When it was over, Diana Taurasi tracked down her rival and best friend Sue Bird in a KeyArena tunnel outside the Storm locker room and said what everyone in the building was thinking.
“Wow, that was amazing,” the Phoenix star said. “Incredible.”
Taurasi is hailed as the WNBA’s greatest closer, with a fiery temper, a deadly jump shot and and reputation for taking over games.
But on Tuesday night in a winner-take-all Game 5 in the WNBA semifinal — the kind of games Taurasi won 13 straight times – it was Bird who produced a Taurasi-esque performance while delivering a sensational stretch of scoring when the Storm needed it the most.
Usually the steely-cool point guard picks teams apart with passes to set up teammates, but this time Bird – perhaps fueled by an uncharacteristic emotional outburst – made the biggest shots in the final minutes of a 94-84 victory that sent Seattle to the WNBA Finals to face the Washington Mystics.
“As far as stretches go, it’s up there,” said Bird, who scored 14 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter. “I don’t know if I had a fourth quarter like this in as big of a game in my life, to be honest.”
Bird wouldn’t let the Storm lose this game.
It didn’t matter if she’d broken her nose 48 hours earlier and needed to wear a protective facemask she described as “super annoying.”
It didn’t matter that the top-seeded Storm had lost momentum in the best-of-five series and was the first WNBA team forced to a decisive Game 5 after leading 2-0.
And it didn’t matter if the No. 5 Mercury raced to an 11-point lead in the second quarter and controlled most of the game.
“We knew the whole game that we might have been down, but we still felt like we were going to win this,” said league MVP Breanna Stewart, who played all 40 minutes and finished with a game-high 28 points on 11-for-21 shooting. “Eventually, the tides are going to turn and we’re going to win this game.”
Seattle took its first lead (66-63) with 8:37 left after rookie guard Jordin Canada made a three-pointer. Phoenix answered with a 10-3 run to go up 73-69 with 6:06 left.
That’s when Bird’s onslaught began.
Through three quarters she connected on just 3 of 12 shots and missed her previous eight attempts.
“Honestly, Stewie is the one somewhere late in the third or early fourth quarter who said, ‘Hey, you need to use your legs.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, good point,’” Bird said. “A lot of the shots I’d been taking in that third quarter I was really short.
“When I had the openings, I just tried to think about that and shoot it the same way. That’s something that you learn over time. You can’t let missed shots affect your next one.”
On the next possession after falling behind four points, Bird sank a three-pointer to cut Seattle’s deficit to 73-72. A minute later, she knocked down a step-back jumper to put the Storm on top 76-75.
After Phoenix tied the score, Bird hit a 28-footer that gave the Storm the lead for good at 79-76 with 4:01 left.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a performance from Sue like that,” forward Crystal Langhorne said. “She was so clutch. You could see the champion in her.
“What makes Sue a great point guard is she saw what we needed and she took it upon herself and made the big plays.”
With less than three minutes left, Bird got tangled with Phoenix forward DeWanna Bonner and the two players hit the floor wrestling for the ball. Bird got up heated and needed to be restrained by teammates while pleading for a foul and arguing with officials, who called for a jump ball.
“What appeared to be this outrageous burst of emotion, I was pretty calm,” Bird said. “I was like guys, get off me. I’m fine. To take the mask off made it seem like I was going to rage and hit somebody. But I wasn’t. I was very much in control. I was just upset.”
Still, it was a burst of emotion Storm players have rarely seen from the 17-year veteran, who has won the league’s Kim Perrot Sportsmanship award the past two years.
“When I saw that I was like, yes, we got this,” said backup guard Sami Whitcomb who provided a big lift off the bench with 11 points. “Sue has got this. It fired her up and fired (us) up.”
The Storm won the possession on the jump ball and the play ended with Bird making a three-pointer for an eight-point lead (84-76) with 2:51 left.
“Play of the game,” Bird said. “Inside I was like, that’s big. We got to use the clock more. It was huge. It was a big-time play.”
And Bird capped her sensational performance with a dagger three-pointer that dropped Phoenix into a 10-point hole (89-79) with 45.9 seconds left and sent the 8,992 at KeyArena into a frenzy.
Bird, who had five assists, connected on 8 of 18 shots, including 5 of 11 three-pointers. She outscored Phoenix 14-11 over the final six minutes.
“I’ve seen a lot of moments, but I’ve never seen a better moment than what I saw tonight from her,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said. “She was highly skilled in being driven. Going down the stretch it was amazing the confidence she elicits and seeks those moments.
“Those were huge shots. She’s running the team and she’s competing in that mask. She can wear that mask all she wants.”
Before Tuesday, the Storm was averaging 11.8 points in the fourth quarter compared to Mercury’s 23.5. But in Game 5, Seattle outscored Phoenix 35-21 in the fourth – a franchise playoff record for points in a quarter.
Whenever the Mercury missed, forward Alysha Clark, who collected 13 points and a career playoff high 13 rebounds, seemingly grabbed every loose ball. Seattle outrebounded Phoenix 40-29 and had 11 offensive rebounds, which led to an 18-6 disparity in second-chance points.
Thanks to Bird’s red-hot shooting, the Storm also enjoyed an advantage on the perimeter. Seattle converted 11 of 25 three-pointers (44 percent) while Phoenix was 8 for 28 (28.6 percent) behind the arc.
“The difference between us is that Seattle made those looks and we did not,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “That’s the ball game, sometimes it’s just about makes and misses.”
This time Bird outdueled her buddy Taurasi, who finished with 17 points.
“Sue’s always one of those people that when a team needs a shot, an assist, a play, she’s always willing to make that play and willing to be in that situation,” Taurasi said. “I’ve seen her do that so many times, whether it was in Russia, in college, that’s nothing new, that’s just a credit to her and a credit to all of her hard work. She plays with a lot of confidence and she gives that to her team. It’s probably one of the best little stints of basketball that I’ve seen her play.”
Phoenix received 21 points from Brittney Griner and 19 from Yvonne Turner. Bonner added 14 and Briann January scored 11 for the Mercury, which was knocked out in the semifinals for the third straight year.
Meanwhile, Bird, who won league titles in 2004 and 2010 with the Storm, returns to the WNBA Finals for the third time. Game 1 is 6 p.m. Friday at KeyArena.
“It means a lot,” said Bird, the league’s oldest player at 37. “Your first time around, you kind of feel like … yeah, this is great. I’m 23, I’m probably going to be here all the time. This is great, I’m going to be here every year. And then I didn’t get back for six years.
“And then six years later, I think OK, we need to capitalize on this situation and we did. Here we are eight years later and I didn’t think I’d ever be back, to be honest. … We started a rebuild and there was no telling what. But the Finals? That was very far from my imagination. To be here now is probably sweeter than the other two.”