Diana Taurasi is actually one of the nicest people you’ll meet. She’s smiling, laughing, joking for 90 percent of her day. Show up a little early to a game and she can be seen giving hugs, taking pictures, chopping it up with all the people that approach her. She’s just as warm with fans as she is with the women that she’s played with and against during her 12-year WNBA career.
During that career, she’s been the game’s best player. Third all-time in scoring, fifth in assists, second in total threes, only 15th in total minutes. A scoring and passing threat on offense, a ballhawking stopper on defense, the ultimate leader everywhere in between.
Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury struggled to a 16-18 record this season, finishing with the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Injuries and in-season roster changes played a part in that record, but the Mercury also had games where they just didn’t show up. But they’ve been impressive when it’s counted.
In the W’s new playoff format, the Merc have had to play two single-elimination games. They beat the Fever in Indiana before they stormed into Madison Square Garden to take on the Liberty this past weekend.
Before the game tipped, Taurasi hugged Liberty associate head coach Katie Smith. She waved to fans. She even rebounded a few of Penny Taylor’s shots. She was loose, making almost all of her own warmup shots. She was ready for the challenge, focused and relaxed at the same time, in a way that only Taurasi can be.
New York is the Mecca of basketball. Liberty crowds are ruthless. The team is led by Tina Charles, one of the game’s best players. Their core group of guards fires up the fanbase with crossovers and deep triples. They finished with the third best record in the league, often scaring opponents into losses.
But they couldn’t intimidate Taurasi. These are the games she lives for.
She repeatedly stuck the knife into the Liberty and their crowd. She drained threes against the Liberty’s guards and took the bigs to the bucket. She dropped 30 in the WNBA’s toughest environment, strategically picking her spots to maximize the amount of pain she could inflict.
Until the fourth quarter, she went back and forth between her off-court personality—laughing and playfully talking trash to the Liberty players—and the cold-blooded killer she can become on the court. Her ability to seamlessly switch between the two is scary.
With 1:30 left, Mercury up 90-86, Taurasi dribbled toward her right into a wide open three from the top of the key. There was no doubt, from anyone in the building, that Taurasi would put the final nail in the Liberty’s coffin with the shot.
“Yeah, we expect that,” Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner said after the game. “That’s what she do. Greatest player of all time right there.” She gestured across the locker room to where Diana sat, smiling. “When the game’s on the line, we definitely want her on our team.”
After all the pressure packed moments of her Hall of Fame career (three national titles in college, four Olympic Golds, three WNBA titles), Taurasi was just out there doing what she loves; playing ball and breaking people’s hearts.
“That’s just the kindhearted asshole in me,” she said. “I just love to play and these are the moments when you’re playing, you love to play in them. You just do. Either you’re scared to play in them or you love to play in them and I’ve never really been scared to play in these moments where it shrinks a lot of people.
“This year prepared us for this moment,” she continued. “It hasn’t been easy, it’s been up and down. But we’re here now.”
The Mercury are in the conference finals, getting ready to square up against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx tonight. They’ll need every ounce of Taurasi to win, even if that means being an asshole.
“I think I’m the nicest person on earth, I don’t know why they’ve chastised me with being the villain. I’ve never hurt anybody.” Taurasi looked around, searching for someone to laugh at her joke. She smiled quickly. “But yeah, I love it.”