was a draw for Tibbetts to come.

Evolution is a critical part of the Taurasi story, yet the sameness of purpose is what lets her grow older in ways that dovetail with the ever-changing WNBA.

“I treat every game the same, year one or year 20,” Taurasi said. “I always prepare the same. I don’t look too, too much into the future, or into the past. It just don’t work that way.”

Maybe it doesn’t work that way for her. Mortals mellow with age, but not Diana Taurasi. There is a certainty in her voice of the way it is based on the way it was, an implicit understanding that this is how it always will be. And it is hard to argue with this idea, given her longevity. I remember, some time ago, joking with her about playing with Paige Bueckers someday on the USA Basketball Olympic team.

Bueckers will turn pro next spring. It’s not so far away anymore.

Whether the timing can come together to deliver Taurasi one more great WNBA postseason is a matter of chronological difficulty. Yes, this is still a team with Taurasi and Brittney Griner, but they aren’t exactly built around the two of them anymore, not with Kahleah Copper and Natasha Cloud signed, not with Sophie Cunningham becoming the player Tibbetts relies on for everything from spot point guard duty to time at the five during Griner’s recovery from a foot injury. The two longtime teammates kibbitzed like the old friends they are all night whenever Taurasi took a breather and joined Griner on the bench. But melding their talents with the newcomers will take time.

A lot of the team’s defensive schemes rely on Griner to clean up messes, in part because of defensive limitations of some of Phoenix’s perimeter players, in part because long threes missed tend to turn into run outs, and in part because teams in their first year together simply need time to learn to communicate.

Taurasi didn’t win title one until year four. It is a different time for the league, though, with free agency allowing processes to speed up. So I asked her: did she think it possible to build a title contender in one year?

“I mean, it’s certainly difficult,” Taurasi said. “I think if you see every championship team, they’ve gone through struggles, gone through progression. And it takes time. But I think we have championship experience obviously with [Natasha Cloud] and [Kahleah Copper], BG and myself. We know what it takes.

“It’s not easy. You know, the ride is bumpy. And you have stretches where it doesn’t look pretty. But you have to stay with it and you have to continue to progress even when maybe you’re onto a losing streak. You know, have an injury bug like do right now. We’ve got to just keep getting better.”

Taurasi’s career has spanned so many eras of the WNBA it’s virtually impossible to take the full measure of all she’s experienced. Her rookie season in the WNBA, an in-prime Lisa Leslie won the MVP, Lauren Jackson and Sheryl Swoopes were mid-career, and even players like Tari Phillips roamed the roster, players born before Title IX was even signed into law. She’s even outlasted her good friend Sue Bird, in street clothes at the Liberty-Mercury game Wednesday night.

It’s that ability to stay in the present that allowed her to shake off any doubts that most mortals would have experienced after shooting 2-for-14, 0-for-7 from three, the night before against Washington.

“That’s the game of basketball,” Taurasi said. “Every game is different. Every day is different. And now we have a chance as a group to come back and play better basketball.”

It has become fashionable, here in the twilight of Taurasi’s career, to focus on her flaws, her defensive limitations, her undeniable competitiveness when it manifests itself in excess, as anyone pushing the limits of competition must. It is easy to call points nothing but a context-free counting stat. And yet: Taurasi has more than 10,000 of the thing you need to win a basketball game in WNBA play, and no one else has as many as 8.000. This can only be considered inconsequential if you are bound and determined to miss the forest that is Taurasi’s career for the trees.

Stathead Stat of the Week

Caitlin Clark has scored 242 points and had 93 assists so far this season. She is the only player in WNBA history with more than 240 points and 90 assists through their first 15 games.

Stathead is your all-access pass to the Basketball and College Basketball Reference databases. Our discovery tools are built for women’s basketball fans like you. Answer your questions in a matter of seconds.

And now, as always, there’s Taurasi, curling around a screen, and knocking down a shot before the 7’1 wingspan of Breanna Stewart can block it on a switch. Stewart was 10 when Taurasi broke into the WNBA, and has played with her on a pair of Olympic teams already, likely a third in 2024.

So it came to pass that the Mercury stayed close with the home Liberty, a team that spent last year coalescing, further along the time continuum that seems to apply to everyone except Taurasi. Trailing by three at the half is never okay with Taurasi, and she was the first Phoenix player out of the locker room after halftime, hands in her pockets, a black warmup jacket set against her teammates in purple, just another Wednesday night in Taurasi’s life, going to work, measuring her shots carefully just outside the restricted area, the pleasure of the moment, of working to get just a little bit better.

Her Mercury crew joined her, and she touched base with each one of them during second-half warmups, as she always does, before leading them to the bench and the waiting high-fives of her coaches. Maybe this is the last time she plays in New York, or at all. It was a thought I had seeing her in Madison Square Garden, and at the Westchester County Center, and again at Barclays.

But not Diana Taurasi. It’s just another place to play. The Mercury called a timeout trailing by one early in the fourth quarter. The play call went to Taurasi, who buried a three to give Phoenix the lead. Taurasi grabbed an offensive board on the following possession, took the ball back behind the three-point line and buried another one. She silenced another crowd — she’s done in in Manhattan, and Westchester, and Brooklyn. She’s done it everywhere. And she’s not picky about where.

I asked her whether she liked Barclays or the Westchester County Center better.

“I like the Great Western Forum better,” she answered, without missing a beat. It’s a place Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Dua Lipa and Harry Styles have all played during Diana Taurasi’s career, still moving without the ball, still seeking that perfect shot, squeezing every single drop out of what today gives her.

It wasn’t quite enough on Wednesday, an 81-78 loss. But she took the loss gracefully, raced over to hug her friends Bird and Megan Rapinoe, and then jogged into the tunnel, out into the night and off to her next game. For now — in the present — Diana Taurasi is the same as she ever was.

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This week in women’s basketball

In a week when I wasn’t seeing Diana Taurasi live I’d have written about how the Sun and Lynx are making legit claims for the top of the WNBA. Not just top four.

We’re also going to need to talk about the year, specifically, DeWanna Bonner is having.

Our Rob Knox caught up with the always-fascinating Skylar Diggins-Smith.

Love the details in this one from Cassandra Negley on WNBA scheduling.

So, uh, do you get the full $100k if you get cut in May? I’m working on it, friends.

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Five at The IX: Kelly Graves, Oregon

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.